377 POLANYI  MATTERS

At a very young age children ask “why”?  A youngster may ask why are there 24 hours in the day.  In response his father will say because the earth revolves open its axis while it circles around the sun.  Then the child may very well want to know “how do you know that?”  The dad will probably explain that astronomers and physicists tell us how the solar system works.  The child may not fully understand, but he certainly wants to know, for we always wonder “how do you know what you know.”  Philosophically the realm of “epistemology” deals with this question, and it’s truly something that really matters.  If you’ve never pondered why numbers of men are “self-identifying” as women and competing in women’s athletics—or why the woman coaching South Carolina’s national championship basketball team supports such activities—you might not identify this as a deeply epistemological issue, but it is.  We confront the transgender question because of philosophical developments during the modern era.  Along with the ancient sophists, modern thinkers affirm that “man is the measure of all things.”  As philosophical nominalism gained traction, science displaced theology as the “queen” of academia, deism ousted theism, and what we call the “modern world” developed.  For six centuries now, thinkers have increasingly taken universals such as truth, goodness and beauty to be mere names we humans paste, like post-it notes, on things.  “The issue ultimately involved,” says Esther Meek, “is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind.  The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses.  With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism” (p. 3). 

To overly simplify the story, in the 17th century two thinkers charted the course for our world.  Francis Bacon insisted we can only know empirical facts in the physical world and provided a handbook for the “scientific revolution” then unfolding.  He championed the “inductive” approach to knowledge.  At the same time Rene Descartes argued we can know with certainty only what’s absolutely self-evident and undeniable in our minds.  He followed an essentially deductive way of knowing.  Together they opened the way to an increasingly subjective notion of truth.  One of the best analyses of all this was set forth in Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences—published in 1948 but still remarkably prescient.  He wrote the book“as a challenge to forces that threaten the foundations of civilization,” fearing Western Civilization was collapsing under the assaults of nihilists who acknowledged no absolute truths, no permanent values.  Weaver  called this a “vertical invasion of the barbarians”—a cultural catastrophe equal to that visited upon the Ancient world by the Goths and the Vandals.  To do battle with modern barbarians Weaver sought to defend “the mind itself, and its capacity to actually know the Reality designed by a Higher Mind.”

Weaver traced this struggle back to the 14th century when nominalism began replacing realism as the dominant epistemology.  William of Occam replaced Thomas Aquinas, skepticism replaced certainty, and the decline of the West began.  “The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.”  What’s been lost is the “power of the word”—the word which aligns our minds with the Word which was (and is) God.   Weaver sought to reestablish the realism of the ancients, insisting philosophy begins not with skepticism but with wonder and that “sentiment is anterior to reason.”  Ideas and ideals, virtues and virtuous heroes, a love for one’s ancestors and descendants, a vision of the eternal good and a commitment to its acquisition, must find roots in the hearts of those who would restore our culture.  But beyond diagnosing the ills we confront Weaver proposed no way, given the scientific-industrial world we live in, to recover the wisdom of the ancients.

Enter Esther Nightcap Meek, a Christian philosopher most recently teaching at St Louis University, who finds in Michael Polanyi a thoughtful guide to help us think about thinking.  In her Contact with Reality;  Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters (Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, c. 2017;  Kindle Edition) she set forth her case.  “In this lively book,” says D.C. Schindler (a noted Christian professor), “Esther Lightcap Meek does more than simply make a compelling case for Polanyi’s realism in the context of dominant epistemologies and philosophies of science; she also brings out a beautiful dimension of Polanyi’s thought that is not often seen, deepening its metaphysical underpinnings through creative engagement with contemporary thinkers.  This book makes a much-needed contribution to the reception of Polanyi—and offers a fresh, new way to think about reason more generally.”  

   Many years ago I gave a lecture at my alma mater dealing with “light as a symbol of truth,” pointing out that light may appear as either a wave or a stream of particles.  So too truth may appear as a broad pattern (a field) or as individual data.  Following the lecture a physics professor chatted with me and mentioned the importance of Michael Polanyi for scientists such as himself.  Subsequently I read most of Polanyi’s works (especially his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge) and found him both fascinating and frequently persuasive.  Reading Esther Meek’s treatise renewed within me an appreciation for Polanyi’s insights.  Her book begins with his statement:  “We can account for this capacity of ours to know more than we can tell [personal knowledge] if we believe in an external reality with which we can establish contact.  This I do.  I declare myself committed to the belief in an external reality gradually accessible to knowing, and I regard all true understanding as an intimation of such a reality which, being real, may yet reveal itself to our deepened understanding in an indefinite range of unexpected manifestations.” 

