Polanyi‘s Participative Realism

Phil Mullins

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In The Tacit Dimension, Polanyi discusses the nature of true statements in ways similar to his suggestions that deeply real entities are rich signs. Polanyi argues that we recognize true statements by appreciating the wealth of yet undiscovered consequences. We can do this because we „can have a tacit foreknowledge of yet undiscovered things”[28]. T know that a statement is true

is to know more than we can tell and that hence, when a discovery solves a problem, it is itself fraught with further intimations of an indeterminate range, and that furthermore, when we accept the discovery as true, we commit ourselves to a belief in all these as yet undisclosed, perhaps as yet unthinkable, consequences[29].

The polyvalent focus of Polanyi‘s realism is thus sometimes articulated in terms of ideas about the nature of truth[30].

In Personal Knowledge, Polanyi emphasizes some of the same notions about the independence, implicative potential and truth of real things that are found in the later writing discusses above. But in his magnum opus the discussion of these topics is especially linked also with „universal intent”:

The implications of new knowledge can never be known at its birth. For it speaks of something real, and to attribute reality to something is to express the belief that its presence will yet show up in an indefinite number of unpredictable ways.

An empirical statement is true to the extent to which it reveals an aspect of reality, a reality largely hidden to us, and existing therefore independently of our knowing it. By trying to say something that is true about a reality believed to be existing independently of our knowing it, all assertions of fact necessarily carry universal intent. Our claim to speak or reality serves thus as the external anchoring of our commitment in making a factual statement[31].

In this passage, as in others, Polanyi adopts the metaphor of hiddeness or concealment to articulate what I have termed the polyvalent focus of his realism. Those complex things that are real are largely hidden; truthful human claims reveal in part that which is hidden about real things but to believe something is real is to anticipate the emergence of yet unknown or presently hidden things. Independence is connected with the predominantly hidden or undisclosed character of real things: because the most real entities are largely hidden, we can and do infer that they exist independently of our knowing of them.

In this section of Personal Knowledge viewed more generally, Polanyi is struggling to explain the way in which personal commitment is bound up with acts of understanding: this is the key to his claims for „universal intent”. Serious efforts to understand, he argues, have embedded in them the claim that others should concur with what we hold to be the case[32]. This is an integral element of personal knowledge. It should be noted that Polanyi‘s emphasis (in the quotation above) is upon the intention of universality but not he archievement of a god‘s eye view. Universal intent can be described as a component of the tacit presuppositional underpinning of serious acts of knowing. There is a law of generalization deeply hidden within the bodiless of the enterprise of human knowing. Holding a claim inevitably involves a commitment on the knowr‘s part to the independence from the self of that about which the claim is made. Such independence Polanyi terms „existing independently of our knowing of it”[33]. This tacit commitment to distinct or non-dependent existence is but another face of the tacit affirmation that others should hold what we take to be the case. That is, to contend that something exists as an aspect of reality independent of the perceiver is a way of affirming that it is there for others, just as it is for the current holder of knowledge. Real things are, in the lexicon of personal knowledge, arrived as existing independently because they are regarded as having the power to affect others as they have affected the interested knower[34]. To affirm the independent status of the real is thus to say that others should also understand as I do[35].

In 1961 in the essay „Knowing and Being”, Polanyi makes a similar point by connecting his ideas about calling, free thought and the pursuit of truth with the notion of universal intent:

All thought is incarnate; it lives by the body and by the favour of society. But it is not thought unless it strives for truth, a striving which leaves it free to act on its own responsibility, with universal intent[36].

Thought relies upon both the particular physical and social body or context in which it is located; it is a person‘s calling to accept these conditions within which responsibility is possible. Thought strives for the truth; authentic striving is free to act as guided by a personal sense of responsibility. Such striving is an advancing of personal claims taken to be universal, that is, taken to apply to all serious thinkers. In essence, what Polanyi provides here is an explanation of universal intent in terms of the bodiliness of knowing and his persistent emphasis upon responsible truth seeking.

