The Knower, Knowing, and the Known


Having just completed reading “Knowing and Being,” Michael Polanyi’s collection of essays, along with a second reading of Mark Mitchell’s excellent introduction to the life and ideas of Michael Polanyi, I would like to offer a brief summary and response through addressing the three related topics of the “Knower, Knowing, and the Known.”


A. As knowers we are physically embodied. We are able to know and be known in and through our bodies. Knowing that seeks to ignore or bypass experience of the body and its senses is epistemologically  naive.

B. As knowers we are historically, geographically, culturally, and socially situated. “We do not have a view from nowhere.” While we may aspire toward the goal of pristine objectivity, all human knowledge is situated and contextual. It is mediated both through physical bodies and through our mental processes.

C, As knowers we dwell within an intellectual and cultural tradition, or perhaps within multiple traditions, that have influenced and shaped the various ways we perceive the nature of reality and interpret the meaning of life. The intellectual and cultural tradition (or traditions) that have shaped and influenced us encompass our entire world view and belief system, including our metaphysical (or anti-metaphysical) assumptions, epistemological methods, aesthetic sensibilities, ethical principles, economic priorities, social polity, and way of life. Again, we do not have “a view from nowhere.”

D. As knowers we seek greater contact with and understanding of the reality of “what is”. We seek to give an adequate, informed and comprehensive account of all the phenomena of experience. We tend to assume, correctly or not, that the human body-mind is capable of at least some knowledge and understanding of the fundamental nature of things, or at least of things as they appear to us as mental categories and physical observations.

E. As knowers we have “a perspective on reality.” Polanyi puts it this way, “The subsidiaries we hold as we focus upon the object of our attention are rooted in the places that we inhabit both physically and mentally. We are ‘some place’ – a place that has particular physical characteristics, particular culture, particular language, particular habits, customs and mores.” It is entirely possible that intelligent, thoughtful and informed persons who inhabit other particular physical and mental places  and who belong to other “communities of practice” will see the world differently. It may even be that there is room for more than one “true” and “useful” but “limited and partial” perspective. Reality itself may be “multi-dimensional,” multi-layered, and therefore “multi-perspectival.”


A. Our knowing exists within a “Fiduciary Framework” that expresses our passionate loyalty and commitment to a particular “Community of Practice.” “Tradition and Authority” exercise a hidden influence along with the more overt influences of deductive reason and inductive science.

B. Our knowing may be regarded as either Tacit or Explicit, or else it may reflect what Polanyi called “The Third Culture” that draws upon a “Fiduciary Framework” to integrate and combine the Tacit and the Explicit, the Subsidiary and the Focal. Other “conceptual binaries” that correlate with these include:

Carl Jung’s Psychological Model: Introverted (Introspective) and Extroverted (Observational); Intuitive and Sensory, Emotive and Cognitive; Perceptive and Judging.

David Keirsey’s Linguistic Model: Cooperative and Utilitarian; Intrinsic and Instrumental; Deductive and Inductive; Symbolic and Signal; Figurative and Literal, Analogic and Indicative; Fictional and Factual; Schematic and Detailed; Theoretical and Empirical; General and Specific; Categorical and Elemental.

Additional Conceptual Binaries: Ontological and Reductive; Transcendental and Immanent; Mental and Physical; Values and Facts; Idealist and Physicalist; Personal and Impersonal, Participatory and Detached; Subjective and Objective.

The Fiduciary Framework of a  given Community of Practice serves to mediate between these polarities , including the polarities of values and facts. Modernism promotes objectivism while Post-modern promotes subjectivism. “The Third Culture” represents a “relational” (rather than a modern absolutist-objectivist or post-modern relativist-subjectivist) epistemological approach in which the Tacit and Explicit, Subsidiary and Focal, Personal and Impersonal, Mental and Physical, Deductive and Inductive elements are recognized as interacting with informing each other.


“The known” is “verified” and “validated” in accordance to the particular Fiduciary Paradigm of a given Community of Practice to which we give our passionate loyalty and commitment.  Different Fiduciary Paradigms will give different ontological significance and epistemological warrant to different phenomena of experience.

Here is a short list of such mental and physical phenomenon of experience: Transcendental Ideals, Ethical Obligations, Historical Traditions, Mythic Narratives, Metaphorical Language, Archetypal Symbols, Conceptual Theories, Introspective Awareness, Empirical Observations, Interpersonal Relationships, Human Solidarity, Existential Contingency, Physical Mortality, Immortality Projects,  Physical Suffering, Mental Anguish, Natural Wonder, Spiritual Aspiration, Human Flourishing and Eternal Hope.

Each Fiduciary Paradigm will tacitly assume and explicitly express a passionate loyalty and commitment to interpreting the phenomena of mental and physical, cultural and social experience through the lens of its own preferred worldview. For example, Dualists, Idealists, Materialists, Panpsychists (and Neutral Monists) will each “observe, interpret and apply” the meaning of these mental and physical phenomena according to their own worldview presuppositions and Fiduciary Paradigm and Authoritative Tradition.

Dualists will present us with two realities, mental and physical. Idealists will present us with one reality, which is essentially mental. Materialists will present us with one reality, which is essentially material. Panpsychists and neutral monists will split the difference by postulating one integral bi-modal reality that has both irreducible mental and physical properties with ascending levels of complexity of sentience and consciousness within the implicit and explicit order.

Each Fiduciary Paradigm embodied by a Community of Practice will  marshal its own “reasons” and “evidences” in support of its interpretive Paradigm. Each will attempt to show the limitations and  inadequacies of all other paradigms. Each will appeal to both “verification” and “validation” — that is, to rational empiricism and to existential adequacy. Each will claim to have given a more full and adequate account of all the mental and physical phenomena of experience, and therefore to bring us closer to the reality of “what is.”

From Polanyi’s perspective the Cartesian dream of pure objective knowledge is an illusion, and so is the post-modern escape into subjective nihilism. As Mark Mitchell puts it, “That kind of pristinely impersonal viewpoint is an unattainable ideal, yet there is an option other than a retreat into skepticism: the idea of personal knowledge. Buoyed by this understanding, human knowers can embrace responsibility to make contact with a hidden but knowable reality….Because reality comprises more than matter, it is not reducible merely to the laws of physics and chemistry….Polanyi points a way out of the dark forest of rational skepticism and systematic doubt. He shows us how we might once again speak meaningfully of the good, the true, and the beautiful. And he shows us how we might recover an understanding of the importance of the places we inhabit (mentally, physically, culturally and socially), and the persons with whom we live.”


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