Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge

by John Barnes

(This essay was published as chapter 4 of The Third Culture: Participatory Science as the Basis of a Healing Culture, Adonis Press, 2009It was first first published in the author’s essay in Nature’s Open Secret, Introductions to Goethe’s Scientific Writings, Anthroposophic Press, 2000.) 

We now see that not only do the scientific and the humanistic both involve personal participation; we see that both also involve an active use of the imagination.             

                                                                      – Michael Polanyi, Meaning

IN 1958, two years after Snow publishedThe Two Cultures, Michael Polanyi completed his major work, Personal Knowledge. The culmination of his investigation of the ideal of scientific objectivism, it contained a careful, detailed presentation of what he had been long developing as a new understanding of human knowledge.

Polanyi combined the down-to-earth, sober clarity of the physical scientist with a passionate love of nature and humanity. As few others of his time, Polanyi saw how reductionist science undermined the foundations of human culture, and he set out to break the powerful spell of a worldview that seemed to him not only to reject our deepest convictions but to fly in the face of actual scientific experience.

Personal Knowledge requires a great deal of inner activity to read but, when truly read, it is immensely rewarding. Through it, we participate in an original, deeply perceptive thinking that penetrates to the fundamental principles of scientific inquiry. In fact, the reading of Polanyi’s work calls upon and exercises the very kind of thinking that we need to overcome the crisis of objectivism.

Objectivism rests upon the assumption of Baconian empiricism that all objective knowledge comes from outside – through the senses, or better, through the measurements of objective scientific instruments. It is based on the conviction that nothing from within, from the subjective side, mathematics excepted, may enter into the process of objective, scientific knowing. Thus, as Polanyi writes, “scientific theory is merely a convenient summary of experience ... it is the most economical adaptation of thought to facts, and just as external to the facts as a map, a timetable, or a telephone directory.”24

Polanyi’s own experience as a scientist, however, strongly contradicted these assumptions, and he soon realized that they were also refuted by the findings of Gestalt psychology.25

Most of us have had experiences like the following. As a guest sleeping in an unfamiliar room, we awaken to find our gaze resting upon something that we cannot make out. Various shades of light and dark, perhaps also blotches of color, appear in our field of vision. We are confused, unable to establish any meaningful structure in this apparition. Yet our attention is held in an animated, dreamlike state of limbo as if peeking for the first time into an unknown universe. Finally we sit up in bed and look about. Having oriented ourselves in the room, we may discover that our eyes had opened on a section of window casement and curtain upon which the morning sun was playing. What we had been unable to comprehend in isolation now appears as meaningful three-dimensional form in the conceptual context of a greater whole. Movie makers, who consciously control our sense perceptions, like to begin a scene with audible and visual apparitions of this kind, holding us spellbound until an illuminating concept brings order and meaning into what had been pure, incoherent perception.

Gestalt psychology has confirmed what these experiences reveal, namely, that the world initially appears to our senses as pure apparition, gaining coherence and meaning only through what we bring to it in the way of concepts. What is given to our sense of sight is nothing more than a juxtaposition of color, dark and light, a flatland lacking in three-dimensional depth, without any indication of objects or their spatial interrelatedness. The discoveries of Gestalt psychology have also been confirmed by the experience of people who were born blind or who became blind in early childhood and whose physical ability to see was restored many years later through an operation. Only after the most arduous struggle, if at all, were such people able to integrate the elements of the visual tapestry that they perceived into recognizable objects.

Thus, what we naively take to be the outer reality simply given to our senses already contains the thought content and structure with which we grasp it in the act of recognition. The window casement and curtain that we “see” include not only our sense perceptions but the concepts that we bring to them and through which they gain their coherent Gestalt, or form.

Our senses analyze the world into all manner of unconnected sense perceptions. Our ears hear cascades of sounds; our eyes see kaleidoscopes of colors. By connecting them with their conceptual counterparts, our thinking actively integrates them into meaningful wholes. The reality of the window casement is grasped as the unity of its perceptual and conceptual content. Object recognition synthesizes the manifold elements that come from without through our senses andthe unifying concepts that come from within through our thinking. The more thoroughly we penetrate our sense experience with our thinking, the closer we come to the full reality of what we are perceiving. Reality, then, is not given to us but can rather be attained only through what we bring to our sense perceptions through our own cognitive activity.

