Kearneysville, WV. Whenever I pick up a book dealing with ways of knowing, I invariably flip to the index to see if the author refers to the work of Michael Polanyi. As it is, Matthew Crawford’s fine new book, Shop Class as Soul Craft mentions Polanyi in a footnote and also in the acknowledgments. In reading the book, it became clear to me that the influence of Polanyi on Crawford’s thought is far-reaching. In this entry to the Front Porch Republic’s symposium on Crawford’s book, I would like to highlight some of the key aspects of the thought of this neglected thinker.

Michael Polanyi was born in Budapest in 1891 into an upper class Jewish family. He came of age when the optimism of the early years of the new century was eclipsed by the horrors of the Great War. He was trained as a medical doctor but never practiced medicine.  His interest in chemistry led him to study in Germany where he settled after the war, married, and converted to Christianity. During his years in Berlin, Polanyi rubbed shoulders with the best scientists in the world including Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, and Max Planck. Soon after Hitler’s rise to power, Polanyi accepted a position at the University of Manchester. Polanyi’s firsthand encounter with modern warfare and totalitarianism in the form of both fascism and communism convinced this world-class physical chemist that the very foundations of civilization were in jeopardy. As the world became engulfed in a second great war, Polanyi’s attention began to shift away from chemistry and toward economic and philosophical themes, especially as they impinged on questions of liberty. In 1948, the University of Manchester officially recognized Polanyi’s change of direction by creating a special chair of social studies that freed him to pursue his non-scientific research.

Polanyi’s career as a scientist was characterized by creative, and at times unorthodox, brilliance. As his interests turned gradually from the laboratory, his unorthodox approach, often made necessary due to his lack of training in the fields he was now exploring, proved fruitful. He first focused on economics and the practice of science. He was convinced that the success of both required liberty, and that planned science would destroy science just as a planned economy would result in hunger and privation. But, as he continued to consider the necessary foundation for a free society, Polanyi became convinced that at root the political terror of the twentieth-century was the result of a conception of knowledge that refused to admit that moral and spiritual concepts have any real existence. Bereft of these, individual and political action is limited merely by imagination and will. To counter this descent into the moral abyss, Polanyi argued that a new conception of knowledge must be introduced. This approach would once again acknowledged the reality of moral and spiritual ideals to which free and responsible men and women can commit themselves in service to truth that is ultimately rooted in a reality infinitely richer than that assumed by materialism or accessed by rationalism.

A central element of Crawford’s argument is his insistence that practical knowledge is not something that can be reduced to explicit terms or rules. In this vein, Polanyi recounts the following story:

“A few years ago a distinguished psychiatrist demonstrated to his students a patient who was having a mild fit of some kind. Later the class discussed the question whether this had been an epileptic or a hystero-epileptic seizure. The matter was finally decided by the psychiatrist: ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you have seen a true epileptic seizure. I cannot tell you how to recognize it; you will learn this by more extensive experience.”[1]

Polanyi (and Crawford) describes how becoming proficient in a practical art requires participation in tradition. Tradition, then, serves an epistemological function. This claim challenges our modernist assumptions about the nature of knowledge. One of the central elements of the early modern attempt to reformulate knowledge and thereby extricate it from the tyranny of tradition was the attempt to reduce all knowing to technique. One–it was believed–need merely master a particular method, and with this technique firmly in hand, nature willingly yield her secrets. The result is a conception of knowledge that is severely truncated. Since, in this view, all knowing is properly the result of a correctly applied methodology, it follows that all modes of thought and fields of enquiry that are not reducible to this formalized method are de facto disqualified from the realm of knowledge. Hence we see the attempt to, for example, formulate moral philosophy into a completely explicit method and thereby save it from the realm of subjective opinion, which is the antithesis of true knowledge. The obvious rub lies in the fact that knowledge is not as narrow as technique. Knowing is better conceived as an art than a technique; it is a skill, which requires the proper training and practice under the guidance of one already in possession of the skill. In other words, knowing cannot be reduced to an explicit method nor can it be acquired in a vacuum.

Knowing is an art, and any art is learned by practice. Thus, the learning of rules is not the primary manner by which an art is acquired. As Polanyi puts it, “Rules of art can be useful, but they do not determine the practice of an art; they are maxims, which can serve as a guide to an art only if they can be integrated into the practical knowledge of the art. They cannot replace this knowledge.”[2] Practical knowledge precedes the knowledge of rules, for one must possess a degree of practical knowledge in order properly to apply the rules. If practical knowledge is not learned by the study of rules, then one must acquire it through doing. But how can one practice an art if he does not yet know how to do so? The answer lies in submission to an authority in the manner of an apprentice: we learn by example.