In sum, Polanyi‘s emphasis upon universal intent in Personal Knowledge should be construed as primarily part of what I have termed the bodily focus of this realism. That is, Polanyi‘s comments about the independence of real things are best understood as entailments of his conception of universal intent. I emphasize this point since Polanyi‘s remarks about the independence of real things might be understood, in a more conventional way, as a primary metaphysical presupposition - a philosophical beginning point - rather than a corollary of his claims about knowing. To construe Polanyi‘s comments about the independence of real entities as a free-standing metaphysical declaration which underlies and grounds all of Polanyi‘s thought is to misconstrue the set of largely epistemological issues that occupied Polanyi as a philosopher. In Polanyi‘s case, his metaphysical claims follow from or grow out of his epistemology and not vice versa.

There is much in Polanyi‘s larger perspective that is in tension with types of realism which straightforwardly accept rigid distinctions between the external world and internal consciousness. Clearly, Polanyi does not wish to limit real entities to the class of tangible externals, although he does argue that all real entities, whether merely tangible or largely intangible, must be recognized as existing independently of the knower. To discover and appreciate real entities requires preliminary respect for their power. Nevertheless, Polanyi‘s philosophical perspective is not one which revolves largely around a problematic set up by accepting a subject—world dualism[37]. The theory of tacit knowing, with its emphasis upon the physical, social, skilful, and fiduciary roots of knowledge, is a vision of persons deeply participating in their environment. Polanyi‘s focus is upon persons as members of interpretative communities and the ways in which, by using human powers of indwelling, meaning emerges. Polanyi‘s realism is what I would term a participative realism. As suggested the discussion above, participative realism has both a polyvalent and a bodily focus.

IV. Comprehensive Entities

Polanyi‘s comments about „comprehensive entities” further clarify the nature of his peculiar type of realism. Especially in the fourth part of Personal Knowledge and in The Tacit Dimension, Polanyi tries to make clear that the universe can be conceived as layers of real things joined together meaningfully:

I have spoken before of the way we interiorize bits of the universen, and thus populate it with comprehensive entities. The program which I have set out now would change this panorama into a picture of the universe filled with strata of realities, joined together meaningfully in Paris of higher and lower strata[38].

In much the same way that Plato seems to have carried in mind an overall image of the inclusive form of the good which comprehended all other forms, Polanyi seems to have fashioned an abstract image which worked out the problem of continuity or relationship among real things. Plato‘s root image seems to be either the origin of or result of his interest in dialectic. At any rate, Plato collects the many into one unity and breaks unity into plurality as only a dialectician interested in both the nature of the cosmos and the character of good speech making can. But Polanyi‘s grasp of the problem of continuity or relationship among real things is that of a modern scientist rather than one versed in the rhetorical arts. Polanyi‘s image *”strata of realities, joined together meaningfully in pairs of higher and lower strata”) is a response to objectivism and to issues embedded in the evolution of organic forms.

Polanyi‘s idea of the comprehensive entity seems to work in several ways in the larger context of his thought. He maked it quite clear that it is not acceptable to think of comprehensive entities as merely things external to the knower. Comprehending is something knowers do. Polanyi uses the term „comprehensive entity „ in relation to his effort to specify an act of meaning making whose parameters include more than that which is before the mind‘s eye. In The Tacit Dimension, he discusses the ontological aspect of tacit knowing in terms of the character of the knower‘s comprehending:

... we deduce a fourth aspect, which tells us what tacit knowing is a knowledge of. This will represent its ontological aspect. Since tacit knowing establishes a meaningful relation between two terms, we may identify it with the understanding of the comprehensive entity which these two terms jointly constitute. Thus the proximal term represents the particulars of this entity, and we can say, accordingly, that we comprehend the entity by relying on our awareness of its particulars for attending to their joint meaning[39].

Comprehensive entities are an achievement; they conjoin or bring particulars into the unity of personal understanding. It is significant that Polanyi identifies the ontological aspect of tacit knowing as a deduction. The being of real entities (whether in the noosphere or other realms is not simply a given externality so much as it is a necessary inference embedded in or arising from the structure of knowing. Polanyi speaks of understanding a comprehensive entity as making an „ontological reference to it”[40].

