International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy

by Michael Polanyi

Introductory Essay by Makarand Paranjape

At some point or another in any contemporary intellectual journey one encounters a book like this 1958 Michael Polanyi classic—and that encounter is likely to be memorable, almost an epiphany. If one characteristic of a classic is that it’s appeal does not diminish over generations, then Personal Knowledge surely deserves such a title. Before Derrida, Foucault, and other post-structuralists, Polanyi, a chemist by training but a philosopher by vocation, was already destabilizing the positivist claims of natural science, not so much from the side of philosophy or the humanities, but from that of the sciences themselves.

Simply speaking, Polanyi argued that we get terribly involved in the whole business of knowing. Normally, we imagine we get involved personally only when we fall in love or seriously dislike someone while, when it comes to knowing, we need to be very detached and “objective.” In his short preface, Polanyi sums up his counterargument: “acts of comprehension” cannot happen in any fixed framework which is unaltered by the very process of knowing. That is why “personal participation” of the knower in all such acts of knowing and understanding is inevitable. This, however, does not render such knowledge subjective. It is, according to Polanyi, objective to the extent that it is a “responsible act claiming universal validity” rather than an arbitrary or casual set of unexamined conclusions.  It, moreover, establishes “contact with a hidden reality” in order to anticipate “true implications.” To this fusion of the “personal and objective” Polanyi gives the name ‘Personal Knowledge.’ He claims that “into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known.” What is more, this personal commitment, far from being the source of imperfect cognition is actually a “vital component of his knowledge” [vii].

The book began as a series of Gifford Lectures delivered in 1951-1952 at the University of Aberdeen, where Polanyi was invited from his position as Chair of Physical Chemistry at the Manchester University. The latter gave him the freedom, without depriving him of his position, to assume a professorial appointment without lecturing duties, thus freeing his mind for greater things – being a thinker, a philosopher of science, and an intellectual in the truest sense of the term, in the best tradition of Western thought.

The Cold War had already begun when Polanyi delivered his lectures. Soon, his work became part of the gradually-evolving bulwark of the free world. No wonder. Tucked away in this maze of reflections is a masterly chapter called “The Magic of Marxism,” which should be mandatory reading even today. It forms part of a series of critiques that Polanyi directs against the pseudo-scientific claims of totalitarian ideologies like dialectical materialism. Explaining the psychological appeal of propagandistic Marxism, Polanyi analyses what he calls “the moral force of immorality” [241]. The self-contradiction at the heart of this ideology that gives it an almost limitless if “paradoxical” appeal is “a prophetic idealism spurning all reference to ideals” [242]. What ordinary people might consider “moral,” including freedom, right to life and property, due process, and so on is spurned in the name of “ruthless objectivity” such as only a true science could justify. Bourgeois ideas can be set aside easily – damned as mere emotionalism standing in the way of the higher moral purpose of a classless and utopian society sanctioned by an infallible scientific doctrine.

Ultimately, Polanyi argues, modern totalitarianism is a “fanatical cult of power” whose “deliberate unscrupulousness” is combined with the “moral appeal” of its “declared resolve to act unscrupulously” [245]. When we see how certain ideologies supporting terrorism operate today, we cannot but experience a sense of déjà vu. The “moral appeal of immorality” is a recurrent feature, a part of civilization as we know it and its discontents.

A book of this nature, replete with many similar nuggets, does not demand to be read chronologically, from start to finish. If one chooses, instead, to dip into it almost at any page, expecting some startling insight or striking idea to leap out, one will generally not be disappointed.