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A Brief Analysis of Michael Polanyi's view of Personal Knowledge

... I think we may distinguish between the personal in us, which actively enters into our commitments, and our subjective states, in which we merely endures our feelings. This distinction establishes the conception of the personal, which is neither subjective nor objective. In so far as the personal submits to requirements acknowledged by itself as independent of itself, it is not subjective; but in so far as it is an action guided by individual passions, it is not objective either. It transcends the disjunction between subjective and objective.

— Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958, 1962), 300

Post-critical philosopher Michael Polanyi in his book on personal knowledge seeks to come up with a philosophical system that solves the problems present in modern philosophy since Kant. In the discussion of personal knowledge, as can see from the quote above, Polanyi states that personal knowledge is neither subjective nor objective, but instead occupies a category of its own. However, is that truly the case?

One thing which we can see from Polanyi's book is his progressive reasoning from the psychological processes involved in articulation, knowing and persuasion. The primary thrust of Polanyi's philosophy therefore is an argument from the psychological and physical processes involved in knowing, knowledge acquisition and communication/ persuasion. It is in this light that we can come to know what Polanyi means by "personal knowledge."

According to Polanyi, knowing is neither subjective nor objective, but personal. As proof, Polanyi states that it is not subjective because the knowing process submits to "requirements acknowledged by itself as independent of itself." The question we have to ask therefore is: Why does the presence of this psychologizing necessarily make it not subjective? Certainly, it is a problem for the justification of persuasion, but an expressivist (one anti-realist counterpart to subjectivism) view of knowledge and morality can easily explain the psychological process involved. Someone can think that there is a standard independent of himself without there actually being a real standard independent of itself.

Polanyi's argument therefore on it not being subjective therefore is not valid. But we do agree that an expressivist view is not viable either because it does not properly account for the act of persuasion (the Moral Problem).

Next, we would look at Polanyi's denial of it being objective in nature. According to Polanyi, it is not objective because it is "guided by individual passions." Here, we can see clearly the main error in Polanyi's thought on personal knowledge. What exactly is objectivity? Objectivity refers to the value of something being true regardless of persons. In other words, objectivity has respect to the thing believed, not the person believing it. The only way for Polanyi to think that guidance of individual passions necessitates the denial of the objectivity of things believed is to postulate an anti-realist ontology whereby things are not truly real. In this scheme, everything is real only to the extent it is personally appropriated.

We can see therefore that the denial of the objective-subjective dichotomy is predicated on the denial of ontologically objective reality — the denial that there is anything outside of the knower; extra nos. For if we admit of ontological objective reality, then Polanyi's system will collapse into anti-absolutist objectivist epistemology, as psychology given an ontologically real word is merely descriptive not explanatory.

The Christian however must admit that there is something outside of us, namely God. God is the one who determines the world (ontology) and determines meaning (epistemology). Since God is extra nos, there is objective reality in the world that does not depend on us perceiving it to be so. And objective reality implies that our knowledge is similarly objective, with psychology being merely descriptive never explanatory. Our "personal knowing" do not determine the world and its meaning. Instead, God is the one who determines meaning and He reveals that to us. Articulation, knowledge and knowledge acquisition, and persuasion are done (however imperfectly) because truth is real and objective, based upon the standards of God revealed to us.

Therefore, we who are Christians are to reject Polanyi's idea of personal knowledge as being anthropocentric, of committing the "is-ought" fallacy (by turning psychology from being descriptive to explanatory) and of seriously begging the question (assuming empiricism and then use inductive arguments which are always fallacious). Polanyi's philosophy is therefore logically fallacious and unbiblical, and Christians therefore ought to avoid it.

See also:

Book Review of Esther Meek's Longing to Know here.