The Responsibility of Freedom

For Michael Polanyi, the “study of man” requires an “ultimate commitment” (98). History, morality, religion—each of these anthropological studies is predicated on this commitment, on a responsible act of “recognizing,” “judging,” and “deciding” (95, 96). Where many would relegate such personal involvement solely to the domain of the human sciences, however, Polanyi argues that the personal cannot be excluded from the pure or natural sciences either. Indeed, all knowledge, all discovery, regardless of domain, depends on personal commitment. In The Study of Man (1958), then, precursor to The Tacit Dimension (1966) discussed previously in this course, we see Polanyi wrestling with many of the same ideas, but here, contrary to the speculative bent of The Tacit Dimension, Polanyi does so in order to mount a defense of the human and the human sciences. The study of man is of vital importance because man cannot be reduced to the workings of biology, chemistry, or physics. There is no simple equation for humanity—attempts at such tend toward one of three fallacies: rationalism, relativism, or determinism (88). In each, man is reduced, made an object to himself. But in Polanyi’s thought, man can never be rendered less than what he is, can never be totally determined by external forces: human subjectivity is always entangled with the objective world, a real force possessed of agency and responsibility. Certainly, human physiology obeys objective laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, but humanity is more than physiology, in a way that can be described simply here as freedom.

Before Polanyi can articulate his understanding of human agency, responsibility, and freedom, he sets about a recuperation of understanding itself as an intentional and meaningful personal action (22). So long as natural science persists in the illusion of its objectivity, the human “sciences” will never be able to claim scientific validity. As seen in his later series of lectures, The Tacit Dimension, tacit knowledge is, for Polanyi, “the dominant principle of all knowledge” (13). As soon as one “reflects on his own knowledge he catches himself red-handed in the act of upholding his knowledge” (12). In “asserting” and “believing in” what Polanyi refers to as “explicit knowledge” (12), one “know[s] tacitly” that one’s explicit knowledge is true (12). Whether an algebraic equation, a chemical formula, or your best friend’s name, what we know explicitly we accept tacitly. One need not prove the validity of the quadratic formula, or observe the structure of a water molecule, or ask your friend to confirm his name, every time, in order to say that one knows what one knows. Once accepted, we continue to believe that the knowledge we have accepted is true, until proven otherwise. What is more, when we encounter the otherwise, our capacity for knowing is not entirely undermined. Rather, we see that we must revise our explicit knowledge to account for a new case, be it a variation on or an outright contradiction of what we knew before. This is the human capacity for thought, for “critical reflection” (17). As our “[i]narticulate intelligence ... grope[s] its way by plunging from one view of things into another” (16-17), our reflective intelligence works to integrate explicit findings into the tacit background of what we already know. But the reflective is always secondary to the tacit. If all knowledge were explicit, then we could have no intimation of an outside waiting to be discovered. The tacit, therefore, enables both belief in what we know, and the capacity to acquire new knowledge.

If the tacit plays such a central role in our knowledge, then, even the natural sciences cannot escape the intention and meaning of understanding. We believe that the quadratic formula is the correct way to solve a given quadratic equation, and so we intentionally apply it in order to produce a meaningful result. If the answer we find proves incorrect, we do not immediately wonder if the formula is untrue, but consider instead how our application of it must have been in error. We tacitly accept the proof of the quadratic equation, and attempt to locate the error in our use. We could extend our argument to chemical formulas or to the names of our friends as well, but it will suffice here to say that our knowledge depends on a committed understanding, and that, as such, our thought is a performance of belief (25) in the identity between our senses and reality. It is only through the “personal coefficient” that our “explicit statements” have any “meaning and conviction” (26). If we do not believe that our senses can accurately perceive reality (as we might if we are seduced by Cartesian doubt), then we cannot say anything of what we know with any measure of certainty. Since Descartes, the natural sciences have struggled to expunge this spectre of doubt from their practice, resulting only in a willful blindness to the “manifestly personal” aspect of all intellectual inquiry (27). We must, with Polanyi, acknowledge that our minds can truly “make contact with reality,” that the “intellectual passion which impels us toward this contact” is neither misguided nor deceptive, and that our “personal judgment” is sufficient to the task of grasping the “full measure of truth that lies within the scope of our particular calling” (27). To doubt is only human, but to refuse the personal, human element of understanding for fear of doubt is to make knowledge an impossibility.

