Personal Knowledge

Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy

By Michael Polanyi

University of Chicago Press, 1962
ISBN 0-226-67288-3
428 pages; paperback; $20.00



Michael Polanyi was a Fellow of the Royal Society of England, a professor of physical chemistry and of social studies at the University of Manchester and a Fellow of Merton College at Oxford.  As few others of his time, he saw how a one-sidedly reductionist, materialistic 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. The penetrating, core insights which he set forth in Personal Knowledge, his major philosophical work, reflect his experience as a practicing scientist. 


By distinguishing between our focal awarenessof an object as an integrated, meaningful whole and our subsidiary awarenessof its component parts, Polanyi lays the groundwork for a science that recognizes the reality of that which makes the object a whole: the conceptually grasped principle of which it is the expression.  This personal knowledge or insight into the lawfulness governing an object, when applied to organic nature, provides the basis for an organic science that affirms the reality of dynamic organizational principles which determine the formation and/or behavior of organisms.  Polanyi goes further, demonstrating that all skillful, meaningful actions are subject to the same structural lawfulness:  all subsidiary parts of the organism are organized to accomplish the purpose of the action.  In the case of human speech, for example, our vocabulary, our organs of speech, our breathing, intonation and gestures are orchestrated to convey a certain meaning. The meaning remains our focus and provides the organizational principle guiding our subsidiary movements.  While we are focally aware of the meaning we wish to convey, we are subsidiarily aware of our words, intonations, and gestures.


In Personal Knowledge, Polanyi lays the foundations for a science that

1.  encompasses human cognitive experience in its fullness.  The richness of sense perception and the depth of conceptual insight are validated as two aspects (focal and subsidiary) of one and the same reality. 

2.  leads to an hierarchical world view in which a “higher” lawfulness such as vegetative growth, sentience, human insight, or love, are understood as innate organizational principles that structure and animate the “lower” levels through which they manifest. 



1. Objectivity

  1. The lesson of the Copernican revolution
  2. The growth of mechanism
  3. Relativity
  4. Objectivity and modern physics 

2. Probability

  1. Programme
  2. Unambiguous statements
  3. Probability statements
  4. Probability of propositions
  5. The nature of assertions
  6. Maxims
  7. Grading of confidence

3. Order

  1. Chance and order
  2. Randomness and significant pattern
  3. The Law of chemical proportions
  4. Crystallography

4. Skills

  1. The practice of skills
  2. Destuctive analysis
  3. Tradition
  4. Connoisseurship
  5. Two kinds of awareness
  6. Wholes and meanings
  7. Tools and frameworks
  8. Commitment
  9. Unspecifiability
  10. Summary


5. Articulation

  1. Introduction
  2. Inarticulate intelligence
  3. Operational principles of language
  4. The powers of articulate thought
  5. Thought and speech. I. Text and meaning
  6. Forms of tacit assent
  7. Thought and speech. II. Conceptual decisions
  8. The educated mind
  9. the re-interpretation of language
  10. Understanding logical operations
  11. Introduction to problem solving
  12. Mathematical heuristics

6. Intellectual Passions 

  1. Sign-posting
  2. Scientific value
  3. Heuristic passion
  4. Elegance and beauty
  5. Scientific controversy
  6. The premises of science
  7. Passions, private and public
  8. Science and technology
  9. Mathematics
  10. The affirmation of mathematics
  11. Axiomatization of mathematics
  12. The abstract arts
  13. Dwelling in and breaking out

7. Conviviality 

  1. Introduction
  2. Communication
  3. Transmission of social lore
  4. Pure conviviality
  5. The organization of society
  6. Two kinds of culture
  7. Administration of individual culture
  8. Administration of civic culture
  9. Naked power
  10. Power politics
  11. The magic of Marxism
  12. Spurious forms of moral inversion
  13. The temptation of the intellectuals
  14. Marxist-Leninist epistemology
  15. Matters of fact
  16. Post-Marxian liberalism


8. The logic of affirmation

  1. Introduction
  2. The confident use of language
  3. The question of descriptive terms
  4. Precision
  5. The personal mode of meaning
  6. Assertions of fact
  7. Towards an epistemology of Personal Knowledge
  8. Inference
  9. Automation in general
  10. Neurology and psychology
  11. On being critical
  12. The fiduciary programme

9. The critique of doubt

  1. The doctrine of doubt
  2. Equivalence of belief and doubt
  3. Reasonable and unreasonable doubt
  4. Scepticism within the natural sciences
  5. Is doubt a heuristic principle?
  6. Agnostic doubt in courts of law
  7. Religious doubt
  8. Implicit beliefs
  9. Three aspects of stability
  10. The stability of scientific beliefs
  11. Universal doubt

10. Commitment

  1. Fundamental beliefs
  2. The subjective, the personal and the universal
  3. The coherence of commitment
  4. Evasion of commitment
  5. The structure of commitment: I
  6. The structure of commitment: II
  7. Interdeterminacy and self-reliance
  8. Existential aspects of commitment
  9. Varieties of commitment
  10. Acceptance of calling


11. The logic of achievement

  1. Introduction
  2. Rules of rightness
  3. Causes and reasons
  4. Logic and psychology
  5. Originality in animals
  6. Explanations of equipotentiality
  7. Logical levels

12. Knowing life

  1. Introduction
  2. Trueness to type
  3. Morphogenisis
  4. Living machinery
  5. Action and perception
  6. Learning
  7. Learning and induction
  8. Human knowledge
  9. Superior knowledge
  10. At the point of confluence

13. The rise of man

  1. Introduction
  2. Is evolution an achievement?
  3. Randomness, an example of emergence
  4. The logic of emergence
  5. Conception of a generalized field
  6. The emergence of machine-like operations
  7. First causes and ultimate ends