Michael Polanyi was a physical chemist of considerable renown whose interests turned ultimately to philosophy.  A Hungarian of Jewish descent born in 1889 to a prosperous, socially-eminent family, he interacted with the likes of Albert Einstein and sired a son (John) who won a Nobel Prize.  He gave the Gifford Lectures in Natural Religion in the early 1950s which were published as Personal Knowledge in 1958.  Though Polanyi  explored multiple fields, Meek wants to focus on his philosophical realism.  “At the heart of what Polanyi was about, especially in his stepping away from science to do philosophy, was his concern to offer a fundamentally different epistemology that, rather than undercutting science (not to mention all of Western culture)—as he felt the prevailing paradigm was doing—would save it and enhance it.”  What we label “modernity” took a skeptical approach that cut “us off from the natural trust and communion with reality that lies at the heart of humanness” (p. 5).  As an eighth-grader Meek inhaled this skepticism, thinking she could only know what resided in her own mind.  Her modernist guides sought to conquer nature rather than commune with it.  Truth was essentially subjective.  Then Postmodernism pushed this further, declaring we “construct” the world, even to the point of declaring a man is a woman!

Contrary to many 20th century epistemologists (including Esther Meek as a child), who were deeply skeptical regarding the possibility of knowing much of anything, Polanyi sought to give us ways to actually know and trust our knowing.  We can discover that our insights “ring true to what we actually do when we come to know—when we know, that is, not only in frontline scientific research and discovery, but throughout all the byways of ordinary life” (p. 3).   Our minds can actually come into correspondence with reality—we can know (as Aristotle, Aquinas, et al. insisted) what is.  Accordingly, Meek has carved out what she calls a “covenant epistemology” and “moved from child skeptic to seasoned intoxicated realist” (p. 4).  Though a Protestant in the Reformed tradition, Meek finds herself drawn to the work of the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who “has uncannily and aptly portrayed the philosophical trajectory of my life—and possibly yours.”  We all wrestle with basic questions which “keep coming back” as we “drill more deeply into the mysterious abyss of being.”  We wonder, von Balthasar says:  “Does truth in fact exist?” And that leads us to wonder even “being exists at all” (p. 8) 

Realists think things exist whether or not we think abut them.  They think we can truly know them—somewhat as an x-ray reveals what is under the skin— as we discern “essences” in what is.  Realists simply assume, without bothering to prove, that we are in a knowing relationship with the external world.  For them, we know what makes a circle a circle, a hawk a hawk, a woman a woman.  Polanyi certainly allowed for a subjective aspect to knowing—thus he emphasized personal knowledge.  But personal does not mean subjective!  In fact, Meek argues, it is simply an important component of his realism.  He also rejected “the false ideal of objectivity” entertained in the scientific community, which sometimes claims to function in in detached, mechanistic ways.  Such knowledge Polanyi labels “explicit,” and it is espoused by many scientists who want an impersonal, mathematical standard of truth.  Polanyi, however, thought to think in personal, not mechanical ways.  Indeed, he often said:  “We know more than we can tell.”  

We come to know what is through the process of discovery, discerning what we tacitly know and need to clarify.  We don’t “construct” truth—we discover things and bring our minds into correspondence with them.  Seeing something, whether a star or a snowflake, we assume it’s there and that we can truly discover things within it.  “Discovery involves the transference of information, not from one mind to another, but into the mind in the first place.  If knowledge is wholly explicit, there can be no learning, no discovery, and thus no scientific knowledge.  Discovery . . . involves the germination of new hunches and ideas and the pursuit of those hunches despite the absence of any sort of justification” (p. 21).  Such is part and parcel of the scientific method.  We can find explicit truths because we rely upon oft-unconscious tacit knowledge.  “Knowledge, therefore,” Meek says, “is objective by virtue of responsible personal involvement, explicit by virtue of its tacit root, and examinable by virtue of our foundational commitments” (p. 23).  Polanyi insisted that much of what we know is tacit rather than explicit.  “We know more than we can tell.”  We deal with—and synthesize—knowledge of particular things and comprehensive wholes.  Giving attention to the particulars cannot be severed from a deep-level awareness of their context. 