In this sense, the world presents itself to us as an enigma, as an open secret that only we can solve. Let us look for a moment at a riddle such as children love:

       Many crooked miles it goes

       Within the smallest space.

       The farther it travels, the shorter it grows,

       But you can always find its trace.

        The wisest men can lead it well

        Along its path so narrow

        And silently great secrets tell

       To those able to follow.

 A riddle presents us with clues, with mysterious and seemingly unrelated particulars. We ourselves have to find what it is that brings coherence to them all. This can be an arduous search of which our intellect, impatient for an answer, can quickly tire. The process of solving a riddle is, in a sense, similar to that of object recognition, which, as Polanyi points out, is akin to scientific discovery. It requires “laborious efforts of the imagination;” the solution, however, comes as a spontaneous and effortless “concluding intuition.”26 Such an integration of particulars into a meaningful whole involves a “sensory quality,” a seeing, “which is intentional throughout and as such, can be carried out only by a conscious act of the mind.” Whereas logical, operational thinking can be carried out by a computer, “such integration cannot be replaced by any explicit mechanical procedure… it can only be lived, can only be dwelt in.”27 

Once we have found the solution to the riddle, everything falls into place. What we first saw only from the outside, so to speak, we can now experience as it were from within, as a unified and meaningful whole. This we have achieved by adding something that was not given but that is nevertheless the essential element without which the riddle remains foreign and confusing. Solving a riddle, like solving any problem, requires effort but affords the deepest satisfaction. Children take great joy in the experience of being on the “inside” of the riddle. For those who are “in on the secret,” it is obvious. They delight in the clumsy efforts of those who remain on the “outside” and simply don’t get it.

This secret, the essential element that we bring to our experience, the golden thread that holds it all together and illuminates it, is what Polanyi calls “personal knowledge.” It is personal in that it comes from within as a result of our own effort and not from outer experience. It is personal in that, like a secret, it is a hidden knowledge that nevertheless is the key to outer events. In spite of its personal nature, however, it is not anything subjective that we ourselves make up and project into our sense experience. Polanyi observes that “personal knowledge in science is not made but discoveredand as such it claims to establish contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies.”28  “Such knowing is indeed objectivein the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality.”29

Polanyi points out that our discovery of a unifying concept changes our perception of the outer particulars to which it pertains. This change is instantaneous and irreversible. Before we hit upon the solution to a riddle, we see its clues as isolated pictures that have no apparent bearing upon one another. Then, in a flash, what was incongruous becomes a unified Gestalt of transparent clarity. By recognizing the window casement as a coherent whole, for example, our perception of its parts is irreversibly changed. Such conceptual integrations literally change our world view.

Polanyi distinguishes between two elements in this process: our focal awarenessof the whole and our subsidiary awarenessof its parts. When we view an object as a whole, its perceptual elements play a subordinate role; we are aware of them only as parts of the whole, not as things in themselves. The familiar figure below can clarify the distinction between focal and subsidiary awareness.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              


The famous Gestalt cube can be “seen” either from above and the right or from below and the left. Through our focal activity we connect the twelve subsidiary lines that make up the figure with our concept of a cube and “see” them as an integrated, three-dimensional whole. Because of the arrangement of the sense-perceptible lines on the page, we can focus on the cube either as it appears from the upper right, or as viewed from the lower left. As we shift (and this can take considerable effort!) from one perspective to the other, the lines, or subsidiaries, appear to jump forward or backward. How we perceive them is therefore clearly subordinate to our conceptual focus. Our ability to see the two-dimensional figure as a three-dimensional cube and the effort required to maintain our focus or to change our view at will demonstrate the formative or integrative activity of our focal awareness.

Thus a closer examination of the process of object recognition reveals the degree to which we actually participate in our perception of reality.

Naive empirical objectivism rests upon the mistaken assumption that reality presents itself to us from the outside only and that as knowers we must remain detached and play a passive role, merely recording what comes to us through our senses. When adhered to strictly, this objectivism precludes the possibility of any knowledge, for, as we have seen, what comes to us through our senses is, in itself, without coherence or meaning. In practice, objectivists do of course see objects as integrated wholes, but they do not realize that these wholes already contain an essential, constitutiveelement that is notto be found in their parts.