“To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another.”[3]

In learning by submitting to the authority of a teacher, the pupil seeks to grasp what he initially does not comprehend. Polanyi (and Crawford picks up on this) employs the term “indwelling” to describe the manner in which an apprentice must enter into the practice of the master. “In order to share this indwelling, the pupil must presume that a teaching which appears meaningless to start with has in fact a meaning which can be discovered by hitting on the same kind of indwelling as the teacher is practicing.  Such an effort is based on accepting the teacher’s authority.”[4] This acceptance of the teacher’s authority manifests itself in the submission of the student to that authority. The apprentice must, in trust, submit himself to the authority of the master, and only subsequent to that act of willful submission does the knowledge possessed by the master become accessible to the apprentice. One cannot pretend to indwell a particular teaching; one can only commit one’s self and believe that the claims of the master are true. In other words, one must believe before one can understand.

But if knowing is an art, and if learning an art requires dwelling in the practices of a master, then it follows that there must exist a tradition by which an art is transmitted; therefore, any attempts categorically and systematically to reject tradition is logically incompatible with knowing. This argument may be made more explicit, for, according to Polanyi, “all human thought comes into existence by grasping the meaning and mastering the use of language.”[5] If that is the case, then we must conclude that the ideal of a tradition-free inquiry is simply impossible, for “no human mind can function without accepting authority, custom, and tradition: it must rely on them for the mere use of a language.”[6] A child must put his trust in the language-speakers around him and seek to indwell the particulars of the language before he can master it. He does not begin by learning rules or grammar and syntax, for the rules themselves require language in order to be formulated. In the same way, any skill must first be acquired through submission to the authority of a particular tradition, for the skill itself exists primarily in its practice and only secondarily in rules, which are necessarily formulated subsequent to practice. Tradition, then, plays an indispensable role in the knowledge that we acquire, and it would seem that Polanyi is justified in claiming that

“it appears that traditionalism, which requires us to believe before we know, and in order that we may know, is based on a deeper insight into the nature of knowledge and of the communication of knowledge than is a scientific rationalism that would permit us to believe only explicit statements based on tangible data and derived from these by a formal inference, open to repeated testing.”[7]

Thus, despite the efforts of the early moderns and their successors to reduce knowledge to that which is explicitly formulable, Polanyi’s account of the tradition-based nature of all knowing brings us to an important juncture. If knowing is as Polanyi claims it is, then belief must necessarily precede understanding, and with this very unmodern claim Polanyi seeks to connect his theory of knowledge with St. Augustine. In making this connection Polanyi attempts, in essence, to articulate a post-modern theory of knowledge by hearkening back to a pre-modern conception of knowing. In so doing, he by-passes the modern period which–despite the many technical, social, and even moral advances–was ultimately founded on a false premise, which, when fully worked out, led to a philosophical dead end. Hence, the need for a new approach to knowledge, and hence, a return to the resources of a pre-modern era.

Polanyi is quick to point out that he does not repudiate the incredible gains made in the modern period. “Ever since the French Revolution, and up to our own days, scientific rationalism has been a major influence toward intellectual, moral, and social progress.”[8] Yet, in spite of the obvious progress, there has been a darker side. Polanyi was all too aware that the benefits produced by modern rationalism were offset by the horrors of the twentieth-century. Thus, despite the obvious technological advances, the promises of inevitable progress brought on by the ubiquity of modern rationalism were hollow. While he is loathe to discard all of the gains of modernity, he is convinced that the moral and political tragedies of the twentieth-century clearly reveal the logical consequences of modern rationalism. For him, then, the modern crisis in knowledge has manifested itself in inhumane acts of unspeakable proportions, and the problem must be dealt with at its roots: a new approach to knowledge must be proposed.

“Keeping these awful aspects of our situation tacitly in mind, I shall try to trace a new line of thought along which, I believe, we may recover some of the ground rashly abandoned by the modern scientific outlook. I believe indeed, that this kind of effort, if pursued systematically, may eventually restore the balance between belief and reason on lines essentially similar to those marked out by Augustine at the dawn of Christian rationalism.”[9]

Polanyi’s call for a return to Augustine is not so much a call to reject all appeals to reason or to reject the importance of science or other secular pursuits as it is a call to recognize the indispensable role belief plays in all knowing, for the modern bias in favor of rationalism, which insists that all knowledge be either rationally or empirically demonstrable, produced a discrediting of belief. All claims to knowledge that were not susceptible to demonstration were denigrated as subjective opinion. Polanyi is attempting to force the pendulum away from the extreme of rationalism so that the role of belief can once again be recognized as indispensable. As he puts it,

“we must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework.”[10]

The fiduciary framework of which Polanyi speaks serves as the antecedent to all knowing. Such a framework implies the necessity of a community of committed to the perpetuation of a particular tradition. Since, as we have seen, knowing is an art that requires one to enter into a practice by virtue of submission to the authority of a master, and since practices exist in traditions by which they are transmitted, Polanyi concludes that all knowing operates within this traditional scheme.

