Walter B. Gulick

THE MEANINGFUL AND THE REAL IN POLANYIAN PERSPECTIVE 


Previous part
VI. The Sciences Are Different than the Humanities

As yet, the full import of the human ability to use symbols has not been displayed. Through symbols, consciousness escapes its previous dependence on signals from the environment, and imaginative forays can create whole new worlds. Indeed, human freedom - the envisaging of and choosing between alternatives - is only possible through symbols. Telling stories, creating art, making up jokes - the symbol brandishing mind finds all sorts of new pleasurable meanings with which to divert itself. So, once again, how is one to tell whether the meanings created are contacts with reality, illusions, playful explorations, or mere day dreaming? Neither the revelatory nor the significance criterion parasitic on it are of help in assessing whether meanings are real or not. The stuff of nightmares can have indeterminate future manifestations which have a significant impact on how we live. The paintings of Dali, Kandinsky, Escher, and Picasso may well satisfy criteria of coherence and beauty, but apart from the patterns of paint, the canvas, and the frame of the painting, do we really want to say that what we see is real? The poetry of Keats, the prose of Proust, and the cantatas of Bach surely possess intellectual beauty and coherence, yet if we insist on saying they establish contact with reality I do not see the grounds on which we can claim anything is not real. The specter of lack of discriminatory power, found in realism in the broadest sense, returns to haunt us.

My proposal, already ventured in slightly different form, is that we acknowledge that culture belongs to the vast realm of meaning and distinguish this realm from the infinitely vaster realm of reality. Reality is known through sensation vaguely, through perception within a restricted area, and through scientific knowledge in ways that reach from the micro- to the macrocosm. To be sure, this suggestion may sound retrograde, dualistic, and even naive in our age of postmodern sophistication. But it has many compensating virtues.

One implication of the proposal is that the notion of human meaning achieves a status, an importance it previously lacked. The many types of meaning range from casual perception to lofty theological speculation. At the end of his career Polanyi began a valiant effort to chart and analyze some of the most important types of meaning construction along with the resulting realms of meaning.

While the realm of meaning in the stipulated narrow sense stretches from perception through the envisioning of God and our highest values, I propose that we see the realm of reality as always existing in dimensions lower than and supportive of our consciousness of meaning. Wait, it may be protested, haven't I claimed that our scientific knowledge of the real is generated through stretches of imagination and intuition; aren't its insights articulated through symbols; in short, isn't it a cultural product like the arts and humanities, an achievement of meaning? Yes, but it is meaning that refers to physics, chemistry, biology - levels of existence that support the creation of meaning. It is denotative meaning attuned to external reality. Hence, I am in accord with those interpreters of Polanyi who emphasize that his scientific thought supports a correspondence theory of truth (see, for instance, Cannon 7; Sanders, 1996-97, 31). In contrast, human meaning can attend to levels of existence lower than, on a par with, and higher than human consciousness. Which notion of truth, if any, best works in discussing meaning (in contrast to reality) is open to debate.

I find the just articulated way of discriminating between science and the humanities (plus all the other realms of meaning) to be exhilarating and pregnant with new insights. If accepted, this proposal should vastly increase the acceptability and appreciation of meaning in general and those realms of meaning which provide humans guidance in particular. It would fulfill Polanyi's dream of justifying religious faith and acceptance of unproven values, even if this was not achieved through Polanyi's initial route of showing common features in the ways scientists make discoveries and the way philosophers, theologians, doctors, artists, and even bicycle riders practice their crafts. Such benefits most clearly accrue only if the described difference between meaning and reality is maintained.

To be sure, there will be some who will not greet the conceptual innovations proposed here with joy. Some might say that I have devised a way of bolstering the worst aspects of modernism and rendered vulnerable all that is most valuable in existence. On this reading, I will have promoted a new form of positivism in restricting reality to what is known through our senses and in science. They will regard the realm of meaning in which I rejoice as but an epiphenomenon of what is truly real. Thereby, our theology and ethics will be seen as but airy emotive abstractions; reality would then ultimately be reduced to brute materiality and its essentially mechanical interactions. What to say to such a reading?

First, I would say this interpretation totally ignores Polanyi's creative account of the stratified universe. in which emergent levels of reality open up previously impossible new levels of richness and creativity. The affirmation that the realm of human consciousness is emergent from lower levels of reality represents a claim that is exactly contrary to the reductionism characteristic of positivism. Meaning cannot simply be reduced to some jiggle of molecules or an electrical impulse in neurons. In a way of speaking, the realms of meaning are more "real" (to human consciousness) than what I have termed reality.

