Tag Archives: Michael Polanyi

Living Cooperatively in a World of Values Pluralism

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One of the core ideas of Isaiah Berlin is the concept of “values pluralism.” Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. A fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he was the author of many books, including Against the Current, The Roots of Romanticism, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and the Hedgehog and the Fox.

By “values pluralism” Berlin meant that open societies are characterized by different value constellations that are in competition and conflict with each other, and that not all human values can be fully realized and integrated at any given time and place in a single culture. Choices must be made between them within the body-politic, and so there is an “agonic” element in the struggle to realize multiple values. Four examples he gives of competing and divergent values include liberty and equality, spontaneity and security, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice.

Certainly when any of these values is made exclusive and absolute an ideological monism results, and that monism enters into lethal conflict with opposing values. We see this in the ideological extremes of our American political landscape today between the right-wing libertarian Tea Party Movement and the left-wing communitarian Occupy Movement. Both sides share in common a sense of being alienated independent outsiders to the forces of concentrated institutional power. The right-wing distrusts the public sector of state power, while the left-wing distrusts the private sector of corporate power. But they also diverge sharply from each other in fundamental ways. There is a vast chasm between the right-wing ideals of an independent warrior culture and the left-wing ideals of an independent artisan culture. The difference is as great as between the values of ancient Sparta and Athens. They co-mingle no better than oil and water, which is to say not at all.

However, it also needs to be said that not all cultural values necessarily need to be made absolute, ideological, dogmatic and totalizing. Rather, they can come to live in a dialectical tension, a perpetual “push-pull” that, while agonic at times, may also create a more dynamic and adaptive, pluralistic and pragmatic society.

In his book, Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind: International Cooperation and its Importance for Survival, Geert Hofstede outlines a set of core cultural value polarities that can enter into lethal conflict but that if moderated and qualified can live together in dialectical tension. Those value dualities include excellence and equality, the individual and the collective, assertiveness and modesty, certitude and ambiguity, short-term goals and long-term goals. Values exist within a large complex that includes rituals, heroes, symbols, and traditions, all of which are subsumed under practices. As children we learn our values not so much consciously and explicitly as unconsciously and implicitly. As Hofstede puts it, “Values are broad tendencies to prefer contain states of affairs over others. Values are feelings with an arrow to it: they have a plus and a minus died. They deal with good vs. evil, dirty vs. clean, ugly vs. beautiful, natural vs. natural, abnormal vs. normal, paradoxical vs. logical, irrational vs. rational.”

Closed ideological and totalitarian societies, whether religious or secular, tend to set up a values monism in which only one set of values is allowed freedom of expression, while opposing and counter-balancing values are viewed evil, regressive, perverse and false. Open, inclusive pluralistic societies allow divergent and counter-balancing values to co-exist in a perpetual relationship of dynamic tension. In such societies everyone must make compromises because no one gets everything they want. When the irreducible differences in visions, values, beliefs and practices significantly outweigh the commonalities, those societies fall into lethal conflict and civil war. When the exclusive values and interests of the few, usually the rich and powerful, eclipse the values and interests of the many, usually the poor and oppressed, than that society will begin to collapse into violence and anarchy. We see this today in numerous countries, including Iraq and Syria.

An absolutely dualistic “winner-takes-all” approach to values will always produce a conflict orientated individual or culture. For example, if one regards the various temperament types as either good or bad, right or wrong, then one must set up a conflict between such polarities as Introversion and Extraversion, Intuition and Sensation, Feeling and Thinking, Perception and Judgment. The mentality is, “If you are of an “opposite” temperament type from me then you are creepy, alien, strange, weird. Indeed, you are probably the Enemy.”

The same polarizing drama plays out in various areas of life. In higher education it plays out in the polarizing attitudes that often characterize those who are exclusively committed to the study of the sciences or the arts, philosophy or literature, sociology or psychology, history and mythology. Temperamental preferences become idealized and hardened into competing kinds of intelligence, as competing epistemological methods, and even as competing metaphysical assumptions.

It is in the realms of metaphysical assumptions that we see the full power of the polarizing human tendency played out. For some years now I’ve been fascinated to watch the competing worldviews of dualism, idealism, materialism and panpsychism play out their drama of competition and conflict. Each worldview tradition has established its own self-validating network of values, rituals, heroes, symbols, narrative, myths, metaphors and practices. Each demonizes and stereotypes the competing worldviews. A non-ideological ironic pragmatist, or for that matter a post-enlightenment romantic or existentialist might find each of these worldview visions and its associated values persuasive and appealing on its own terms, but falling short of anything like an absolute truth that excludes all other partial and qualified truth-claims. Rather, the pragmatic and pluralistic attitude will be, “We have met the enemy, and he/they may be partly right.”

