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Personal Knowledge

1951 to 1952
University of Aberdeen

Personal Knowledge is primarily a treatise on the nature and justification of scientific knowledge. Polanyi sees such knowledge as inescapably involving the epistemic standpoint of the investigator. In making his case, he first modifies the concept of knowing to avoid presenting his ‘personal knowledge’ as a form of contradiction, because knowledge as traditionally conceived is so, objectively and independent of any personal aspect. The modification gains some momentum from the findings of Gestalt psychology, making knowledge ‘an active comprehension of things known’, involving skill. The personal participation of the knower involved in all acts of understanding does not make our understandings subjective, because comprehension is not an arbitrary act. Personal knowledge is objective insofar as it establishes contact with the hidden reality determined as a ‘condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications’ (p. viii). To count as knowledge, it must be possible for the affirmations to be false. Thus, personal knowledge is an intellectual commitment, however hazardous.

Part I is concerned with some fundamentals regarding the human ability to know. In chapter 1, Polanyi reflects upon the notion of objectivity. He begins with the Copernican revolution and its ‘true lesson’, looking at the implications of positivism, Einstein’s theories of relativity, and objectivity as it plays out in modern physics. By identifying what makes a theory excellent, Polanyi identifies the intellectual powers and enthusiasms that constitute personal knowledge. Chapter 2 deals with probability, assessing grades of confident assertion as emerging from unambiguous statements, probability statements and maxims. Polanyi wants to show how science teaches us to decide when to judge that an event has occurred accidentally. Chapter 3 deals with the topic of order, examining randomness and significant pattern and the application of crystallography to experience to show why theory teaches certain things. An examination of the powers (i.e., skills) of personal knowing in chapter 4 concludes Part I and its considerations on the ‘Art of Knowing’. Ultimately, personal knowledge is analysed as an intellectual commitment in the form of responsible decision based upon approval of our own skill.

Part II takes up issues on the tacit component in personal knowledge (our tacit intellectual powers). Chapter 5 is concerned with articulation, tracing the relation between inarticulate and articulate intelligence through a treatise on thought and speech, logical operations and problem solving and some operational principles of language. Polanyi sees articulation disciplining and expanding the reasoning powers of man in much the same way in which mathematicians work toward discovery. Chapter 6 investigates the role of intellectual passions—examining scientific value, heuristic passion, elegance, the abstract arts and mathematics, and moves toward giving an account of what a valid articulate framework may be. Validation and verification are acknowledgement of personal commitment regardless of the articulate systems that constitute a variety of mental dwelling places. Part II concludes with a discussion of the need for the convivial support of society in the sustenance of the intellectual passions which drive the articulate systems they survive in. Topics include: moral rules, cultural institutions, the transmission of social lore, individual and civic culture, power politics, Marxism, forms of moral inversion and post-Marxian liberalism.

Part III is concerned with the justification of personal knowledge and attempts to find a stable framework for it. Chapter 8 looks into the logic of affirmation, discussing our confident uses of language, the role and function of inference, some considerations surrounding neurology and psychology and the function of criticism. Through the discussion, Polanyi hopes to restore our power for the deliberate holding of unproven beliefs. In chapter 9, he aims to strengthen his defence through an examination of the notion of doubt—his treatise investigates reasonable and unreasonable doubt, scepticism as it happens in natural science, doubt as a heuristic principle, religious doubt and the stability of beliefs and belief systems, before concluding with some reflections on universal doubt. Polanyi sees fanaticism as being strengthened by (rather than shaken by) universal doubt. Part III concludes with a discussion of commitment, finding ultimately that ‘[c]ommitment offers to those who accept it legitimate grounds for the affirmation of personal convictions with universal intent’ (p. 324).

In Part IV, Polanyi outlines metaphysical views about living beings that follow from his commitment to personal knowledge. Chapter 11 investigates ‘the logic of achievement’—discussing our rules for rightness, causes and reasons, logic and psychology, animal originality and assessing the logical level of animal behaviour. Chapter 12 demonstrates how our knowledge of an animal’s biological achievements rests on our comprehension, which deepens as we evolve. Polanyi discusses morphogensis, the machinery of a living organism, the biological development of our knowledge of learning, induction, human knowledge and the implications of acceptance of ascription of superior knowledge. Finally, chapter 13 concludes the entire series with a reflection on ‘the rise of man’. Polanyi asks, ‘is evolution an achievement?’ and examines randomness as an example of emergence, the logic of emergence and the emergence of machine-like operations. He ends with a brief discussion of first causes and ultimate ends. There comes a point where appraisal of biological achievement submits to the leadership of superior minds, the past is shaped by our ultimate beliefs and the appearance of the human mind is revealed as the ultimate stage in the ‘awakening’ of the world.

Jon Cameron
University of Aberdeen