Tag Archives: Ken Wilber

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.

On the Various Ways of Philosophers, Scientists, Literati, Artists…and Mystics


It can be argued that the historical period known as “modernity” was dominated by the intellectual domains of Philosophy and Science and that the period known as “post-modernity” has granted a greater primacy of influence to Literature and the Arts, along with the influence of the Political and Social Sciences. It is my view that Philosophy, Science, Literature and the Arts, along with the shape-shifting wild-card of Religion and Spirituality, and the ambitious newcomers of Psychology and Sociology are the separate yet overlapping domains that constitute the variegated and complex  intellectual and cultural tradition  our western civilization, and that each of these domains has a valuable contribution to make.

During the reign of modernity it was Philosophy and Science that shared the throne, with philosophy gradually surrendering the thrown to Science. Both Philosophy and Science were in search of Grand Theories of Everything, but they went about the search in different ways. Continental philosophy in particular begins with abstract metaphysical categories, whether of Kant or Hegel.

Natural and Physical Science begins with classifying the various types of minerals, vegetation, animals and Homo sapiens — from early to late formation, from symbol to complex. It has no need to metaphysical categories. The physical categories will do just fine.  E.O. Wilson offers a Scientistic Theory of Everything in which he maintains that the real and rational world may be reduced to what can be known by the physical and natural sciences, and that the other domains of knowledge and opinion, whether philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology, literature or the arts can best be explained in terms of the laws and patterns that govern the physical and natural world.

For those endowed with a literary and artistic cast of mind, neither the methods of rational philosophy and of empirical science are both unsatisfying and insufficient. Literary and artistic types are less interested in abstract philosophical categories of “being” and abstract scientific taxonomies of “species” than they are in the unique, complex, ambiguous, many-sided, nuanced and idiosyncratic individual.  The genius of Shakespeare exemplifies this sensibility, as Jonathan Bate points out in his books, “The Genius of Shakespeare,” and “Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare.” Literary critic Harold Bloom locates Shakespeare at the center of the Western Literary Canon. Bloom writes in the spirit of Shakespeare in his book, “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds.” Bloom uses the Mystical Esoteric Kabbala as a complex template for exploring various writers with family resemblances.” Quoting Emerson who said he “read for the lusters,” Bloom groups his exemplary writers into twenty “lusters.” For Bloom as for Shakespeare there are more things in heaven and earth than are contained in our philosophies..and our sciences.

The point is not that literary and artistically minded persons like Bloom do not themselves use abstract templates, categories, rubrics and taxonomies to classify various kinds of writers and artists, for they most surely do. But what is of greatest interest to writers and artists is not the general rubric or category but “the particular and unique individual and his story.” What Bloom and other literati are doing when they write about many authors and artists is to use both hemispheres of the brain — the rational and the imaginative, the convergent and divergent, the general and the particular, the analytical and the existential.

It now becomes more clear why literati and artists prefer local concrete narratives to grand abstract narratives. The best writers and artists give us a vivid sensation, intensified perception and heightened awareness of immediate experience within the web of our relationships with ourselves and between other human beings, the natural world, and the mystery of being. And that is why we need literature and art, because abstract philosophical categories of ontology and scientific rubrics of taxonomical classification are not enough to sustain the soul that thrives in the midst of mystery, ambiguity, plurality and paradox, or what the literary critic Lionel Trilling called “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.”

For the post-modern sensibility, it is literature, linguistics, literary criticism and social criticism that play the central epistemological role. Richard Rorty is is exemplary of this view. He is a neo-pragmatist whose central themes are Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. He combined “private irony” and “liberal hope.” For Rorty as for Bloom the commanding authorities of rational philosophy and empirical science are replaced by what Bloom called “the stong poet.”

Literati and artists rely upon local narratives and creative artifacts to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” and are wary of the pretensions of rationalism and scientism when philosophers and scientists claim to have found Grand Theories of Everything. Our creative writers and  artists have different fish to fry, yet perhaps it is not too much to hope that one day our philosophers, scientists, poets and artists may make good fishing buddies.

