Personal Knowledge (Michael Polanyi)

Polanyi, Michael.  Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago, reprint 1974.

Despite the extreme difficulty of both the subject matter and the text itself, Polanyi’s argument is relatively simple: the knower is more akin to a detective looking for patterns than traditional epistemological models allow for. Earlier models saw knowledge as instrumental, and the closer one got to lab instruments, the better the knowledge.  With Einstein we see a beginning attack on this type of thinking.  His 1905 essays “discovered rationality in nature, unaided by observation” (Polanyi 11).

You Know More than You Can Say

The scientist, or any knower, observes “a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them” (49).  There are rules to an art, but they do not always determine how you practice that art.  Polanyi gives the example of practicing a piano.  On one hand, a certain sequence of keys have to be hit, but they also have to be hit in a certain way, or “touch.”  The element of “touch” remains surprisingly resistant to analysis.

This type of learning is tradition, or that of a master/apprentice relationship. The apprentice watches the master and imitates him.  In doing so, he not only learns the technical process of the craft, but he also picks up the rules of the art which aren’t always known to the master himself (53).

Focal Awareness vs. Subsidiary Awareness

I hit a hammer with a nail. In doing so, I attend to both the hammer and the nail, but not in the same way. My focal awareness is on driving the nail.  My subsidiary awareness is on the feeling the hammer has on my hand.  I am “watch[ing] something else while keeping intensely aware of [it]” (55).

Polanyi concludes this chapter noting that “personal knowledge in science is not made but discovered, and as such it claims contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies. It commits us, passionately and far beyond our comprehension, to a vision of reality” (64).  This is what Thomas Torrance calls “kataphysic knowledge.” It is where we submit as knower to the object known, which then impresses itself into our mode of knowing.

When we discover patterns in learning, the process is irreversible.  You can never “unsee” a completed puzzle.  The child at early ages learns by basic operational rules.  Over time and use, these rules form a system of logic.  This system of logic does not give any new information.  It is akin to “mere manipulation of symbols” (83).  When confronted with a completely new opportunity for knowledge, the mind must make a “proleptic jump” from the known to the unknown.

Subsidiary knowledge is instrumental knowledge.  “It is not known in itself but is known in terms of something focally known” (88). In the quest for knowledge, one cannot always say how the subsidiary facts fit together.

“The origin of this intellectual striving…both shapes our understanding and assents to its being true.” It is “an active principle” (96).

“Education is latent knowledge, of which we are aware subsidarily in our sense of intellectual power based on this knowledge” (103).

Polanyi’s project consists in reminding us that we rely on verbal clues in the quest for knowledge.  Knowledge is not merely justified, true belief, but also “aha!”  It is almost a gamble.  Polanyi writes, “We take a plunge only in order to gain a firmer foothold” (106). We are moved by “a desire for greater clarity and coherence.”

Back to the Search

Polanyi points out three “strata of intensions:”

(1)   Readily specifiable properties of a class of things.

(2)   The known but not readily specifiable.

(3)   Indeterminate range of anticipations.

In other words, “In order to analyse the use of a descriptive term we must use it for the purpose of contemplating its subject matter” (116).  We move from analysis to use to proleptic jump. It is almost a paradox.  One cannot discover a new thing by merely following the accepted rules.  There remains a “logical gap” between the rules of the experiment and the discovery (123). Illumination bridges the gap.  This logical leap is a heuristic act which requires the rules to be sometimes vague and that interpretation be an art.

Focus awareness  {conception of solution} = Look at known data as clues to the unknown

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Polanyi: “We look at the known data, but not in themselves, rather as clues to the unknown; as pointers to it and parts of it” (127-128).  The act of knowledge has a certain “feel to it.”

“The application of existing rules can produce valuable surveys, but does not advance the principles of science.  We have to cross the logical gap between a problem and its solution by relying on the unspecifiable impulse of our intellectual personality” (143).

“As observers or manipulators of experience we are guided by experience and pass through experience without experiencing it in itself” (197).

As Polanyi hints on his last page, and as Thomas Torrance said in all of his literature, the closet analogue to this type of knowing is worship and theology.


We should stand in awe of Polanyi’s breakthrough. One wonders, however, if he would have been as important if Thomas Torrance had not promoted his project. In Torrance’s hands Polanyi’s work, especially when incorporated into theological epistemology and the Trinity, is exhilarating. This book, however, is not. Before reading this book, one should spend some time with Esther Lightcap Meek‘s works on epistemology.


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