The shift from a dualistic, polarizing absolute ideological approach to political philosophy would mean that the conservative and liberal, the libertarian and communitarian, or at least some of them, might be able to transcend their ideological dogma to the extent that they could see at least some value in the other social, economic and political camps. When narrow, dogmatic, sectarian ideologies run either the executive, judicial or legislative branches of government, the voices of passionate moderates and radical centrists, of principled pragmatists and consensus builders is silenced. Such a condition is toxic and destructive to an open democratic society.

Returning to Isaiah Berlin’s idea of value pluralism, it is not hard to recognize that different societies and cultures, like different individuals and families we meet, express their own unique sets of dominant values and practices. Some individuals and collectives prefer what I call the “left-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of rationality, logic, objectivity, detachment, the external third-person account of the world. They love math, science and technology. Other individuals and collectives prefer the “right-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of passion, paradox, subjectivity, participation, the internal first-person account of the world. They love music, art and literature. Many “left-brain” types are drawn to business, finance and politics, and to all things mechanical, strategic and military. “Right-brain” types are drawn the sensuous, aesthetic and ecstatic. The left-brain rational types seek the Stoic, Utilitarian, Productive, Quantitative, Dutiful and Heroic Life, while the right-brain types seek the Epicurean, Romantic, Creative, Qualitative, Desirous and Picturesque Life.

These are two casts of mind, two ways of life. This, then, is the society and world of value pluralism in which we live. Perhaps some values are complementary, while others are contradictory, and still others are so remote and dissimilar from each other as to be incommensurable. Whether we choose relate to different values as primarily complementary, competitive or incomparable is yet another tacit value commitment. My own temperamental preference is to follow the counsel of E.M. Forester wherever possible, who famously said, “Only connect.”

The protean scholar & multi-disciplinary polymath: Lessons from Michael Polanyi

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This week I’ve enjoyed reading an excellent “philosophical biography” (if that’s a genre), entitled  Michael Polanyi, by Mark T. Mitchell. I’ve been struck by several statements that provide insight into the remarkable character, sensibility, curiosity and achievement of Michael Polanyi, the scientist turned philosopher.

“Had one not merely to know Polanyi in an unprejudiced way to realize that here one was dealing with an Erasmian man, with the protean scholar?”

Erasmus was a Renaissance man, cultural literati and Christian humanist, as well as the intellectual nemesis of Luther who demonized “bastard reason” on behalf of authoritarian  “faith” whose glory is that it contradicts reason. Pascal would famously say that “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of,” but Pascal, a brilliant mathematician, would never demonize critical reason or empirical science in the matter of Luther.

Proteus is the shape-shifting god who can take many forms. To be a “protean scholar” is to flexibly adapt one’s intellectual and creative inquiry to different domains of knowledge and to fluently speak the acquired languages of those respective domains without reducing all knowledge to one single privileged domain. To be a protean scholar is to transcend narrow academic and disciplinary specialization. It is to see things from multiple perspectives and even to consider the possiblility that several of they of not all of them may be partly right.

To be a “protean scholar” is also to develop a kind of epistemological variety and flexibility, just as a carpenter learns to use many different tools rather than just rely on a hammer for every building job. So people only learn how to use a “hammer” for every intellectual inquiry and for every practical situation in life. They have never met a question or a problem that they could not answer or solve by just clobbering it into cowering submission. Robert Jay

Any discussion of the “protean scholar” can hardly slip by without mentioning the related idea of “Protean man” that is credited to psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton’s idea is that the “protean man” embraces multiple perspectives at once, modifying them at will, and then lets them go only to re-embrace them in a playful (sometimes seriously playful) manner. He contrast’s the “protean man” with the “the fundamentalist.” That
The Protean man could also be considered an ironist, someone who is “always aware that the terms in which they describe them selves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves” — as stated by Richard Rorty. If there is one thing Protean man or the ironist finds difficult, it is committing to a single perspective among a plethora of options and then acting on it. Rorty distinguishes between metaphysicians and ironists, correlating with philosophical realists and nominalists, as well as absolutists and relativists. When one understands Polanyi’s highly nuanced epistemology, it is clear that he is neither an authoritarian metaphysician nor an ludic ironist, a modern scientistic objectivist or a post-modern literary narrative subjectivist. He offers a middle way, a third culture that transcends this dichotomy that runs through the modern academy and popular culture.
And then there was this statement: “Polanyi was unusual even as a scientist in that he was active in both theoretical and experimental work (as a physical chemist). A keen mind coupled with a rigorous and broad liberal education provided him with the capacity to pursue interests outside of his field of expertise (in physical chemistry); the political upheavals of twentieth-century Europe provided the catalyst.” One may possess a “keen mind” that inquires about many things but be sadly deprived of a “liberal arts education.” Or one may be given the gift of “a liberal arts education” but without a “keen mind” that dares to reflect upon knowledge and experience, to ask interesting and provocative questions, and go outside the field of one’s narrow expertise, it will count for little.