As a scientist with an intimate experience of the process of scientific discovery, Polanyi knew that significant discoveries did not in fact result from Bacon’s inductive method of subjecting nature to the experimental “vexations” of mechanical devices. The well-known anecdote of Galileo and the altar lamp, like that of Newton and the apple, demonstrates clearly how most scientific discoveries actually occur.

For generations the pious people of Pisa had seen the slow, swinging motion of the altar lamp that hung from the high ceiling of their cathedral. Galileo, however, watched it with fascination, sensing that this phenomenon harbored some hidden, tantalizingly tangible but as yet unconceived lawfulness. There was something inexorable about its motion. Galileo “saw” that its ponderous slowness was linked to the length of its chain. When the lamp swung in a wide arc, however, its speed was greater; as it gradually came to rest, its speed diminished with its arc. As he followed its slowly decreasing oscillations, he noted that its rhythm nevertheless kept time with his own heartbeat and breathing. Regardless of the speed and width of its sweep, the lamp seemed to swing with imperturbable regularity. Galileo was beginning to “see” more and more in the phenomenon. Like Archimedes in his bath, Galileo, at mass, must also have found it hard, in his excitement, to sit still.

Only after this initial engagement did Galileo begin to experiment. Later, his insight into the regular periodicity of the pendulum led to its application in clocks, greatly increasing their accuracy. But Galileo must have “seen” more in the pendulum’s swinging. Why did it swing? Was it not falling? And was not its fall arrested by the chain? And, in arresting its fall, did not the chain convert its downward motion into a rising one, so that at the end of its swing it could fall again? Did Galileo conceive of kinetic and potential energy? Did he entertain the thought that, if friction could be overcome, the dynamic motion of the pendulum would perpetuate itself? And how about the relationship between the length of the pendulum and the frequency of its oscillations?

Such examples led Polanyi to realize that the process of scientific discovery is similar to that of object recognition. Just as the perceptual elements of an object take on meaning in the conceptual context of the object as a whole, the motion of a pendulum becomes meaningful in the light of the laws that we grasp through our thinking. In both cognitive processes we can distinguish between given subsidiary elements of a perceptual, outer nature, and focal components of a conceptual nature that we must discover through our own activity. By comprehending outer phenomena as manifestations of an inner lawfulness, we come to see them as immanently meaningful, transparent expressions of this lawfulness. And the law, seen as that which expresses itself through the phenomena, is experienced concretely, not as an abstraction. Thus Polanyi’s distinction between focal awareness of the conceptual-lawful component of cognition and subsidiary awareness of its outer, perceptual elements leads to a holistic and living experience of scientific knowledge.

The pendulum had been observed for centuries. Galileo’s achievement lay not in the empirical discovery of a new phenomenon but in observing a familiar phenomenon in a new way, with a new interest in it as a manifestation of hidden principles.

The implications of Polanyi’s personal knowledge become more profound as we move from inorganic science to the study of organic nature.

Polanyi approaches the study of organic nature having established that all knowing involves “two levels of awareness: the lower one for the clues, the parts, or other subsidiary elements, and the higher one for the focally apprehended, comprehensive entity to which these elements point.”30  The lower level is given through sense perception; the higher is apprehended through our own cognitive activity.

Now Polanyi asserts that the “two levels of personal knowledge, that of a comprehensive entity and that of its particulars…represent two distinct levels of reality.” He observes “that there obtains between such levels a peculiar logical relationshipderived from the distinction between subsidiary and focal awareness.” This peculiar logical relationship consists in the fact that the higher level is the law, or organizational principlethat governs, or shapes the lower level. This provides Polanyi with a key to understanding organic nature. He continues:

"Once I have established this relationship for the example of two comparatively low levels of reality, I shall proceed to erect on top of these a         consecutively rising set of levels, right up to that of responsible human personhood. Within this framework it will appear possible for the human being to exercise a responsible choice, even though we admittedly remain rooted in lower forms of existence in which there is no room for such choices.”31