Moreover, nothing I have said about the real should make us think of the lower strata as inert or uninteresting. From quarks to black holes, the real is a repository of entities that ought to inspire awe and a Polanyian sense of anticipation that they will continue to reveal themselves in surprising ways.

But, it may further be objected, in constricting the notion of the real and affirming meaning in its various realms, I opt for a coronation of pretender symbols which have unceremoniously deposed the real from its proper place of honor. God, truth, and beauty, it will be said, have no sustaining power unless they can be shown to be real and not merely concatenations of symbols or human projections. The anxiety behind this complaint is no doubt one motivation behind Plato's claim that the Ideas are more real than the material particulars which gain their worth through participation in the Ideas. Plato's attempted solution to human yearnings for a secure place in the cosmos is subject to many well known problems that seem pointless to rehearse. Polanyi himself recognized both the value of Platonic Ideas but also the inappropriateness of reifying them. He noted how he strove to avoid "the possibility of having Platonic ideas laid up somewhere and looking at them in a detached manner. For these `Platonic ideas" of mine exist only in our acceptance of them" ("Beauty, Elegance, and Reality," 122, quoted in Jha 43).

As alternatives to Platonism, the various versions of nominalism are of little support to those who have experienced the power of truth, beauty, and God. Whether in the formulation of Ockham, Locke, or Stevenson, nominalist theories tend to be stunted constructs which are useful in explaining how some words first were formed but are usually oblivious to the dynamics of metaphor and other linguistic tropes, the indexical features of language, and in general the magic of symbolism. They are often insensitive to the reality of laws, relations, and other intangible forms of being. At the very least, experiences of the power of God, truth, and beauty to orient human activity and motivate excellence must be respected and indeed celebrated. The Christian story of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection is significant in ways Polanyi began groping to articulate in Meaning. I leave open for now the question as to whether the values to which we give allegiance are best seen as constituting a higher level in the stratified universe than human consciousness. I do think the realms of meaning can be seen as repositories of spirit in productive ways as yet unstated. Much, much work remains to be done by communities of inquiry in sifting worshipful from worthless or toxic meanings and articulating the basis for the worth of the worshipful. Polanyi's discussion of transnatural meanings is a first attempt in this direction.

Humans have developed a need for meaning-filled experience that far transcends the satisfactions of nourishment, sleep, sex, play, or elimination. This hunger for meaningful experience must be seen as a goal complementary to the urge to understand the real, even though Polanyi asserts forcefully that scientific, humanistic, and artistic pursuits are equally driven by intellectual passions and rejoice in beauty (SM 37). This point is essential to my argument. Yes, humans experience meaningful satisfaction in understanding reality; science is a cultural achievement in which the search for the real and the meaningful overlap. But the meaningful satisfactions of creating poetry, worshipping a god, dramatizing an action, writing a symphony, or even making a sale are not particularly oriented toward reality even though they depend upon it. This is precisely the point Polanyi makes in distinguishing two types of meaning: observations, appropriate in perception and science, and acceptances, appropriate in the arts and religion.

Hence a representative work of art contains a built-in contradiction which distinguishes the character of its affirmation from any empirical statement. This contradiction separates its affirmation from the context of our life space - the context of the whole course of our existence - and causes it to be detached in this sense from both its author and its public and, indeed, from any natural experiences, including those of science. We found we could call its meaning transnatural, since its gross contradictions take a work of art out of both the context of our passing lves and the context of the space in which we live, whether as laymen or as scientists. (M 150)
 

VII. Piercing the Peirce-onification of Polanyi

If one carefully discriminates between the meaningful and the real, as I am arguing should be done, then doesn't one create a new dualism that sunders Polanyi's unique unified philosophical achievement? That would likely be the verdict of many interpreters of Polanyi, including John Puddefoot and Phil Mullins. Puddefoot states his view as follows:

The essence of Polanyi's conception of reality lies in the faith in it that justifies our submission to it as a source of unlimited richness, and our consequent willingness to identify the richness of conceptualizations with the richness of the reality that they arise from. We specifically make no attempt to move outside of our embodied selves to establish the credentials of our concepts according to a correspondence theory of truth; we allow the richness of those concepts themselves, as measured by the resonances they evoke from the world and in our own minds, to be their identification. (30)

Puddefoot thus opts for a kind of epistemological holism: we know the real via resonances within our socio-linguistic web of meanings. While ideally it might be nice to step beyond our meanings and compare them to the structures of reality, there is no philosophical magician to show us how to copy Munchausen. At best, the correspondence theory of truth is an illusion.