Polanyi’s boyhood education included private tutoring in English, French, German, and the Hungarian that was spoken in the home. What an advantage it is for the budding polymath to become fluent in multiple languages which involve a vast repertoire of lexicons of meaning and idioms of expressions.

Polanyi was introduced to the writings of Schiller, Goethe, Corneille and Racine. These are the great German Romantic writers. Goethe is, of course, the quintessential scientific, philosophical, literary and artistic polymath, as well as a man familiar with the civic, social, economic and political world in which he lived.

Here’s another clue: “The intellectual climate in Budapest at the time was vibrant, and Cecile-Mama, Michael’s mother, established a salon that attracted a wide variety of artists and writers. Both of Polanyi’s parents were engaged in a robust intellectual and cultural life. They were avid readers and they were friends to many different artists and writers. Imagine the stimulating influence this would have on a young mind.

As Polanyi later described it, “I grew up in this circle, dreaming of great things.” Who wouldn’t under such a rich informal apprenticeship and mentoring influence? It is not difficult to see where his idea of the normative and regulative value of “tradition and authority” within a “community of practice” comes from. He witnessed the intellectual stimulation and enchanting delight of a “living community of practice” in the presence of his mother’s conversational salon among gifted artists and writers who learned their crafts from the established masters of their disciplines as well as from each other. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” mutually benefit and enrich each other, as T.S. Eliot so eloquently puts it in his famous essay.

Emerson’s libertarian ideas of “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” are valuable correctives to slavish and unthinking conformity to ideas and traditions that belong to the historical past. But they have always needed the corrective of a highly diverse yet broadly normative intellectual and scholarly tradition that manifests itself in a mentored and disciplined “community of practice.” Without this we have no way to critically challenge “the lunatic fringe” of unbridled solipsism, pseudo-intellectualism, rhetorical propaganda and ignorant stupidity. The fact of the matter is that Emerson himself enjoyed such a “community of practice” among his highly educated and cultured transcendentalist friends. He even encouraged them to develop “portfolios” of their intellectual and creative work to be shared and reviewed by each other. His editorial work with “The Dial” is further evidence that he valued participation a “community of practice.” Emerson was not entirely again the epistemological value of  “Authority (meaning Expertise) and Tradition (meaning Legacy).” He just wanted to create a new one in America that was free of old European influence.  And so it seems clear that he denied in theory what he affirmed in practice.

Then there is this: “During the eight years at the Minta Gymnasium, Polanyi studied history, literature, language, science and mathematics. By his own admission, physics and art history were his favorite subjects–an early foreshadowing of the breadth of interest that would characterize the rest of his life.” Physics and art. I’m reminded of Leonard Shlain’s fascinating book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, and also of his later book, Art and Physics, on how new scientific theories and discoveries have often been anticipated (by decades if not centuries) by intuitive insights and imaginative visions expressed in the metaphorical and symbolic languages of literature and the arts.

This phenomenon illustrates and supports Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge mutually interact with and influence each other in a continual feed-back loop. Shlain, a brain surgeon by profession, also developed into a polymath. Like Polanyi he was a broad-minded and passionately intelligent humanist who thought about life with his whole-brain. He brought the right brain hemisphere and left brain hemisphere, the tacit dimension and the explicit dimensions together. The ancient Taoist tradition expresses this vision of the receptive, perceptive, inward-looking and affective Yin and the active, judicial, outward-looking and cognitive Yang being symbiotically inter-connected within the Integral, Emergent and Ineffable Tao. Jung’s conceptual model for psychoanalytic psychology is deeply influenced by philosophical Taoism.

Mark Mitchell also makes the point that Polanyi began as an “outsider” to the established scientific community and that he would probably not have been able to make some of his most brilliant scientific discoveries that relied upon his own tacit knowledge as much as upon established scientific facts if he had not possessed the independence of mind to think outside the system.

