Polanyi on Knowledge

And if this is what knowledge is, then of course all knowledge is propositional. It can easily be put into words and sentences. It’s explicit.

Michael Polanyi: Epistemological Therapist for a Secular Age. Polanyi here states a position he rejects; he does not believe that all, or even most, knowledge is propositional.

“Propositional truth” — insistence that God’s truth was adequately communicable in words and sentences — was, I’m almost positive, an obsession of the late Francis Schaeffer, mentor to intellectualoid evangelical kids (including me) in the late 60s and throughout the 70s.

It was an obsession in the wrong way, if Polanyi is right. Everything I’ve come to know in the last two decades tells me that Schaeffer was wrong about this, Polanyi right, and that Schaeffer’s wrongness manifested his fundamentalist roots (though his self-presentation was much softer and cerebral than any other fundamentalist I can think of).

I’ve read an awful lot about Polanyi over the years, and I intend to hit some primary sources soon. Meanwhile, from the source cited above:

Let me gesture towards some possible areas where Polanyi might have something to say. Perhaps these areas can serve as catalysts for discussion.

A. Religion in the Public Square
[I]f Polanyi is right, then the idea of a neutral, unbiased, objective, a-religioius public square needs to be discarded.

If all knowledge is on the same epistemic footing, then should we be accrediting moral and spiritual knowledge in the public square?

If you prioritize a certain type of knowledge in a society (i.e., scientific knowledge), then you arguably end up privileging certain cultures and people with training who speak those ways.

Is this vision for knowledge necessary for any truly democratic public square?

B. Apologetics and the Imagination
Modern evidentialist apologetics attempts to prove with certainty such propositions as, “God exists,” or “Jesus was raised from the dead,” or “The Bible is infallible.”

Lesslie Newbigin writes, “The assumption often underlying [modern apologetics] is that the gospel can be made acceptable by showing that it does not contravene the requirements of reason…This is a mistaken policy…To look outside the gospel for a starting point for the demonstration of the reasonableness of the gospel is itself a contradiction of the gospel, for it implies that we look for the logos elsewhere than in Jesus.”

Perhaps what apologetics needs is an appeal to the imagination. Beauty through art, story, and practices. Art is usually seen as an extra or superfluous thing. But if Polanyi is right, then the arts are about a type of knowledge in the same way that chemistry is.

This gets at Charles Taylor’s notion of the “social imaginary.” Apologetics should work toward the conversion of the social imaginary.

C. Liturgy
Polanyi himself pointed to the possible role of liturgy to Christian belief and knowledge.

He writes that Christian liturgies serve as “frameworks of clues which are apt to induce a passionate search for God.”

I suggest that we think of the liturgy in Polanyi’s “from-to” structure of knowledge: subsidiary-focal integration. Can we discern clues and patterns in our liturgies (scripture readings, creedal confessions, sermons, hymns, corporate prayers, the Eucharist) and can these be indwelt by the skillful practitioner in order to see their meaning?

Perhaps we can reason from the liturgy to an intimate knowledge of God Himself.

D. Scripture and Tradition
What about the Scripture vs. tradition debate?

If we get rid of the two thousand years of church tradition with a (naive) desire to interpret Scripture apart from how the tradition (i.e., Creeds and “masters of the craft”) has in the past, what you will end up with is not the cold hard facts of what St. Paul really said–as the historical-critical method would have you believe. Rather, much like an unlearned and unskilled apprentice in a workshop, you will most likely put yourself and those around you in danger somehow.

After all, Scripture refers to itself as a sword. And swordsmanship is certainly a skill that requires practice and submission to a master swordsmanship.

Polanyi might suggest to us that there is no divide between Scripture and tradition if we understand it rightly. It is within Scripture that we come before the face of God. And it is there that we find that the face Scripture reveals is Christ’s. In order to attend to the deeper meaning of Scripture, which is Christ, we indwell them by the “tool” of the church’s great tradition. We submit to tradition and let it teach us how to read the Bible.

Michael Polanyi: Epistemological Therapist for a Secular Age (italics added).


“Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.”

The Word of the LORD came unto me, saying:
O miserable cities of designing men,
O wretched generation of enlightened men,
Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities,
Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions:
I have given you hands which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver,
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions,
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments,
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust.
I have given you power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.
Many are engaged in writing books and printing them,
Many desire to see their names in print,
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of GOD,
Much is your building, but not the House of GOD.
Will you build me a house of plaster, with corrugated roofing,
To be filled with a litter of Sunday newspapers?

When the Stranger says: ” What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? ” We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or ” This is a community”?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

It is hard for those who have never known persecution,
And who have never known a Christian,
To believe these tales of Christian persecution.
It is hard for those who live near a Bank
To doubt the security of their money.
It is hard for those who live near a Police Station
To believe in the triumph of violence.
Do you think that the Faith has conquered the World
And that lions no longer need keepers?
Do you need to be told that whatever has been, can still be?
Do you need to be told that even such modest attainments
As you can boast in the way of polite society
Will hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance?

(T.S. Eliot, Choruses From ‘The Rock’)


From 1906 to 1910 he was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament for Salford South. During one campaign speech he was asked by a heckler if he was a “papist.” Retrieving his rosary from his pocket he responded, “Sir, so far as possible I hear Mass each day and I go to my knees and tell these beads each night. If that offends you, then I pray God may spare me the indignity of representing you in Parliament.” The crowd cheered and Belloc won the election.

Hilaire Belloc – Wikipedia

Compare Ben Sasse, Message to Nebraska GOP State Central Committee. Sasse is a guy who can speak the truth because — unlike most of his colleagues — he has no apparent ego-need to be a U.S. Senator.


Conservatives Sit Down For A Relaxing Evening Of Being Insulted By Every Major Corporation In America | The Babylon Bee

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