The “peculiar logical relationship” of which Polanyi speaks can be seen in the relationship between living organisms and inanimate nature. Plants assimilate and organize inorganic substances. As we shall see in connection with Goethe’s morphology, the generative principles of plant growth and metamorphosis comprise a higher lawfulness of their own that is irreducible to the laws of the inanimate world. Polanyi speaks of these organizational principles as “morphological,” or “vegetative,” principles, or as “morphogenetic fields.” Because they are subject to their own morphological principles, Polanyi writes, it is a “fact that biotic achievements cannot – logically cannot– be ever represented in terms of physics and chemistry.” 32   On the subsidiary level of organic life, he says, biochemical laws hold sway. However, they do so under boundary conditions set by higher formative principles. Thus, nowhere in an organism will we find the laws of chemistry violated; yet we find the chemical processes so finely sublimated and orchestrated that they become the vehicles for life processes, which are determined by principles of a higher order. A plant, then, is an expression of a higher level of reality as it manifests through its organization of inorganic substances.

Reductionists will protest that biochemistry is well on its way toward explaining organic growth and morphological development in chemical terms. Clearly, the structure of the genes and the interaction of various highly complex proteins involved in the differentiation of all growth are necessary conditions for morphological development. But what “informs” those substances to bring forth the metamorphosis of plants? How does one fertilized human egg cell evolve into the highly differentiated, yet harmonious structure of the human organism? What orchestrates the timing and incredibly complex three-dimensional sculpting of embryonic development? The more one participates with one’s thinking in these processes, and the more scientists learn about the complexity of the biochemical phenomena they are discovering, the more open one becomes to the thought that the dynamic structuring of an organism may be orchestrated by principles of a higher order. The more scientists learn about the functioning of the genome, the more complex it becomes.

"…it seems that a cell’s enzymes are capable of actively manipulating DNA to do this or that. A genome consists largely of semistable genetic elements that may be rearranged or even moved around in the genome, thus modifying the information content of DNA. Bits of DNA may be induced to share in the coding for different functional units in response to the organism’s environment. All this makes a gene’s demarcation largely dependent on the cell’s regulatory apparatus. Rather than ultimate factors, genes begin to look like hardly definable temporary products of a cell’s physiology."33

How might morphological principles orchestrate biochemical processes? The highly complex molecules involved in regulating the formation of the organism are far from the inert equilibrium of inorganic matter. Here, Ilya Prigogine writes, “the deterministic view of chemistry fails.”34 Such proteins are always close to an indeterminate state of chaos, which allows for chemically unpredictable developments. It is here that principles of a higher order can enter into the formation of the organism. The subtle but important difference between Polanyi’s view and that of systems theory or chaos theory is that the latter do not see biochemical processes as subsidiary to higher organizational principles but rather as self-organizing. They do not recognize the existence of higher levels of reality that manifest on the biochemical level.

At this point we inevitably encounter the question of vitalism. This question can be resolved only by realizing that what comes to us through our senses is only a part of the full reality. The living morphological principles that form a plant are hidden to our physical senses. We can come to know them only through the direct intuition gained by inner participation. Polanyi writes, “we may conclude that the insightsby which we recognize life in individual plants and animals… reveal a reality to which we have access by no other channels.”35  Life can only be apprehended focally, for it is itself a focal force that organizes its physical subsidiaries. Vitalism becomes untenable as soon as it claims life to be a physical field of force like magnetism. Recent research shows that morphological activity, as well as thinking activity in the brain, is accompanied by subtle electromagnetic phenomena.36  However, the laws of electromagnetism, like the laws of chemistry, can account neither for thinking nor for the formation of an organism.