But, traditions do not exist apart from the communities which embrace them and transmit them to subsequent generations. Thus, knowledge is essentially social. This claim, though, is even stronger, for rather than being merely social, knowledge is communal in the sense that traditions persist only in communities which embrace a particular tradition as an orthodoxy. In other words, since all knowing rests on a fiduciary framework, belief, as we have seen, precedes knowing. But belief must have an object, and this role is filled by tradition operating within a community committed to it. For example, at its most basic, language requires belief. When a child learns a language, he believes that the language-speakers who surround him are not uttering gibberish. All skills, as we have seen, require the same type of submission to a master even though the novice does not yet comprehend the meaning of that which he is practicing. Science is no different, for the aspiring scientist must submit himself to the authority of a scientist, and such submission requires belief. “Thus”, in Polanyi’s words, “to accord validity to science¾or to any other of the great domains of the mind¾is to express a faith which can be upheld only within a community. We realize here the connexion between Science, Faith and Society.”[11]

The connection, if I may spell it out, is that science or any other area of knowing, depends on a fiduciary framework in which belief necessarily precedes all knowing. This belief, though, cannot be sustained apart from a community of believers who perpetuate the tradition by passing it to the next generation through a process of apprenticeship. Thus, all knowing requires the existence of a society committed to a particular tradition and engaged in passing it on. This is not to say that knowledge is only possible within a homogeneous community. Indeed, a particular society may be comprised of a variety of competing traditions. But the communal nature of knowing depends on the existence of communities committed to a particular tradition or set of traditions. Of course, it is frequently the case that the adherents of a tradition are not explicitly aware of that to which they are committed, for often the premises of a tradition “lie deeply embedded in the unconscious foundations of practice.”[12] These premises are tacitly passed to the next generation through education in the practices by which the tradition is constituted. Thus, knowing is essentially communal. Furthermore, the authoritative nature of a tradition does not mean that a tradition cannot be rebelled against or rejected. But it is the case that “even the sharpest dissent still operates by partial submission to an existing consensus.”[13] Rebellion is always in reference to some established body of knowledge; therefore, even rebellion is conditioned by the existing tradition against which the rebellion takes place.

It is important to point out at this juncture that Polanyi is not simply a twentieth century Augustinian. Both Polanyi and Augustine agree that belief is essential for knowledge, but for Augustine belief is primarily focused on the authority of the church and the existence of God-his belief is theological. On the other hand, belief, for Polanyi, is much broader. He is attempting to make a general epistemological claim about the nature of all knowing. But, while Polanyi is not concerned primarily with theology, his theory of knowledge opens the door to theological considerations, for in arguing that all knowing depends on antecedent belief, he places all areas of knowledge–scientific, moral, artistic, and religious–on the same epistemological footing. Thus, where modern theories of knowledge give science pride of place and relegate all subjects not susceptible of explicit methodological formulation to the realm of the subjective, Polanyi claims that all realms of meaning are equally open to human enquiry and are equally sources of knowledge. Thus, Polanyi’s post-critical theory of knowledge re-opens the possibility of legitimate enquiry into theological, moral, and aesthetic truth, areas that had been scorned by fully mature modernism.

Through an investigation of the manual arts, Crawford shows his readers how practical knowledge is acquired, not through the explicit application of rules of formula, but via practice under the authority of a master. By affirming the goodness of the manual trades, Crawford seeks to restore the dignity of skilled work. This, it seems to me, is especially important in our age where the so-called knowledge industry, facilitated by the prejudice in favor of universal college education, prevails. The result of this elevation of the mental over the physical is what amounts to a practical Gnosticism whereby the body is denigrated or ignored and the mental faculties are given a prestige that exceeds their capacity. In this context, Wendell Berry notices the practical results:

“It is clear to anyone who looks carefully at any crowd that we are wasting our bodies exactly as we are wasting our land. Our bodies are fat, weak, joyless, sickly, ugly, the virtual prey of the manufacturers of medicine and cosmetics. Our bodies have become marginal; they are growing useless like our ‘marginal land’ because we have less and less use for them. After the games and idle flourishes of modern youth, we use them only as shipping cartons to transport our brains and our few employable muscles back and forth to work.”[14]

A return to a more balanced view of the relationship between the mind and the body is one of the implications of Crawford’s work, and it is an explicit element in Polanyi’s. Knowing, according to Polanyi, is comprised of two types of awareness: the subsidiary and the focal. Focal awareness is the conscious object of our attention, but all focal awareness is accompanied by subsidiary awareness. We attend focally to the object of our attention while dwelling subsidiarily in a variety of clues that stand in the background and make attending to the focal target possible. The integration of these two kinds of awareness occurs in any act of knowing. Polanyi gives his readers several examples that serve to clarify this distinction.