My response is that Polanyi gives us some clues as how to contact reality even if we cannot break free from human meaning in communicating what we find. I'll mention three clues. First, perception, although understood in terms of symbols, provides the inquiring mind with information that is different in kind than what has already been understood and processed (see KB 173). If how we understand is out of harmony with the real, we will experience anomalies or inconsistencies in absorbing the new information. Second, as we have survived within nature over aeons, we may assume that our instincts and capabilities that have naturally evolved are attuned to that reality. These are admittedly a very rough guide to the real, and they seem to operate much like the resonances Puddefoot advocates. Third, we must not forget that science has a history of predictive and technological successes quite different from techniques of divination, claims of mystical insight, or other folkways thought to reveal the real. Endemic to science is a commitment to break out of symbolic structures which do not take adequate account of the witness of the real. In sum, even if we cannot transcend our symbol-laden versions of things, we have adequate grounds for distinguishing our meanings from the real and adhering cautiously to a correspondence theory of truth.

In a provocative essay, Phil Mullins makes a case for what he terms "Polanyi's participative realism" (16). He relies quite extensively on Charles Sanders Peirce's philosophical/semiotic vision for interpreting Polanyi. After quoting a number of Polanyi's comments about the real, Mullins argues that these views converge toward a unified theory of the real as that in which we participate meaningfully, a convergence which becomes most evident in our knowing of the most comprehensive entities (16-21; see KB 152). A review in summary form of some of the discrete but often overlapping claims Polanyi makes about the real and our knowledge of it will remind us of how variegated Polanyi's understanding is.

(1) The real is independent of our knowing and may be hidden from us.
(2) Our knowledge of the real is an embodied feat accomplished through tacit skills.
(3) Intellectual beauty is a guide to discovering the real (PK 300).
(4) That is real which is expected to reveal itself indeterminately in the future.
(5) There is something inherently pleasing about the real for human minds; it has<_>attractive power (SFS 35). (6) The real is most powerfully and significantly manifest in comprehensive entities (TD 33-34).
(7) Personal knowledge of the real is characterized by universal intent.
(8) Living beings utilize different levels of comprehension of the real for their adaptive advantage (PK 337, 385).
(9) Living beings' evolutionary achievement of broader contact with the real cannot be explained solely by the principle of survival of the fittest but also requires the capturing of random occurrences in favorable circumstances under the guidance of higher operational principles serving self set interests (PK 394395).
(10) A token of a real object is its coherence ("Logic and Psychology" 28).

We have seen that proposition (9) above is especially propitious for understanding Polanyi's emergent view, where it is meaning that emerges out of our increasingly sophisticated and symbol-enhanced engagements with reality. However, the contents of this proposition find little or no place in Mullins' account. At the human level, I take it that the higher operational principles mentioned in proposition (9) are the rules of meaning construction and apprehension, and the self set standards are the meaning-enveloped ideals of beauty, morality, truth, and religion by which humans guide their activity.

Now, not only does Mullins not deal with the ninth proposition about our knowledge of reality, he expresses great discomfort with the plain meaning of proposition ( 1 ) and, to a lesser extent, propositions (4) and (7). Indeed, he seems to explain some of these propositions away.

Holding a claim inevitably involves a commitment on the knower'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" (PK 311). 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. (14-15)
In response to Mullins, first let me make the perhaps trivial point that not all claims we make are about that which is separate from our selves (e.g., "I dreamed I was ten feet tall last night"). Second, why call Polanyi's commitment to the separateness of the real "tacit" when Polanyi is quite explicit about his belief? Third, and most importantly, why reduce the claim that reality exists independently of knowers to a hope that others will agree with me? These two claims stand on their own; they do not seem at all interdependent. If I see a meteor while camping with companions and they dont see it, are my experience and the meteor less real? If we all agree Mickey Mouse has black ears, does that make them less real?

