Personal knowledge and the worldview of Personalism

Michael Polanyi was an internationally regarded Professor of Physical Chemistry at Manchester University when he was selected to deliver the 1951-52 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen.

I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment. In the exact sciences this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists. But we shall see that it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science. – published as Personal Knowledge, U. Chicago, 1957, vii

The Manchester academic Senate and Council judged the invitation and resulting lectures important enough to allow Dr. Polanyi to exchange his Chair of Physical Chemistry for a Professorial appointment without lecturing duties; an arrangement lasting 9 years, which enabled him to both prepare the lectures and write the ensuing book

“The personal participation of the knower in all acts of understanding does not make our understanding subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowing is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality; a contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge.”

I’ve owned Polanyi’s books for years, and read a good deal of his writing years ago. I was glad to get back to it this week after a fresh jolt of inspiration from the blog of Swedish philosopher Jan Olof Bengtsson, who has been posting his notes on American philosopher and Personalist Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) – material not included in Bengtsson’s 2006 book, The Worldview of Personalism: origins and early development.

B. P. Bowne is another old interest of mine, and I own old used copies of nearly all of his books. Thanks to Jan Olof, I am currently re-reading Personalism (1908), containing the substance of the 1907 Harris Lectures at Northwestern University, Chicago.

From Bowne’s 1908 preface: “The aim of these lectures is to show that critical reflection brings us back again to the personal metaphysics which Comte rejected. We agree with him that abstract and impersonal metaphysics is a mirage of formal ideas, and even largely of words which begin, continue, and end in abstraction and confusion. … Causal explanation must always be in terms of personality, or it must vanish altogether.”

It was Bowne’s contention that the only formal setting of experience able to give a concrete knowledge of causation (after Hume’s destructive analysis) is derived from our personal experience as agents of stasis and change. Thus all knowledge of effects requires the primacy of what I would call the Form of the Personal.

Back to Polanyi: “Into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this coefficient is no mere imperfection but a vital component of his knowledge. And around this central fact I have tried to construct a system of correlative beliefs which I can sincerely hold, and to which I can see no acceptable alternatives.”

I think these two personalists would characterize today’s materialist schools in psychology and the humanities as monuments to intellectual cowardice; a surrender of moral insight and creative power to the human need for authority conceived as objective and detached – but not at all proper to the advance of knowledge in those particular fields.

Bowne: “Some harmless-looking doctrine is put forth in epistemology, and soon there is an agnostic chill in the air that is fatal to the highest spiritual faiths of the soul.”

Polanyi: “Personal Knowledge is an intellectual commitment, and as such inherently hazardous. Only affirmations that could be false can be said to convey objective knowledge of this kind.”

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