1) When a person employs a probe to explore a hidden cavity, or when a blind person uses a stick to find his way along an unknown path, the individual is aware of the impact the handle produces in his hand when the probe strikes an object, but the individual attends to these impacts subsidiarily. His focus is upon the end of the stick, and by attending focally to that while attending subsidiarily to the impact of the stick in his hand, he is able to comprehend objects by virtue of the stick. In a certain respect, the probe becomes an extension of his own body, and it is for this reason that subsidiary awareness and focal awareness can be understood in terms of physiology and identified as proximal and distal. The proximal term is that which is closest to one’s body–in effect it is that which is either part of one’s body, as in a hand or a limb, or that which becomes an extension of one’s body, as in a probe or any other tool. We dwell subsidiarily in the proximal term in order to focus upon the distal term. Thus, the subsidiary-focal relationship is one that can be characterized as a fromto relation. We attend from the subsidiaries to the focal target.

2) A skillful performance requires the same tacit integration of subsidiary and focal elements. For example, if a piano player shifts the focus of his attention from the piece he is playing to the observation of his fingers, he very likely will become confused and have to stop. In the same way, an athlete will be unable to specify all that goes into a skillful performance of his particular sport, and if he is asked to explicitly identify each component, he will be unable fully to comply, and if while performing he turns his focus on the particulars of that performance, his performance will likely fail. Thus, “subsidiary awareness and focal awareness are mutually exclusive.”[15] Furthermore, “focal and subsidiary awareness are definitely not two degrees of attention but two kinds of attention given to the same particulars.”[16]

The tacit dimension of knowing consists of an integration of two mutually exclusive elements, the subsidiary and the focal. In spatial terms these are proximal and distal elements. In order to focus on any object, one must dwell in the subsidiaries while one attends to the focal target. That which we hold subsidiarily we take as the proximal term of the tacit relationship. It represents an extension of our body in the process of achieving a meaningful integration with the distal element. Thus, the probe becomes an extension of our hand, and the bodily skills we achieve through repetitious practice produce a skillful performance. Because the proximal component of tacit knowing is rooted in our bodies and extends out from them, the bodily roots of all thought become clear. We are generally aware of our bodies only subsidiarily, and those things we employ subsidiarily while attending to the focal targets of our attention are, in effect, extensions of our bodies. Thus, “our body is the ultimate instrument of all our external knowledge, whether intellectual or practical.”[17] Indwelling, then, indicates the extension of the body in the process of knowing. Polanyi writes:

“The use of the term “indwelling” applies here in a logical sense as affirming that the parts of the external world that we interiorise function in the same way as our body functions when we attend from it to things outside. In this sense we live also in the tools and probes which we use, and likewise in our intellectual tools and probes. To apply a theory for understanding nature is to interiorise it. We attend from the theory to things interpreted in its light.”[18]

Tacit knowing requires the constant integrating activity of the knower. If, as Polanyi argues, all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge, then “all tacit knowing requires the continued participation of the knower, and a measure of personal participation is intrinsic therefore to all knowledge.”[19] By claiming that knowledge requires the active and continued participation of the knower, Polanyi separates himself radically from those who embrace the ideal of a passive and detached rationalism.  Furthermore, by claiming that the body plays a central role in knowing, he sets himself up against Cartesian dualism, which conceives of the body as mere physical extension and of the mind as related only incidentally to the body. By affirming the personal element in all knowing, Polanyi points to the personal responsibility entailed in the knowing process. Ultimately, this is precisely the point of Crawford’s book: to show how bodily work provides a means by which the responsible person can engage the world in a way that is fully in keeping with his humanity. In an age where a post-industrial, global economy driven by “knowledge workers” is extolled as the inevitable future of developed nations, Crawford’s book challenges us to consider a different path. His use of Polanyi’s theory of knowledge provides a helpful platform from which his analysis proceeds.


[1] “Faith and Reason,” The Journal of Religion, vol. 41.4 (1961): 239.

[2] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958): 50.

[3] Personal Knowledge, 53.

