The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Monday, September 20, 2010
Because Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) wrote extensively about epistemological moves of this type, his analysis has been recognized as a help in coming to terms with the doctrine of the Trinity. Polanyi began his scholarly career as a research chemist, but over the course of his long career he turned his interests gradually to the philosophy of science and from there to epistemology. His work is part of a larger mid-century trend toward the demotion of science from its role as absolute arbiter of all truth claims. Polanyi's work fits, for instance, somewhere between Thomas Kuhn's "historicist turn" in the philosophy of science,33 and Stephen Toulmin's critique of the abstraction introduced into theories of knowledge by the Enlightenment.34
Polanyi's most famous work is 1958's magisterial Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy, which was primarily devoted to exposing the fiduciary and participatory character of all knowledge, not least scientific knowledge. "I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment," he begins, but moves on to confess frankly: "I want to establish an alternative ideal of knowledge, quite generally."35
This research project set him on a trail which resulted in him turning his attention to epistemology proper, and to describe knowing as a skill comparable to focusing one's eyes on a particular object in a complex field of visual stimuli:
I regard knowing as an active comprehension of things known, an action that requires skill. Skillful knowing and doing is performed by subordinating a set of particulars, as clues or tools, to the shaping of a skilful achievement, whether practical of theoretical. We may then be said to become "subsidiary aware" of these particulars within our "focal awareness" of the coherent entity that we achieve.
This skill cannot be gained by lone practitioners determining for themselves what they should focus their attention on. Knowing what data to ignore and what data should be sought out as meaningful evidence presupposes an established framework within which knowledge is assembled: "We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework."Polanyi developed these ideas about knowledge most elaborately in his book The Tacit Dimension (1966).
In reflecting on the process of scientific discovery, Polanyi became aware of the crucial importance of elements normally disregarded as imponderable factors and left unexamined in the background of standard accounts of how scientific knowledge comes about. There is real creativity involved when research scientists engage in their characteristic tasks of following hunches, discerning meaningful patterns, and framing the right experimental situations. Beginning from this insight into the process of theory formation, Polanyi explored gestalt psychology, the mechanics of visual perception, and the experiential training process by which young doctors learn to recognize meaningful patterns of symptoms and pronounce with some confidence a diagnosis on the basis of evidence which to the uninitiated is a mere haze of insignificant, incoherent observations. These skills and insights cannot be accounted for by merely heaping up greater quantities of clear and distinct ideas or by honing propositions to greater precision. They require the knowing agent to acquire a framework of understanding and a practiced skill of forming judgments. These skills are generally inculcated by a community committed to maintaining a convivial relationship centered on values agreed upon and presupposed by all who participate. This enveloping culture forms a precognitive, nonthematic awareness of where to direct one's attention and what bits of information are worth considering explicitly. Lest this seem like a preparation for sheer subjectivity, it should be noted that Polanyi was a firm believer in the value of objective knowledge, and he repeatedly took pains to show how personal beliefs are to be held honestly, with "universal intent" as beliefs about how things really are.
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