At the heart of Polanyi’s insight here is his recognition of what one might call the mysteriousness of our engagement with the outside world. The kind of empiricism that often underpins the scientific or experimental method assumes that our perception of the external world is relatively straightforward and unproblematic: that we simply register impressions from the external world and organize them by a process of interpretation. Polanyi’s point is that in much of our perception of the external world, what we perceive is often unspecifiable in detail. We recognize one another’s faces, yet are quite unable to specify what it is that we are recognizing … If we attempt to attend to the detail, we often miss the more elusive total impression that we discern but cannot explain.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 59.

Louth highlights Polanyi’s concept of the tacit, which functions as an interpretive framework that enables us to know. This is knowledge that has been grasped and understood by a person, involving numerous ways of perception and a range of anticipations that we have learnt by experience. It enables us to form a framework by which we instinctively interpret our conclusions. For Polanyi all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. It relies on stimuli coming from outside and on a wide range of linguistic pointers “which bring to bear our pre-conceptions – based on past experience – on the interpretation of our subject matter.” (62)

 Louth suggests that

What we have in Polanyi is an analysis of what is involved in knowing that calls into question some of the simplifications underlying the idea that the scientific method, the experimental method, is the way of moving from ignorance and error to objective knowledge. (62)

Far from this being a one-way movement, explicit knowledge needs to become tacit if it is to be fruitful, and Polanyi gives the example of the skills involved in learning to drive a car. Knowledge is more a personal orientation to reality than an objective account of it. Moreover, Polanyi develops Dilthey’s idea of knowledge as indwelling in which we interiorise the means by which we come to knowledge and come to dwell in them. He writes:

Tacit knowledge now appears as an act of indwelling by which we gain access to new meaning. When exercising a skill we literally dwell in the innumerable muscular acts which contribute to its purpose, a purpose which constitutes their joint meaning. Therefore, since all understanding is tacit knowing, all understanding is achieved by indwelling. The idea developed by Dilthey and Lipps, that we can know human beings and works of art only by indwelling, can thus be justified. But we see now also that these authors were mistaken in distinguishing indwelling from observation as practised in the natural sciences. The difference is only a matter of degree: indwelling is less deep when observing a star than when understanding men or works of art. The theory of tacit knowing establishes a continuous transition from the natural sciences to the study of the humanities. (64-65)

Thus there is no absolute distinction between patterns of knowing in the sciences and in the humanities, and it is therefore unnecessary to look to the sciences to shed light on the theological task. Moreover, Louth points out that the ways of knowing described by Polanyi are precisely those that we find in the theology of the Fathers, a theme that I will discuss in the next post.

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