[4] Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966): 61.

[5] Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being, ed. Marjorie Grene (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969): 160.

[6] Knowing and Being, 41.

[7] The Tacit Dimension ,61-2.

[8] The Tacit Dimension, 56.

[9] “Faith and Reason,” 238-9.

[10] Personal Knowledge, 266.

[11] Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964): 73.

[12] Science, Faith and Society, 76.

[13] Personal Knowledge, 208.

[14] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1997) 108.

[15] Personal Knowledge, 56.

[16] Knowing and Being, 128.

[17] The Tacit Dimension, 15. Polanyi’s recognition that the body plays a necessary and indispensable part in the knowing process represents an important confluence with the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  See Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962).

[18] Michael Polanyi, “Science and Religion,” Philosophy Today, 7(1963): 8.

[19] Knowing and Being, 152.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Mark,

    Thank you for an excellent summary of Polanyi as well as offering this most useful lens for reading Crawford. The importance, even priority, of practice you note in both writers was also recently underlined by the “mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice” research rehearsed in Gladwell’s “Outliers.” Your summary also draws much-needed (in our reflexively autonomous culture) attention to the necessary and legitimate role of authority and submission to it as part of membership in a vital tradition or community.

    In the early 70’s, filled with that era’s ethos of “distrust all authority,” I began the practice of a martial art where, with that attitude, I quickly ran into the brick wall of real authority, mastery, people doing things I couldn’t even SEE much less do without humbly opening my eyes, doing what I was shown and told, in short, submitting to both practice and authority. All necessary before I could even begin to “know” much less do any of the things I came to learn. You make it wonderfully clear how both Crawford and Polanyi are very good teachers about such experience and why these lessons are so important. Again, my thanks.

  2. Reading a book on the Original Australians, I encountered an inadvertently humorous use of the descriptive term “conservative”. According to the author, the Aboriginals, communal foragers for countless millennia were the “conservatives” in relation to the “liberal” British penal colonist transplanting English common law and the ethic of property ownership into the ancient lands of an uncomprehending native. One of the most “conservative” groups were a clan of the Tasmanians who were surrounded by fish but refused to eat the most abundant food available in a land of scarcity because it was surmised that their forebears had become sickened by a fish borne disease in the remote past and they simply adopted the aversion as a tradition to keep. Numerous streams watered by storms tracking the roaring forties and they would choose an empty stomach over things fishy.

    The thought then occurs that those Front Porch Aboriginals such as myself who rail on about the current era’s Technocratic Sunbeams for Leviathan might simply be dimwitted nostalgics, following some romantic and episodic eccentric urge rendered baseless by current circumstances. But then, we confront the current reminisces over the Moon launch and recall the pride, wonder and awe of this monumental marriage of America’s technological acumen with our love of challenge and exploration. The event was simultaneously mystical and coldly rational. Via camera, we walked with the explorer through the dusty antiquity of the blasted lunar landscape as though Columbus might have had an embedded reporter aboard the Santa Maria. We looked back homeward, with the astronauts at a small blue orb of watery life that is our home, rendered almost fragile as it floated in the dark vacuum of Space. At this moment of triumph when we were given our first look at the small orb of life alone in the black void, one would have thought that a union of Faith and Reason might have borne real advances. Unfortunately, while we might have felt the possibility, the mania for the modern continued it’s confident march and the May Day Parade of the Victorious Technocrat proceeded apace.

    Crawford’s book speaks of the need to temper Technology with Tradition and reinvigorate the love and liberty inherent to craftsmanship. This is not so much a submission to a fear or blind obedience of authority as it is an embrace of the love for a stewarding authority. In one direction lies consigned surrender and in the other lies that marvelous combination of memory and possibility released by the formidable trinity of the mind, hand and spirit.

    Aboriginal urges notwithstanding, painted up in white zig-zags and concentric circles while girding for the Jaguar Dance, I enjoy an occasional plane ride in that lounge chair at 35,000 feet as much as the next guy. Don’t ask me to chose between dirt and a silicon wafer because this is a specious choice made for a vacuum that is not favored with this tiny blue orb, hurtling through space.

  3. The whole idea of tradition ought to be more publicized among homeschoolers. I learned well enough with books, but I never could have understood Kant or Kierkegaard (or Plato, for that matter) without your lectures and the discussion that came up during class. Co-ops are a good thing for homeschooling–the student-driven, let’s-go-look-in-a-book-and-find-out approach was probably necessary for the first generation of homeschoolers (at least those without access to master craftsmen/scholars who would approve of homeschooling). Following generations have begun and ought to increase their involvement with people who know things.

    Thanks for writing this piece!

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