Polanyi Says I Know More Than I Can Tell
In Michael Polanyi’s thin yet dense philosophic work “The Tacit Dimension,” he discusses human knowledge, the scientific method, and how we discover objective truth. Let’s start with the definition of tacit: “understood or implied without being stated.” This is the guiding principle for his book and he goes on to argue that, “we can know more than we can tell” (p.4). As an example of what he means by this, he illustrates that an individual can recognize a picture of a friend’s face, out of thousands and even millions of pictures of people he does not know. But how does this individual recognize his friends face? They would be hard pressed to explain exactly how they know. Likewise, humans know a lot more than they can describe or explain. Polanyi goes on to argue that this is also true in the world of science and philosophy, where individuals are striving to discover objective truth.
The book has three sections and the first section explains his main thesis, “Tacit Knowing.” He reaches three conclusions in this section: 1.) Tacit knowing gives us a valid knowledge of a problem, 2.) Tacit knowing guides a scientist in his pursuit of a solution, and 3.) Tacit knowing helps us anticipate implications of new discoveries (p.24). He does not believe that the human mind has to be constrained by the strict tenants of the Scientific Method. The human mind is far more complex than that. The Scientific Method is only a tool and it needs to be employed by those seeking objective truth, but the consciousness of an individual transcends that simple method. Human individuals are part of a community of belief (we can even call it faith) that this world has been created in a rational manner and we can discover how it has been assembled. The ideal is to find an objective, impersonal truth about the universe in which we inhabit.
In this section of the book, there is a parallel, albeit a narrow one, with Henri Nouwen’s book, “Discernment.” The similarity lies in that we are trusting in guidance that is outside of ourselves and not just a formulaic adherence to a set of rules. Polanyi argues that there is a place for implied values, inherited practices, even tradition. All of these can inform the one who is on a quest to learn and discover objective truth. With Nouwen, there is also tradition and the community of practitioners that can help guide us and provide discernment in our lives. Of course, Nouwen speaks at length of the person of the Holy Spirit that also provides discernment, so the similarity only goes so far. It is interesting to note the similarities in the goals: to know objective truth. The Christian can confidently say that they have come to know God: his ways, purposes, even his personality. For Polanyi, he speaks of knowing more about our physical world. The construction of a building was one of his better examples. The brick layer knows his craft and can build a house. The architect has his own sphere of knowledge and can design the building. The city planner also plays his part by enforcing codes and rules that buildings must adhere to. All three are experts in their field and have specialized knowledge.
The second section is called Emergence. Here Polanyi argues that established scientific facts and principles imply further facts and principles. New discoveries emerge from old discoveries and these new discoveries provide us with metaphysical realities about the human mind. It is an ongoing arc of learning that leads to an ever-deepening awareness of ourselves, not just the object we are studying. This is the most interesting part of the book. Polanyi is saying that the scientist who is studying chemistry, or biology, or astronomy not only learns about each of those subjects, but about the nature of learning itself and indeed about the human mind. I would take it one step further and say we can learn about the very mind of God when we study these subjects. He is the one who created the cosmos, so when we learn about the cosmos, we are learning about the very mind of God. God speaks in Isaiah 66:2, “Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?”
The third and final section is A Society of Explorers. Here Polanyi asks the question, “Can intellectual powers . . . exercise the kind of responsible judgment which we must claim if we are to attribute a moral sense to man?” It is a necessary question, even for an atheistic scientist. What will humans do with all this learning? There are implications here for Artificial Intelligence and how the use of AI knowledge will be policed in the future. The inescapable truths about the darkness of the human heart must be addressed in this context. There are no simple answers but safeguards must be put into place or our clever technologies will be our undoing.
This book was not an easy read and at times the author’s prose was unnecessarily formalistic. I admire Polanyi’s search for truth and his dedication to ongoing learning. When I wore younger man’s clothes, I was more interested in these types of intellectual pursuits: Epistemology, philosophies of the Enlightenment, the Scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquanis. But alas, with my advancing years, practicality has taken a front seat. This book, although full of interesting distinctions, is not very practical. But reading widely and deeply expands the horizons of doctoral students—and not everything has to be practical. I used Kahneman’s slow thinking method to get through this book, now it’s time for some fast thinking. After reading this book my brain hurts, so I’m going to watch reruns of the American version of The Office.
6 responses to “Polanyi Says I Know More Than I Can Tell”
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Troy, thank you so very much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking engagement with Polanyi’s work (and I loved your closing sentence…indeed I also needed a change of pace after reading his book!). I found helpful your summaries of each chapter and reading the points that stood out to you. I came away from his argument understanding that objective truth is always flavored or biased because we can only truly learn by indwelling something. He also makes the point that we interact with the world through our bodies, so since each of us have a different story we carry in our bodies this influences how we experience ‘objectively’ the same set of facts. I would value hearing how you understood that section on indwelling and our bodies being our main tool for engaging discoveries (apologies for not giving a page reference here…my book is packed in checked luggage and I’m responding to your blog mid-flight).
Troy, what a thorough and well-written post. I like that you point out Polanyi’s challenge to the Scientific Method. I remember being taught that throughout my earlier schooling. How helpful do you think this work would be if a person who believes only in science read it? It seems that faith and science often get constructed as opposites and a person can only be one or the other. Do you think this book could speak to people of science about a bigger reality than what we can see, study, or measure?
Troy: You have a gift of taking some top-shelf concepts and bringing them down to the bottom-shelf where they can be more readily understood. This is a perfect example of that and I thank you.
In regards to your comments about those studying sciences also learning about the mind as a whole, you state, ” I would take it one step further and say we can learn about the very mind of God when we study these subjects.” I’m not sure if you’ve been following the recent releases of the cosmos photos that are just spectacular. If so, I’m wondering what you think they reveal about the mind of God when seeing those.
Troy, I would agree with Kayli. You do an excellent job of summarizing these books, even the challenging ones like this! Well done. You really should post these book summaries somewhere for others to read. This would have been helpful for me to read prior to diving into the book.
I find it interesting that you don’t find the book practical. When you say that, do you mean all of the book? Or, are you referring to his key concepts?
I ask only in that I see the practicality of the book, though I do agree, it would not be a choice read for me, and I think he could have said his key points in a more clear, concise way.
A well written summary of the book and the three main sections. I appreciate how you tied in our previous reading. I am curious if you found any insights that might help you to connect with your audience for your NPO?
Troy thank you for the summary you share. I also appreciate you need to go watch The Office 🙂
If you were to attempt a rewording of tacit knowing in religious terms what might you say?