It is said that “a system cannot understand itself.” It cannot understand anything that may exist in a dimension, level or realm outside of above “the system.” Anything o”utside” is variously “labeled” as an anomaly, antimony, conundrum, fluke, blip, absurdity, contradiction, mystery, perplexity, problem or paradox.  We have a whole vocabulary for such phenomena. When enough of these unexplainable phenomena beyond the standard norms of deviation pile up, the system is ripe for a paradigm shift, a revolution in thinking. Intellectual paradigms and cultural zeitgeist sometimes seem to change at the speed of a glacier melting. But at other times these profound shifts occur as a “punctuated equilibrium, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Jay Gould.

At such times thoughtful and inquisitive individuals begin to look for alternative explanations that can give a more full and complete account of both natural phenomena and human experience, fashioning new theories and narratives into more elegant and encompassing patterns of meaning and relationships. They often transgress intellectual boundaries and make new connections across disciplinary lines. That is why “protean scholars” and “multi-disciplinary polymaths” are so often thought leaders who live on the forefront of change and the edge of history.

It needs to be noted that even Albert Einstein, who generally respected Polanyi as a brilliant scientific thinker, thought he was wrong about some of his scientific ideas and observations. However, those ideas and observations were validated as accurate decades later by the established scientific community. There is something to be said for the independent scholar and organic intellectual who respects the authority and tradition of  established communities of practice in various disciplines of knowledge and domains of life, but who also enjoys a measure of freedom and autonomy from their potentially stultifying and leveling influences. It is a delicate balance between the extremes of totalitarian conformity and anarchistic eccentricity.

Polanyi’s later ideas of the tacit dimension and personal knowledge are consistent with his lifelong passion for developing a diversified epistemology that vindicates multiple ways of knowing rather than only the “scientific method” as often falsely construed as a strictly empirical objectivist endeavor. He continually gleaned new insights, illuminations, knowledge and understanding of the human condition and the nature of reality as he explored the domains of science, philosophy, history, economics, politics, art, literature, ethics, values and religion. Though his early  professional expertise and success was as a chemist, Polanyi’s gradual adoption of “anti-reductionism” (that would reduce all valid knowledge to mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology) was rooted in his broad liberal arts education, placing the sciences, arts and humanities in a collegial relationship of mutual dialogue. This approach gave him an approach “to knowing and being” that understood reality on multiple levels, rather than flattened out into only one level. E.F. Schumacher develops a similar multi-layered epistemology in A Guide for the Perplexed and Small Is Beautiful. Universal Polymaths think differently than parochial specialists. In the famous analogy of the Hedgehog and the Fox, scientific specialists tend to be Hedgehogs while humanistic generalists tend to be Foxes.

In his book, More Than Matter? Is There More to Life than Molecules, by Keith Ward, the author begins by quoting Francis Crick as an example of the reductionist mentality: “You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve-cells and their associated molecules.” Crick was a brilliant scientist and a co-discoverer of DNA, but his worldview is extremely limited. It reduces all of life to the one discipline he happened to have devoted his entire scholarly life to studying. It is easy to see how one might make this mistake, explaining all the complexities of nature and human existence strictly in of the algorithms, calculations, mechanisms and laws associated with math, physics, chemistry, botany, biology, or even cognitive and social science.

Keith Ward’s book is one of many scholarly critiques of such a narrowly reductionist approach. The most credible critics of one-dimensional objectivism, hyper-rationalism and scientistic reductionism are probably those, like Polanyi, who devoted most of his life to doing serious scientific work in critical dialogue among the leading scientists of his time and within an established community of practice. His unique approach avoided the snares of both modern objectivism and post-modern subjectivism.

Polanyi’s development as both a scientist and a polymath meant that he was deeply interested in understanding and engaging all the sciences, but he was also interested in exploring the philosophy of science, including its epistemological foundations. He was interested in understanding and engaging philosophy, economics, politics, art, literature, ethics and religion, each on its own terms and within its own fiduciary framework of a “scholarly tradition” and “community of practice”, without reducing them to the domains of math, physics, chemistry and biology.

Polanyi clearly had a high regard for the scientific enterprise and for scientific method. He always regarded his knowledge and mastery of scientific inquiry as the best training for his later studies in philosophy and the other liberal disciplines. But he did not “inflate” science into the sum of all knowledge and the only valid method of knowing,  thus turning science into scientism. His broad liberal education endowed him with an equally broad epistemological orientation that unleashed his ability to approach all the liberal arts as mutual colleagues rather than an imperial territorial game of King of the Mountain. And that, quite simply, is the genius of the protean scholar and the multi-disciplinary polymath!