Beyond the vegetative level of life and organic growth, Polanyi recognizes a further, active-perceptive level characterized by sentience. This level appears in animals, whose bodily form and physiological functions are subsidiary to their instinctive inner life. Just as organic growth is subject to laws of its own and is irreducible to chemical terms, thus the appetitive-perceptive consciousness of animals has its own dynamic lawfulness that cannot be explained as resulting from the lower levels of reality in which it is rooted. Polanyi explains:

"Just as arithmetic is not logically rich enough for us to deduce a calculus from it, and words are not rich enough for us to deduce a grammar from them, so the laws of physics and chemistry would now be understood to be not rich enough for us to deduce the characteristics of sentience from them, and we would cease trying to do so. We would instead simply derive the principles of sentience, and those of still higher states of consciousness, resting for their existence upon sentience, directly from a study of the operation of these states themselves, in a manner unembarrassed and unencumbered by an ideological necessity to reduce them all to levels of being lower than themselves."37

The highest level in the hierarchy of living beings is the human, a level characterized by the search for truth, the exercise of responsibility, and the ability to rise to deeds of freedom and selfless love. Just as the vegetative principle transforms, organizes, and enlivens the physical substances it incorporates, the human being transforms and humanizes the sentient level and, through it, the lower levels insofar as they are integrated components of the human organism.

In this way, Polanyi extends the scientific world view from one that reduces all forms of life to their lowest, biochemical level to a hierarchical view of nature in which biochemistry is seen as subsidiary to organic life and in which the level of the responsible human individual is fully recognized as a generative reality.

The term hierarchy, which is commonly understood to imply “higher” and “lower” levels of reality, is misleading here. It would be more accurate to speak of “deeper” and “shallower” dimensions of reality, for the worldview we are discovering places the “higher” dimensions of living beings withinthem, not above them. These dimensions are “higher” only in the sense that they are more essential in that they determine the “lower” levels of their being.

But how does the “deeper” level of human selfhood determine the “shallower” levels incorporated into its being? This is something that we dounconsciously throughout our waking hours. When I rise from my chair and cross the room to fetch a book from the shelf, my focus is on what I am looking for in the book. This intent galvanizes my bodily movements. This example shows how we can view any achievement, large or small, as the skillful integration of subsidiary particulars. Our body responds to our intentions, not because we are conscious of it as an object and consciously control its movements, but because we dwell within it, because it is an extension of our self, our instrument.

One of Polanyi’s central insights, the implications of which are profoundly significant, is his realization that the fundamental structure of skillful bodily activity is the same as that of cognitive activity. Common to both is the integration of outer, subsidiary elements through an inner focusing activity. In a nutshell, “The arts of doing and knowing... are... only different aspects of the act of extending our person into the subsidiary awareness of particulars that compose a whole.”38  But while we are more or less awake in our cognitive thinking, we remain for the most part entirely unconscious of how we coordinate our bodily movements.

Intermediate between bodily activity and thinking is the activity of speaking, which involves not only the integration of particular thoughts, but also the formulation of words into sentences and the coordination of complex bodily movements as we articulate sounds and shape them into words. When we speak, our awareness of our bodily speech formation is subsidiary while we focus on the meaning we are striving to convey. If our formulation is particularly apt and to the point and captures the full force of our meaning, we rightfully find that we have “hit the nail on the head.” Thus we dwell within and master language in the same way that we dwell within and master our body, and our awareness of both is subsidiary while we focus on “what we are trying to get at.”

When I hammer in a nail, my idea, or purpose, is the center of action that determines all my external movements. My action is determined from the inside out. The process of knowing, however, proceeds from the outside in. It begins with the perception of an external event and seeks to discover the inner principle out of which the event arose. My understanding of the event is complete when I am able to inwardly recreatethe event out of its determining principle. Let us take the example of observing a pendulum. I participate in its swinging motion with my imagination until I grasp the principles that determine its movement, which enables me to re-enact it from the inside out as it were. I dwell, cognitively, in all of its particulars – its length, the amplitude of its arc, the dynamics of its motion – while at the same time grasping their interrelationships. Thus, in full, heightened consciousness, I dwell within and master the movement of the pendulum just as I unconsciously dwell within and master the movements of my body when performing a skillful action. Polanyi calls this: “knowledge through indwelling.”39  Through indwelling, I come to know the object from the inside out, as actors know the characters they are portraying. Indwelling in other words is a kind of heightened intuitive knowledge in which the dualism of subject and object is overcome.

When we grasp an idea through intuitive thinking, we actually dwell within its generative potential. Polanyi writes: “We actually make existential changes in ourselves when we modify our judgments. For we literally dwell in different principles from the ones we have been at home in, and we thus change the character of our lives.”40  Such principles become motivating forces in our lives, sources of inspiration from which creativity and strength can flow into our actions.