Polanyi‘s conception of the comprehensive entity includes not only his emphasis upon human doing or comprehending as understanding; there is also in his discussion an emphasis upon a logical point concerned with the relation between levels of control. The logical structure of a comprehensive entity as a conjuncture of higher and lower „implies that a higher level can come into existence only through a process not manifest in the lower level, a process which qualifies as emergence”[41]. Polanyi‘s analysis of the „principle of marginal control” is the backbone of his account of evolution[42]. The human being as a potentially responsible creature is, for Polanyi, a marvellously functioning comprehensive entity, the evolutionary product of emergence.

As living beings, persons are involved in an emerging universe full of matters of interest. Many of the entities in which we can dwell are rich indeed. Polanyi frequently suggests that the richer the comprehensive entity (i.e., the more vague and, in potential, more implicatively deep), the more important and deeper is indwelling and participation; in focusing upon the life or mind of a living creature, Polanyi commented upon the necessary increase of participation:

All tacit knowing requires the continued participation of the know, and a measure of personal participation is intrinsic therefore to all knowledge, but the continued participation of the knower becomes altogether predominant in a knowledge acquired and upheld by such deep indwelling[43].

It is, of course , a mistake to take too literally the notion that participation can be quantified; it is the graduated range of kinds of participation that Polanyi seems to have been interested in. What he seems to have been struggling to articulate in this essay and in Personal Knowledge is perhaps more adequately conceived in his late work Meaning and to some degree in The Study of Man. Bot of these works show Polanyi‘s interest in further exploring the nature of highly indeterminate, richly significative comprehensive entities[44].

Especially in Meaning and the lectures on which it is based, Polanyi tried to extend his earlier epistemology in a way that makes distinctions between different kinds of participation: „... we need to extend our epistemology to those coherences that are often described as ‘artificial‘ as opposed to ‘natural‘”[45]. Polanyi sets forth here a basic distinction between types of meaningful coherences. He seemingly thinks the difference between „artificial” and „natural” is apparent and that such a distinction is common. At any rate, Polanyi‘s discussion in Meaning relies upon this distinction and several other dichotomies which, upon close examination, seem to serve rhetorically to set forth sharply some important differences among human meaning seeking activities; such differences are mirrored in the character of comprehensive entities. Different coherences reflect differences in the nature and flow of human interests. Polanyi isolates and analyzes the so-called class of „artificial” coherences which includes symbol, metaphor, works of art, myth and religion. He identifies the different relations of the self to the process of making meaning, showing how tacit components become embodied in the distal focus of such comprehensive entities. Polanyi contrasts the surrender of personal memory involved in self-giving integrations attending to artificial coherences with the vectorial quality of the self-centred integrations of perception and science.

Polanyi‘s stance as a participative realist is in fact clarified b his late writings. Meaning does draw too sharp a cleavage between the operation of the from-to structure of tacit knowing in perception and science and that operative in art, myth and religion. Nevertheless, Polanyi‘s study of „artificial” coherences and the special involvement of the knower in the known makes clear that all comprehensive entities are sustained by the imaginative participation of interested persons.

Polanyi‘s primary interest in his late writing on art, myth and religion was to affirm the importance of the types of meaning found in these areas:

In order to hold these meanings securely in the reverence they seem to him to demand, contemporary man therefore needs a theory of these meanings that explains how their coherence is no less real than the perceptual and scientific coherences he so readily accepts. He needs to see how his obvious personal involvement with these meanings in necessarily and legitimately part and parcel of the reality they actually have, that his personal involvement is not at all a reason to regard them as mere subjective fantasies[46].

Polanyi held that the meaning discovered in the comprehensive entities of art, myth and religion points to aspects of reality. In one of his early unpublished lectures on art (a source of Meaning), Polanyi succinctly notes that he is interested in the „power of art to show us something real”[47]. Clearly, Polanyi thinks the same power to reveal real entities is a part of myth and religion also.

