The “Polymath” Combines Tacit Knowledge & Explicit Knowledge to Create an Integral & Holistic Culture

Leonardo the polymath

It is no accident that Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Loren Eiseley and Michael Polanyi were all polymaths, fluent in both the humanities and the sciences.  For them there was no intellectual and cultural chasm between what C.P. Snow called “the two cultures.”

The multidisciplinary polymath as a pure type (and archetype) is a “universal human” who is equally at home in the forms and methods of discourse associated with philosophy, history, literature and the arts on the one side and the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences on the other. In the modern age the intellectually and culturally complex multidisciplinary polymath has been almost entirely displaced by the narrowly educated professional specialist. This is one reason why the humanities and the sciences have drifted apart and tend to talk past each other, or else marginal or co-opt each other’s styles and methods of discourse.

Michael Polanyi lived in both the world of the humanities and the sciences, and he valued them both equally. His model of tacit and explicit knowledge gives expression to this attitude of mutual respect and complementary influence. He, like William James before him and many after him, came to recognize that knowledge has two polarities. Other terms for this duality of knowledge include interiorization and exteriorization, autopoietic and representational, context and content, background and foreground, tender-minded and tough-minded, soft knowledge and hard knowledge, participation and reification, form and substance, quality and quality.

For those of you who are “Ken Wilber readers” and identified with his “integral theory of everything,” the “four quadrants” of the non-dual Ecology of Being works in much the same way. The two epistemological approaches of  Personal Intention and Collective Culture have a natural affinity with the Tacit Dimension. The two epistemological approaches of Personal Behavior and Collective Systems have a natural affinity with the Explicit Dimension. Wilber is presenting an integral pluralist method and epistemological model that combines all four ways of knowing. Wilber’s model is “anti-reductionistic” since each way of knowing is allowed to speak its own disciplinary “language” and use its own terms of reference.

The idea of “embodied knowledge” was important to Polanyi. By this he not only meant that knowledge is not limited to either abstract philosophical concepts or concrete scientific experiments. Rather, what it means is that all human knowledge is embodied knowledge. We know and experience life through our sentient bodies along with our conscious minds. This includes all those “non-cognitive” dimensions that make us fully human, including our sensations, desires, hopes, fears, memories, emotions, dreams, imaginations, purposes, actions, habits, practices, values, beliefs, intuitions and illuminations. It also means that human knowledge is embedded in history, tradition, language and culture, and especially through “communities of practice.” Analytical philosophers and linguists call this our “hermeneutical circle and community of discourse,” those with whom we share a common “consensus reality.”

To aspire to become a multidisciplinary polymath, and indeed a universal human, is to abandon the self-limitation imposed by such oppositional terms of either “a man of letters” or “a man of science,” as if one needs to choose. Of course we have hardly spoken here of “the arts” as a primal and tacit way of knowing, but Polanyi’s view was that they, too, play a necessary and integral role along with the “humanities” on the one side and the “sciences” on the other.

Much of the appeal of the “Counter-Culture” ideal as variously expressed in modern history among the Bohemians, Romantics, Transcendentalists, Beat Generation, Hippies, New Thought and New Age Movements, Feminist Movement, Green Party and Occupy Movement has been resistance to the reign of quantifying, objectifying, competitive efficiency within the early industrial and now late capitalist technocratic society. What those who identity with the “counter-culture” object to and resist is the loss qualitative and non-quantifiable experience, which is the neglected “tacit dimension” beneath the tip of the iceberg of  explicit quantifiable and utilitarian knowledge.

The tacit dimension is home to primal experiences of natural wonder, sublime beauty, spiritual awakening, ecstatic joy, emotional authenticity, aesthetic creativity, moral imagination, loving relationships, cooperative community and compassionate living. A society that neglects the transcendental qualitative tacit dimension while it worships the utilitarian quantifying explicit dimension may be rich in material things but it will impoverish the soul.

And this is why the recovery of the tacit dimension matters today. This is why we need polymaths like Leonardo, Goethe, Eiseley and Polanyi who integrate tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge as they move fluently across and make non-reductive connections between the humanities, arts, sciences and technologies. The polymath combines tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge of multiple fields of inquiry to create “the third culture,” which is an integral and emergent rather than a polarized and reductive culture.


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