We are now ready to approach the question of how we gain knowledge of the higher levels of reality that manifest in living beings. A key to all scientific discovery, according to Polanyi, is to “look at the known data, but not in themselves, rather as clues to the unknown, as pointers to it and parts of it.”41 Applying this principle to living nature, Polanyi writes:

"We therefore recognize and study the coherence of living things by integrating their motions – and any other normal changes occurring in their parts – into our comprehension of their functions. We integrate mentally what living beings integrate practically – just as chess players rehearse a master’s game to discover what he had in mind. We share the purpose of a mind by dwelling in its actions. And so, generally, we also share the purposes and functions of any living matter by dwelling in its motions in our efforts to understand their meaning."42

Through what Polanyi calls “participation through indwelling”43 we begin to see the formation or behavior of a living being as a manifestation of hidden principles. Polanyi speaks of this as a “reading” of the outer, subsidiary phenomena as the expression of these principles:

"The meaning of an animal’s actions can be understood only by readingthe particulars of its actions (or by reading its mind in terms of these actions) and not by observing the actions [in] themselves as we may observe inanimate processes... Only by being aware of these particulars subsidiarily, in relation to a focal awareness of the animal as an individual, can we know what the animal is doing and knowing."44

Steiner goes to great lengths to point out the essential difference between inorganic and organic nature.45Events in the inorganic realm, he writes, are determined by factors that lie within the sense-perceptible world. Therefore, as Polanyi puts it in the paragraph quoted above, we understand inanimate events by observing their external particulars in themselves.It is the length of the pendulum that determines its frequency and the weight of the bob that sets it in motion. Though the law of the pendulum can only be grasped in intuitive thought, it is nothing more than a summary formulation of causal relationships between discrete sense-perceptible factors. Living organisms, on the other hand, are not determined by sense-perceptible causes. On the contrary, a “center of action” as Polanyi calls it, which is hidden to our senses, determines the physical events. This generative principle – unlike the law of the pendulum – is a living reality in its own right that evokes and moves its sense-perceptible parts out of itself. This view corresponds with our naïve, heartfelt relationship with other living beings. We do not treat them as we would inanimate objects but with a respect for the integrity of what expresses itself through them.

Why is it then that we have come to view nature through the reductive eyes of modern science? An apparent diversion will help us understand how this has occurred.

In his discussion of skillful human activity, Polanyi emphasizes that it is our own inner focus that integrates our subsidiary actions. When hammering in a nail, for example, it is our focus on hitting the nail that integrates our bodily movements. As soon as we are distracted and shift our focus away from the nail, our original focus is immediately lost, and we have to reestablish it before we can resume our work. A pianist who becomes focally aware of his or her fingers during a performance will lose the focus on the dynamics of the piece as a whole and will have to stop. Like the proverbial centipede, when engaged in a skillful activity, we must avoid thinking about how we coordinate our limbs and keep our minds focused on our goal while letting our limbs follow under the supervision of a subsidiary awareness. In this way our outer activity remains a meaningful whole, organized through an inner focus.

As already mentioned, Polanyi repeatedly pointed out the similar structure of our practical and cognitive activity. Let us now again return to the latter. When I read a sentence, I am caught up in its meaning. I hardly notice the individual words and am only subliminally aware of the individual letters on the page. All of these outer particulars become transparent as I focus on their joint meaning. As soon as I shift my focus to the printed figures on the page, however, they lose their transparency and face me in their “raw bodily nature.”46Polanyi explains that “anything serving as a subsidiary [or manifestation, ed.] ceases to do so when focal attention is directed on it. It turns into a different kind of thing, deprived of the meaning it had while serving as a subsidiary.”47

Just as a pianist loses focus when distracted, I lose my connection with the meaning of a text when I focus on the external letters before me. Polanyi emphasizes that this is due not to a lack of awareness but to a shift of focal awareness from the inner dynamics or meaning to the external particulars, or subsidiaries. A good pianist will combine focal awareness of the music as a dynamic gestalt with strong subsidiary awareness of his or her hands and fingers. But because this attention to detail is subsidiary, it only leads to a more expressive articulation of the whole.