Much of the scholarly discussion of Polanyi‘s thought has focuses on questions about the status of real entities discovered in art, myth and religion. In his 1986 book, Harry Prosch followed up on debate published in Zygon[48], arguing for a strong distinction between the independent reals grasped in perception and science and those reals of the noosphere which are „real in being valid”; for the latter reals, it is „an illusion to think they existed before we discovered them”[49]. In a more recent article Prosch has suggested that for Polanyi

to have supposed the „objects” of art, religion, ethics, and mathematics existed independently of us before we discovered them, in the same way the empirical realities did, he would have had to have supposed them all to be simply some other empirical things among empirical things, and then all of the various frameworks of thought would have had to collapse into those of the empirical sciences[50].

Surely Prosch is correct in concluding that Polanyi is not a reductionist, that Polanyi holds that there are many frameworks of thought (or articulate systems) and all realities must be appreciated from within the proper framework. Yet there seems in Prosch‘s framing of the issue to remain a strange lingering dualism of subject and world. „Empirical realities” in Polanyi‘s vision are not so much simple external causes of cognition as they are the comprehensive entities which are the result of indwelling and integration. All realities are the end product of tacit integrations rather than merely the external cause of such integrations[51]. Claims about the independence and prior existence of realities are inferences introduced to account for the compelling coherence of our integrations. Those entities that are real, whether or not they belong to the noosphere, are comprehensive entities whose emergence depends upon the active indwelling and integration of a person engaged with social companions in a community of inquiry.


28. TD, 23.

29. TD, 23.

30. Peirce, like Polanyi, links the real and the true:

The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the true, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality (5.407).

Peirce‘s conception of the real and true focuses attention upon agreement „in the long run”. Polanyi seems to be less preoccupied with the achievement of final agreement. Indeed, one might argue that his theory of tacit knowing downplays agreement asa an issue or problem; new knowledge is appreciated primarily as a doorway to yet other new problems and future discoveries. However, as I discuss below, Polanyi does treat the implications of and necessity for cimmitment as a part of statement about that taken to be real; these Polanyian themes might be construed as in part concerned with agreement.

31. PK, 311.

32. In his 1966 article „The Creative Imagination” in Chemical and Engineering News (reprinted in The Concept of Creativity in Science and Art, Eds. Dennis Dutton and Michael Krausz [The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1981, 91-108], Polanyi discussed „universality”, „universal intent” and „universal validity”:

I speak not of universality, but of universal intent, for the scientist cannot know whether his claims will be accepted; they may be true and yet fail to carry conviction. He may have reason to expect that this is likely to happen. Nor can he regard a possible acceptance of his claims a sa guarantee of their truth. To claim universal validity for a statement indicates merely that it ought to be accepted by all. The affirmation of scientific truth has an obligatory character which it shares with other valuations, declared universal by our own respect for them (106).

33. PK, 311. In his 1966 essay „The Creative Imagination”, Polanyi comments as follows on the way in which hidden reals are an external presence grounding both scientific inquiry and claims for the validity of the results of inquira:

Having relied throughout his inquiry on the presence of something real hidden out there, the scientist will necessarily also rely on that external presence for clamining the validity of the result that satisfies his quest. And as he has accepted throughout the discipline which this external pole of his endeavor imposed upon him, he expects that others, similarly equipped, will likewise recognize the authority that guided him (106).

34. To affirm that real things do exist independently is itself a personal cimmitment; Polanyi‘s realism is of a sort that suggests it is impossible to escape personal commitments even if those commitments are about the status of the real.

35. Polanyi‘s claim for the non-dependent status of real entities is also a corollary of his insistent claim that to put forward knowledge claims requieres the recognition that they may conceivably be false. To ground knowledge in human belief, as Polanyi does, requires recognizing the limits of a person‘s or an interpretative community‘s competence. Polanyi suggest in „The Creative Imagination”

... scientific discoveries are made in search of reality-of a reality that is there whether we know it or not. The search is of our own making, but reality is not (104).

This nuance in Polanyi‘s perspective is akin to Perice‘s „doctrine of fallibilism” (l. 148.) Peirce seems to have arrived at his doctrine by careful study of logic and probability.