It is in personal understanding that Polanyi locates a “person’s calling” (36). To “accept personal knowledge as valid” is to accept the “claim to universal validity” of a “hidden reality” as “justified” (36). This hidden reality, tacitly apprehended, presents a “particular opportunity” for comprehension by the one who apprehended it. This opportunity “is then regarded as the person’s calling—the calling which determines his responsibilities” (36). Insofar as a particular field of knowledge “presents us with a vast intellectual structure” (38), the tacitly apprehended otherwise, the hidden reality, is meaningful to us as “a dwelling place of understanding” (38). We indwell what we seek to understand, relating to it as a whole instead of atomizing it into a set of discrete objects. This is not a denial of constitutive particulars, but an acknowledgment and acceptance of them as a comprehensive unity. At every level of knowledge, from pure mathematics to biology to music to culture, the personal commitment of understanding is both valid and necessary. We need not be hampered by doubt or objectivism in our inquiries, but, in recognizing our constant involvement in that which we seek to know, be able to apply our personal understanding to “all human experience” (41). And because every assertion of truth “makes an addition to the world” (12), we can say, with Polanyi, that it is our calling, our responsibility and obligation (41), to understand and know the corner of reality which we find ourselves in. Calling is not a mystical vocation, but an emergent activity of the human creature, an outgrowth of the physiological will to live and the sentient will to satiety (56) that is possessed of its own, higher order logic, which we might refer to as the will to truth, to the discovery of a beautiful comprehension in reality (37).

In our appreciation and passion for truth, for beautiful comprehension, there is a purpose that exceeds our sentient or physiological interest. In pursuing truth we often forgo those drives and desires that would divert us from our path, “staking our lower interests” so as to “bear witness effectively to our higher purposes” (67). And in this, in “sacrifice” (86), humans demonstrate their value over and above that of the lower creatures, a value that is constitutive of the “spiritual foundation of freedom” (86). We always act from our “intellectual structure” (38), our context, but we are not entirely constrained by it. Through our tacit knowledge we can attend to an otherwise and elsewhere that our structures cannot account for, and through critical reflection we can integrate the knowledge of our encounter with this unknown into the storehouse of tacit knowledge that we already possess. We see, then, contrary to the three fallacies referred to above, that the responsible thinker is he who acknowledges the truth of man’s freedom, the beautiful comprehension of free action that we encounter in the presence of the other.

Polanyi’s claim is a bold one. We are more than the physico-chemical arrangement of atoms and molecules, more than the physiological structure of our bodies, more than the sentient drives of need and desire. We are not determined. We are free. And in this freedom we must acknowledge the excess of potential that is open to us, accepting the “supreme trust [that] is placed in us by the whole creation” (69). This is why Polanyi claims that it is “sacrilege then even to contemplate actions which may lead to the extinction of humanity” (69). In the human capacity for choice, for invention, for discovery, there is an excess that transcends the material domain, an immanence within the quantum field of the observer through whom the field itself is determined. And in this we not only see our responsibility to knowledge and understanding, but more so, we see our responsibility to each other. In the human we encounter that which we cannot reduce to objectivity, that which, in our indwelling, opens to us an infinity, a world of possibility, a trove of meaning. This is the “ultimate commitment” that the study of man presents us with. This is the responsibility of freedom.

Works Cited

Polanyi, Michael. The Study of Man. The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Previous Post Next Post

« The Practice of Love Three Figures »