What is at the root of the differences between the ways that philosophers, scientists, poets and artists experience life and seek to understand and explore it? Among other things it may have to do with brain quadrant preferences. I know, another theory, though not quite a Grand Theory of Everything. The chart at the top of this blog suggests why these four cultures tend to talk past each other. Their sensory, emotive and cognitive processes simply work in different ways. Each type chooses to emphasize certain things and  minimize the rest. What about Facts, Form, Feelings and Future? Facts correlates with the scientific way. Form correlates with the philosophical way. Feelings correlates with the literary and artistic way.

But what about the Emergent Future, or for that matter the Historical Past and  Present Moment? It seems to me that the “Future” in the four quadrant model at the top of this blog correlates with the Transcendental Perspective of the Visionary Intuitive. The Visionary Intuitive may be associated culturally and religiously with the archetypal Shaman, Druid, Sage, Mystic, Priest, Prophet and Evangelist,  whose functions are to use insight, illumination, ritual, tradition, memory and hope to integrate the complementary functions of Facts, Forms and Feelings into a synoptic vision of the wholeness of life within the Unity of Being. Are not each of these  also expressions of “the Strong Poet?”

As it turns out, the Philosopher, Scientist, Literati and Artist need one more companion for the road, the Visionary Intuitive with a Transcendental Perspective who appreciates the “languages” of Facts, Forms and Feelings, and who integrates them with a “tacit knowlede” of the Historical Past, the Eternal Now, and the Emergent Future.

Living Between Worldviews: Toward a Trans-Modern Integration of Humanity, Nature and Spirit

earth in space

In ancient spiritually and transcendentally oriented societies, it was taken for granted that the foundation for both nature and humanity is Eternal Spirit as Divine Source. In the modern secular age of exclusive immanence and non-transcendence, it is equally taken for granted that there is not Eternal Spirit or Divine Source that serves as a foundation for nature and spirit. We’re on our own, orphaned and forlorn without divine consolation, ontological meaning or transcendent hope, yet radically free to create ourselves out of a tissue of nothingness for the fleeting duration of our passionate yet absurd lives in a universe that consists only of “matter and the void,” as the existential materialist might say.

It is within this modern secular naturalistic and increasingly nihilistic context that some people today are seeking to transcend both the mythic consciousness of pre-modern civilization and the materialistic consciousness of modern civilization, to affirm the natural and humanistic dimensions without altogether denying the transcendent reality of a spiritual dimension.

The so-called “cultural creatives” constitute an emerging demographic sub-culture today that is seeking to transcend the dialectic between traditional religious culture and modern secular culture with a new creative synthesis that is inadequately described as “spiritual but not religious.” Anyone interested in exploring this new creative synthesis is invited to read Paul Ray’s book, “The Cultural Creatives,” or to look at how various integral and holistic thinkers like Ken Wilber, Arthur Young, Fritjof Capra, Christian DeQuincey, Thomas Nagel, David Ray Griffin, Raimon Panikkar, Ervin Laszlo, Kingsley Dennis, Duane Elgin, Marilyn Schlitz, Jean Houston, E.F. Schumacher, among countless others, have been attempting to create a new scientific, humanistic and spiritual paradigm for the planetary future, one that includes all dimensions and levels of reality within an encompassing whole.

At the same time, as a counter-balance to all Grand Narratives and Theories of Everything, there is merit in the alternative approach that includes Socratic Doubt, Montaignian Skepticism, Shakespearean Irony and Equivocation, Keatsian “Negative Capability” and Rilkian “Living the Questions.” This “agnostic” approach does not so much affirm a transcendental and depth dimension to the encompassing reality as evoke the Mystery beyond the limits of human language and “make room” for the spiritual dimension by acknowledging the limitations of human comprehension in the presence of the Eternal Questions.

There seems to be some integral wisdom in holding these two approaches in creative tension. Moreover, it may be entirely possible, though not obviously so, that the insights of idealism, materialism, panpsychism and dualism may each be “partly right” rather than absolutely and mutually exclusive. The Universal Human living in the global age will at least need to come to terms with each of these worldview perspectives that have captured the hearts and minds of billions of human beings across the ages and in our contemporary world.