Still more:  this kind of thinking involves intuition and imagination.  Scientists probing the problems facing them as they do research frequently have sudden moments of insight, breakthrough intuitions that suddenly provide answers unavailable to computer-style computations.  As with Archimedes pondering how to discern real gold by measuring the water it displaced and then running through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!” many scientists confess to an almost mystical awareness of solutions to their questions.   This is a “dynamic intuition” invaluable to deep-level thought, and it “recognizes clues and somehow ‘measures the distance’ between the present understanding and the intuited focus.”   To illustrate this Polanyi noted:  “that we have all experienced it in the common attempt to remember someone’s name; we know somehow that we are close and then closer to having it; we speak of its being ‘on the tip of my tongue’” (p. 45).   

Contact with Reality was a re-working of Meek’s Ph.D. dissertation, revealing all the strengths (careful research) and weaknesses (largely inaccessible to readers not grounded in philosophy) of such works.  But the main point, evident in the title, is this:  one of the finest 20th century thinkers provides a way to take a deeply realistic approach to knowledge.

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After teaching for many years and working with others in the Polanyi Society, Esther Meek published some reader-friendly books showing why she regards Polanyi so highly.  In Longing to Know:  The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press c. 2003; Kindle Edition), she targeted “people who wrestle with questions concerning truth and the possibility of knowledge as a result our culture’s recent consensus shift from modernism to postmodernism” (p. 7).  Postmodernism is deeply skeptical, claiming all we have are “narratives” telling various stories.  We may embrace one or more of the stories, but none of them is actually true.  So we must deal with people who not only deny objective truth but deny there’s any truth at all!  Everything’s “your opinion” they say!  

In particular Meek wants to provide Christians a firm foundation for their faith.  She thinks “that many questions can be answered, at least preliminarily, and many puzzles solved, and personal hope of truth restored, by appropriating this [Polanyi-crafted] model of how we know.  I believe the model is confirmed by the ordinary day-to-day experiences of every human being” (p. 9).  Though the endeavor may be difficult—life itself, and philosophy itself, can be quite difficult!—but the knowing the truth is worth the work.  Ultimately, and above all else, she says, we can know God.  Nothing can be finer, for:  “If God is, what he is has far-reaching consequences for our lives—who we are, how we live, and what happens after death.  Perhaps the simplest way to say it is this:  If God is, and he is master of all, then he is master of you and your world.  If he isn’t, then you are.  You might see one or the other alternative as the preferable one.  But it’s impossible to be indifferent about the choice; it hits just too close to home for comfort” p. 17).  

Meek was reared in a Christian home and believed in God, but she could not suppress many questions about Him and our ability to know anything about Him.  Over the years she has worked with students just like herself—wanting to believe but unsure if there is any warrant for belief.  To know, to engage in what she calls an “episematic act,” requires much more than just taking someone’s word for something.  There’s a difference between thinking and knowing.  I may think it’s freezing outside and be wrong.  If I know it’s actually freezing there’s a certainty as to what is. “Know is a success word: when we use it we imply that we were successful at getting the truth right.  So we have thought that knowing something means that what we claim to know can’t be wrong or we cannot doubt—that it is infallible, or certain.  For knowledge to be knowledge at all, it must be infallible or certain.  Otherwise it is opinion, or belief, but not knowledge.” (p. 26).  She writes:  “My point is going to be this: If knowledge is as philosophers have thought for centuries, if our efforts to know have certainty as their uncompromising ideal, then skepticism seems the inevitable alternative.  But our lived experience witnesses powerfully that this cannot be.  So maybe we need to revise how we think about knowledge” (p. 28).  

We do actually know things, and God is truly knowable.  We cannot know everything about Him—indeed we may be able to know just a little bit about Him—but it’s still trustworthy knowledge.  We know something when we integrate scattered bits of information with a more coherent pattern.  We see a leaf, then leaves, then the tree sustaining them.  We’re capable of grasping “a coherence, an integrated pattern, a making sense of things, that opens the world to us” (p. 50).  Certainly “all truth’s someone’s truth”—there is a personal perspective to all knowing.  But to acknowledge this does not mean, by any means, that “truth is relative” or nonexistent!  To know involves “commitment, love, and faith.  But it is not subjectivistic, relativistic, privatistic—those unfortunate labels that many have thrown at faith and that many have embraced as the death of truth.  It is not subjectivistic; it is human.  It is embodied, responsible human skill” (p. 60). Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, Meek believes, delivers us from the skepticism embedded in modernity.  