36. KB, 134.

37. In his Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition, Prosch interprets some of the difficult Polanyian passages on real entities and their independence in a way that makes of Polanyi an ontologist; Prosch sometimes seems to hold that Polanyi was a commonsense realist insofar as the real things studied by science are concerned; insofar as the real entities in art and religion are concerned, Prosch implies that Polanyi is an idealist. See my review of Prosch‘s book (Zygon on Polanyi („Polanyi‘s View of Religion in Personal Knowledge: A Response to Richard Gelwick”, Zygon 17:1 (1982), 41-48) as well as his 1991 article „Those Missing Articles”, Tradition and Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical 17:1&2, 17-20. Prosch‘s interpretation of Polanyi has, of course, been of great interest to Polanyi scholars because Prosch worked with Polanyi, at the very end of his life when his health was failing, to put together his final book, Meaning. Since the publication of Meaning, there has been an on-going scholarly discussion about the relation of ideas in Meaning to those in earlier publications, especially Personal Knowledge. On this topic, see the articles by Ronal L. Hall, Richard Gelwick and Bruce Haddos in the special edition of Zygon (17:1) on science and religion in Polanyi‘s thought.

38. TD, 35.

39. TD, 13.

40. TD, 33.

41. TD, 45.

42. Polanyi indicates that the principle is concerned with „the control exercised by the organizational principle of a higher level on the particulars forming its lower level. .. (TD, 40). This is, however, a somewhat confusing explanation for what is basically a logical claim which Polanyi uses in his account of evolution and in his grander vision of the universe. Polanyi holds that comprehensive entities are „a logical combination of levels of reality” (TD, 49). A lower level imposes restrictions within which a higher level can come to operate; the lower level establishes boundaries but leaves open possibilities. The higher level cannot be exhaustively described in terms of the lower level:

... no level can gain control over its own boundary conditions and hence cannot bring into existence a higher level, the operation of which would consist in controlling these boundary conditions (TD, 45).

43. KB, 152.

44. Polanyi does not seem to have felt compelled to choose straightforwardly between a materialist and an idealist position. Certainly, he does employ a clear distinction between living beings and non-living elements but his emphasis is also upon the continuity. Both the distinction and the continuity is expressed in his ideas about comprehensive entities as subject to dual control. Again a very general comparison with a figure like Perice is illuminating. Perice, of course, is not only a realist but also an idealist. He suggests that there is a continuous series of forms ranging from matter, the most non-dynamic (or heavily habituated) mind to God, the most dynamic; the cosmos, including humans operating with self-control, is evolving. Polanyi‘s metaphysical scheme seems to have been grounded in a similar intuition of a continuous series of elements evolving. Like Peirce, Polanyi is preoccupied with the role of humans as reasoning creatures in the cosmos. Although Polanyi suggests that all the forms or comprehensive entities constituting the universe are of interest, Polanyi suggests that more complex comprehensive entities are of particular importance and schould be of particular interest to human beings.

45. Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 69.

46. Meaning, 68.

47. „Meaning: A Project,” Chapter 1, p. 20 typescript.

48. See Prosch and Gelwick‘s articles cited above in Zygon 17:1 (1982).

49. Prosch, 1986. 249.

50. Prosch, „Those Missing Objects”, 18.

51. John E. Smith aptly simmarizes Perice‘s thinking about causality as follows:

At the outset Perice freely admits that the theory according to which external realities cause the common result and belief in one identical object can serve as an explanation. The causal theory, he says, is „convenient for certain purposes” (7.335) and is without internal logical flaw. But he has a philosophical objection to that theory; what needs to be explained, he says, is not an ordinary event among others in the world, and it cannot be put in the same class with such events. The fact that investigation leads to a fixed result concerns the theory of truth; the logic of investigation and its outcome, though related to fact, is itself a matter of principle not to be treated after the fashion of singular occurences in the course of nature. The point is an impoprtant one, for while Peirce was vigorous in his insistence that reality has force, power, resistence (what he called Secondness) over against ideas and representations, he still refused to accept a simple, causal theory of knowledge and truth (39).

Although Polanyi has perhaps not developed his ideas about causality as fully as Peirce, he is, like Peirce, very concerned with questions about belief, the nature of investigation and truth; similarly, such concerns lead him away from a preoccupation with questions about externality and causality, issues that Prosch is preoccupied with.

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Polanyiana Volume 6, Number 2, 1997