Mullins is determined not to acknowledge the existence of an independent reality because that might lend credence to a subject/world dichotomy to Mullins' unified participatory realism. He states, "All realities are the end product of tacit integrations rather than merely the external cause of such integrations. Claims about the independence and prior existence of realities are inferences introduced to account for the compelling coherence of our integrations" (20-21 ). He cites ( 17) a passage in The Tacit Dimension (13) in support of his claim since it indicates that the ontological aspect of tacit knowing is a deduction. But I strongly suspect that Polanyi's point is that perception as a comprehension of an external world ( 14) is something learned (deduced) and not immediately evident (e.g., to a baby). That is, Polanyi says that the reality of the external world must be deduced not to account for the coherence of experience but to deal with the problem, famously noticed by Hume, that the existence of the external world is not phenomenologically self-evident but must be believed. Contrary to Humean skepticism, Polanyi's views of evolutionary emergence are articulated precisely to show how the correlation between mind and world is not a miracle but a knowable process guided by the human affinity for relying upon signals of the real to survive in the world.

To be sure, Mullins is not simply projecting the inseparability of meaning and reality on Polanyian texts. A careful reader of Polanyi, he is merely emphasizing elements of Polanyi's developing thought. But notice the dangers inherent in this line of thinking. When Mullins claims that "all [my emphasis] realities are the end product of tacit integrations rather than merely the external cause of such integrations" (20), he reduces all reality to one process whereby we come to know it. Does the real not exist prior to our act of integration? Has reality no causal force on human existence? Is man the measure of all things? Mullins' interpretation dissolves realism in a subjective (Peircean) form of idealism.

There is also an important epistemological reason for distinguishing the meaningful from the real. Meaning is created by human knowers out of a specific Background. Each knower thinks out of a different Background. To be sure, the various Backgrounds employed by different thinkers in knowing the real may have many elements in common, especially among those exposed to the same Background sensation, but each meaning arising from the integration of Background elements will nevertheless be a personal achievement itself comprehensible only in terms of its sponsoring context. I agree with Mark Johnson's claim that the Background is best seen as part of the whole experience of meaning (189). Or, in Polanyi's terms, the from cannot be severed from the to. The real, on the other hand, is thought by Polanyi to exist independent of Background context, a from-to structure, or an integrative act. Consequently, the one real world must be understood as meaningful in slightly different ways by each of its knowers. Thus if meaning and the real were not inherently different, one would be faced with as many worlds as there are knowers.

Mullins' notion of participatory realism seems useful in some respects, misleading in others. All that exists can be seen either as the real or as dependent upon it, but if the latter is not reducible to it - eliminative materialism is inconsistent with Polanyian vision. Thus in a general sense humans always participate in the real. But when humans allow symbols to dominate consciousness apart from any empirical reference (e.g., when we reflect or fantasize), at the level of human meaning we are not participating focally in the real.

But my basic disagreement with Mullins' version of realism concerns his Peircean interpretation of the real as a monistic, meaningful whole. Peirce believes he integrates realism with idealism and pragmatism, but ultimately idealistic/semiotic monism seems to be the crucial interpretive key subsuming other metaphysical or epistemological options. Contra Peirce, Dewey, Mullins and many others, I believe it is time to examine the fear, epidemic in this century, of the term "dualism." Note that Polanyi calls himself a dualist.

The theory of tacit knowing also tells us that we do not know another mind by a process of inference, but nevertheless it retains the dualism of mind and body. It says that the body seen focally is one thing, while the body seen subsidiarily points to another thing; these two different things are the body and the mind. ("Logic and Psychology" 34)
What is problematic about dualism is a matter of what is distinguished, not that Basic distinctions are made. Cartesian dualism is catastrophic in part because it rests on an irreconcilable split between mind and matter as two substances. Polanyi relates his mind/body split (notice how different this language is from Poteat's "mindbody") to his from-to structure of consciousness as a special case of his hierarchical model of reality; he does not argue his case in terms of substances. Similarly, affirming the difference between reality and meaning is not to create an insurmountable division between incommensurable forms of being.

My contention is that Polanyi's philosophical vision introduces a new insight into the notion of meaning as distinct from the real that has as yet not been fully appreciated (not even always by Polanyi himself). If a rigid identification of the meaningful and the real is insisted upon, then human cultural achievements always exist under the threat of skepticism, cynicism, or total disbelief. "I won't accept [God, justice, beauty, etc. ] as authoritative because it cannot be demonstrated that [god, justice, beauty, etc. ] is real." But once meaning and the real are both seen as commanding allegiance, then nihilism can effectively be countered. With respect to human meaning in its existential form, the question to be answered is this: what are the visions and values you are willing to live and perhaps to die - by? This question is not settled by an appeal to what is (reality). It is ultimately, as Polanyi persuasively argues, a matter of what carries us away, of what ought to be (what is most meaningful).