Induction and deduction have their places in a theory of knowledge.  But much more is involved than collating and arranging data or following mathematical formulae.  We know things best when we deal with our world much like a detective, following clues and noticing patterns, unlocking mysterious boxes, finding traces in the creation leading us rightly.   It’s what Lewis and Clark did leading the famous expedition up the Missouri River, over the continental divide, and down the Columbia River.  They were learning as they went and discovered fascinating sites.  So too we learn “to know God” by getting “tips” from daily life.  There are momentary insights, curious coincidences, unexpected illuminations that enable us to know Him.  As an amazing “image of God” we’re bursting with information ranging from the inner workings of tiny cells to the mysterious processes of recalling long-dormant memories.  We learn to walk, type, play a piano and ultimately do so without consciously commanding actions.  Meek thinks such “bodily clues are included in our experience of God, and I don’t think of it as a mystical experience” (p. 93).  It’s one of the many ways we can come to know Him.  

This Polanyi-kind of knowing helps us immensely “when it comes to our main question—whether we can know God.  It offers hope about whether we can know anything at all.  It dissolves some of the puzzles about knowing that have plagued thinkers for centuries, puzzles generated by a faulty, unrealistic model of knowing.  And it helps us see things in fresh and exciting ways, for it aptly and evocatively fits our ordinary human experience” (p. 56).   Such knowing enables us to trust our insights into a very real world independent of ourselves.  We actually “contact” it.  More than believing our ideas “correspond” to the external world, Polanyi-kind of knowing assures us that we are truly in touch with what’s Real, including God.  

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In Loving to Know:  Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, c. 2011; Kindle Edition), Esther Meek continued to build her case for the importance of Michael Polanyi in Christian theology.  Unlike her previous treatise, Longing to Know, this one is written for persons considering the claims of Christianity but unsure whether they can know anything at all about it.  For Meek nothing is more important than epistemology—knowing how and what we can truly know.  We’re knowers who know something about what can be known.  We deal with it all the time—only philosophers try to be more precise and provide illuminating terms to help us think well.  “‘Epistemological therapy’ is what I call my personal effort to help people reform their default epistemological settings in a way that brings health, hope, and productivity” (p. 6).

Meek’s on a mission to get people to “care about knowing.  Because not to care is to be dead. Indifference to one’s surroundings is a telltale sign of sickness, of impending death.”  Importantly:  “It is human to care.  Boredom, absence of wonder, is a sign of sickness.  If our outlook on knowledge is such that it leads to boredom, then something is amiss in our outlook on knowledge” p. 31).  We need to be attentive to our deepest inner longings, following them help us find out why we’re here, what we should do, whom we can become.  Ultimately we want to know Reality in its fullness.  To know it “calls for an attentiveness on our part that is far less like a dispassionate cataloguing of information and more like passionate indwelling of that half-hidden object of our care,”  and if  “knowing is care at its core, caring leads to knowing. To know is to love; to love will be to know” (p. 33).

To help her readers on this journey into covenant epistemology, Meek utilizes the works of Annie Dillard, Lesslie Newbigin, and Parker Palmer.  Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek helped her see a covenantal aspect of knowing.  When we join Dillard and carefully study nature we discover a wonderful world of complex creatures bestowing upon us an awareness of grace.  Newbigin stressed the importance of finding Jesus as The Truth and entering into a personal relationship with Him.  Palmer, a Christian philosopher, developed a  personalist epistemology that weds one to the Creator, finding truth within a loving relationship with Him.  Within such a relationship—not standing apart and asking abstract questions—enables us to actually know Ultimate Reality.  Doing so brings great joy, the joy of discovering what we most deeply desire to know.  So we both give ourselves to and invite what’s Real to join us in discovering what’s of ultimate concern.  To our delight we find that the Real is most profoundly personal.  He’s Real and we can know Him if we attend to His Presence. 

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