Similarly, a strong subsidiary awareness of particular features of an organism can only serve to enhance and clarify one’s focal perception of what speaks through the whole. A true organic science will see every organ and detail of the physical body, right down into its chemical composition, as a clue to the nature of the whole. It will exercise what Polanyi called a “from-to” thinking,48 which can seesaw back and forth between the investigation of the outer clues and its grasp of the whole as that which is revealed through those clues, and thus gain an ever more living and articulated grasp of the organism in its full, distinctive reality.49

In the absence of this active “from-to” thinking, we lose the connection between the whole and its parts, and a gap opens up between the focally perceived idea, or inner aspect, of the organism and its raw bodily nature. We therefore focuson the latter, analyze it, and then focus on its parts, seeking for causal explanations in our external findings. This process continues as we attend to ever smaller constituent parts. Driving this process is a mechanistic, causal thinking that is incapable of apprehending the organism as a dynamic, living whole. We find ourselves living with a dualistic world view in which we are unable to relate our inner “subjective” experience of living beings to our “objective” understanding of them as material objects. With a brevity born of deep insight, Polanyi explains that “dualism occurs when one shifts one’s attention from the direction on which subsidiaries bear and focuses instead on the subsidiaries themselves.”50

By establishing the legitimacy of “from-to” knowledge, a knowledge that sees outer phenomena as the expression of hidden principles, Polanyi paved the way for the overcoming of dualism. Polanyi’s fundamental insight into the focal-subsidiary structure of human cognition and action opens the way for us to reconnect the parts with the whole, the visible with the invisible, the “objective” with the “subjective.” It establishes a firm foundation upon which a participatory science can be built that recognizes the primacy of the creative spirit in all of living nature.



24. Personal Knowledge, p. 9.

25. Here we may note that Polanyi accepted the observations of Gestalt psychology but not its conclusions. Gestalt psychologists claim that Gestalten(perceived wholes) are formed by the spontaneous equilibration of their elements caused by a corresponding and purely physical process in the brain. Polanyi protested that Gestalt psychology lacks the essential element of active participation on the part of the knower. (Compare Personal Knowledge,pp. 57, 97-8, and 340-2.)

26. Meaning, pp. 56, 96.

27. Meaning, p. 41, emphasis partly added.

28. Personal Knowledge, p. 64.

29. Ibid, p. vii.

30. Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being, University of Chicago Press, 1969, p. 214.

31.Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man, University of Chicago Press, 1959, p. 46, emphasis added.

32. Personal Knowledge, p. 399.

33. Historian of science Peter Beurton, geneticist Raphael Falk, and historian of science Hans-Jörg Rheinsberger as quoted in Beyond Biotechnology, the Barren Promise of Genetic Engineeringby Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott. University Press of Kentucky, 2008, p. 67.

34. Ilya Prigogine, Order out of Chaos, Bantam Books, 1984, p. 177.

35. Personal Knowledge, p. 359, emphasis added.This is the decisive point upon which Polanyi’s philosophy, and ultimately all of participatory science, hinges. There can be no external empirical proof for the existence of organizational principles or forces of a non-physical nature. We do, however, have access to them through participatory thinking. This is a matter of direct experience. It is the experience of “thought as an independent, self-governing force” as Polanyi described it (see p. 14), of an active thinking that can, in full consciousness, participate in, and experience, living processes just as it can participate in and experience the lawfulness of a mathematical theorem.

36. See, for example, R.O. Becker, Cross Currents, Tarcher, 1990.

37. Meaning, p. 178.

38. Personal Knowledge, p. 65.

39. Meaning, p. 37.

40. Ibid., p. 62.

41. Personal Knowledge, pp. 127-28.

42. Personal Knowledge, pp. 127-28.

43. Meaning, p. 44.

44. Personal Knowledge, p. 364.

45. See Rudolf Steiner: Nature’s Open Secret, Introductions to Goethe’s Scientific Writings, Anthroposophic Press, 2000, p. 44ff and pp. 121-22.

46. Meaning, p. 39.

47. Ibid., p. 39.

48. Ibid., pp. 34-35.

49. Knowing and Being, pp. 129-30.

50. Meaning, p. 49.


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