The distinction between natural and artificial integrations is different than the distinction between reality and meaningfulness because all these integrations (including perceptions and scientific claims) are meaningful. Such natural integrations as found in mathematics and physics, insofar as they refer, must refer to lower levels of reality than that of human meaning, although they can also be assessed as to their meaningful internal coherence and compatibility with other realms of meaning (see M 125). Such disciplines as theology, ethics, and clinical psychology must take account of the best insights available concerning the real, but their adequacy finally is judged in terms of how persuasively they set forth visions of attainable meaningfulness. Insights into meaning offer humans reasons for postponing pleasures, for cooperating together - indeed, for living. When we encounter richer, more meaning-laden visions or practices than we currently accept, we may be converted to these higher visions (M 180). As Polanyi affirms, we are then carried away by these new possibilities of richer meaning, not argued into them because of their greater congruence with reality.

While Polanyi spends much time explaining how meaning is produced out of the embodied from-to structure, one can subvert the authority of meaning by emphasizing how meaning comes into being, just as one can destroy a performance by attending to the subsidiaries used in creating it. Then one frets about the genetic, psychological, or sociological contributions to meaning and no longer owes allegiance to the meaningful entities which have emerged. But when a community of interpreters seriously considers the import of different integrations and selects some as superior to others, then the meaningful has the weight of social consensus. The agreed-upon realm of meaning authorizes and supports actions judged in terms of communal standards and also, one hopes, more nearly universal ethical standards. For the persons committed to such personal and communal standards, it does not matter how they came into being or whether they can be proven to be "real." Dwelling in such meanings orients one's existence and provides direction for living the good life. Can any ontological insight offer more?


WORKS CITED

Cannon, Dale 1996-97: "Sanders' Analytic Rebuttal to Polanyi's Critics, with Some Musings on Polanyi's Idea of Truth," Tradition and Discovery 23:3, 1723.

Gulick, Walter B. 1990: "The Thousand and First Face," in Daniel Noel, ed., Paths to the Power of Myth: Joseph Campbell and the Study of Religion. New York: Crossword, 28-43.

1992-93: "Polanyi's Theory of Meaning: Exposition, Elaboration, and Reconstruction," Polanyiana 2:4 and 3:1, 7-42.

Hodgkin, Robin A. 1997: "Making Space for Meaning," Polanyiana 6:2, 55-71.

Jha, Stefania Ruzsits 1996: "Michael Polanyi's Integrative Philosophy," Polanyiana 5:2, 43.

Johnson, Mark 1987: The Body in the Mind. The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Langer, Susanne K. 1957: Philosophy in a New Key. 3rd. ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mullins, Phil 1997: "Polanyi's Participative Realism," Polanyiana 6:2, 5-21.

Polanyi, Michael: "Beauty, Elegance, and Reality in Science," in S. Korner, ed., Observation and Interpretation: A Symposium of Philosophers and Physicists. New York: Academic Press, 1957.

The Study of Man. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1957 (abbreviated SM).

Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, rev. ed. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964 (PK).

Science, Faith and Society, rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964 (SFS).

The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966 (TD).

"Logic and Philosophy," American Psychologist 23:1 (1968), 27-43.

Knowing and Being. Essays by Michael Polanyi. Ed. by Marjorie Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

"The Creative Imagination." in Marjorie Grene, ed., Toward a Unity of Knowledge. New York: International Universities Press, 1969.

and Harry Prosch. Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975 (M). Puddefoot, John 1993-94: "Resonance Realism," Tradition and Discovery 20:3, 29-39.

Sanders, Andy F. 1988: Michael Polanyi's Post-Critical Epistemology: A Reconstruction of Some Aspects of Tacit Knowing. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

1996-97: "Criticism, Contact with Reality and Truth," Tradition and Discovery 23:3, 24-36.

Whitehead, Alfred North 1960: 'Process and Reality.' An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper Torchbooks.


Polanyiana Volume 8, Number 12, 1999
http://www.kfki.hu/chemonet/polanyi/ 
http://www.ch.bme.hu/chemonet/polanyi/


Back to Contents