[Note: There is much more to be said about the genius of Michael Polanyi. That I will save for another blog. A short reading list includes: Michael Polanyi, by Mark T. Mitchell. Books by Michael Polanyi include: Knowing and Being. Personal Knowledge. The Tacit Dimension. The Study of Man, Meaning. Wikipedia has a good introduction. Surf the Web. There is a Polanyi Society. Find out thinkers have been influenced by his ideas of the tacit dimension and personal knowledge. The literary critic F.R. Leavis was profoundly influenced by reading “Knowing and Being.” See who else has developed similar ideas without any knowledge of or reference to the work of Polanyi. It is not unusual to find several great minds that come upon similar ideas during the same period and under the same pressures of historical challenge and cultural development.]

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.

Exploring the Relationship Between “Tacit Knowledge” and “Explicit Knowledge”

Data, Info, Knowledge, Wisdom

Comment: By differentiating between Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom, and seeing their relationship as a movement from Explicit Knowledge to Tacit Knowledge, we avoid the “reductionism” that confuses Explicit Data, Information and Knowledge with Tacit Wisdom. Tacit Knowledge is primal. Explicit Knowledge is strongly influenced by the Tacit Dimension which operates beneathe the surface of our categorical and quantifying cognition.

ExplicitTacitIceberg

Comment: This chart is based on the groundbreaking work of the philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi. By recognizing that the relationship between Explicit Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge is analogous to an Ice Berg with Tacit Knowledge submerged beneathe the surface and Explicit Knowledge rising above the surface, we avoid the “reductionism” that would either deny the presence and influence of Tacit Knowledge altogether or reduce Qualitative and Non-Measurable Tacit Knowledge to Quantitative and Measurable Explicit Knowlege. Reality is more than we know; we know more than we can say; what we do know and say is personally and collectively conditioned by the assumptions, beliefs, values and habits of our “community of practice.”

softer and Harder

Comment: Tacit Knowledge is Softer. Explicit Knowledge is Harder. They are related as the Yin and Yang within the Integral Tao. Their relation is not dualistic but interactive and integral. “The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.” That translates as “The Map is not the Territory.” What we call “Reality” is the Encompassing. It is more than our tacit values, beliefs, habits and skills. It is more than our explicit data, information, categories and paradigms.

Why Literature, Theatre, Music and the Arts Matter: The imaginative power and creative appeal of the literary novel, poem, drama and lyric essay, along with great works of music and art, return us to the primacy of the tacit dimension of ontological, intuitive, aesthetic, expressive, relational and ethical experience in a way that abstract philosophical categories and quantifying scientific data tend to gloss over or reduce to their flatter worlds.

tacit-explicit-knowledge

Comment: This chart developed by I. Nonaka in “The Knowledge Creating Company” suggests the continuously interactive feedback loop between Tacit Knowledge and Explicit Knowledge, along with the role of Socialization and the ways in which we combine Tacit and Explicit Knowledge.

tacit-to-explicit-v2

Comment: What an astonishing realization! If it is true that our total knowledge is greater than what we can tell or show, and even greater than we can write, record and document, and even greater still than what we can transfer to readers or watcher-listeners of recording, then this can provide a hedge against dogmatism. If we further grant that “the ineffable mystery” that we call “reality” is greater than what we know, eithering tacitly in values and skills, or explicitly in data and categories, then we will have learned the lesson of epistemological humility.

tacit-vs-explicit2

Comment: This chart not only differentiates between Tacit Knowledge and Explicit Knowledge but also differentiates between two kinds of Tacit Knowledge: Know Why and Know How. Tacit Know Why deals with values, feelings, motives, relationships and significance. Tacit Know How deals with intuitive interaction, habit, muscle-memory and competence. By contrast, Explicit Know What deals with facts, categories, models and metrics. Some might prefer to differentiate facts and metrics from categories and models. A problem arises when we conflate any of these three (or four) ways of knowing, imposing either 1. values, 2. skills, 3. data, or 4. categories as an exclusive or dominating epistemology. Why would we do this? It seems that psychological temperament,  social conditioning, educational experience and existential choice each play a role in deciding which of these ways of knowing we trust the most and assume to be regulative of the others. Even here there are those who will tend to pick only one or two of these four factors as the regulative and decisive ones, ignoring or minimizing the other factors that “just don’t agree with them” or with their “community of practice.”

Going Deeper: For a more in depth exploration of these ideas, do a Web search for “The Duality of Knowledge” by Paul Hildreth and Chris Kimble; read about the work of Michael Polanyi at Wikipedia and The Polanyi Society; preview his major writings at Amazon, including “The Tacit Dimension,” “Personal Knowledge,” “Being and Knowing,” and “Transcendence and Self-Transcendence”

F.R. Leavis: The Literary Critic As Anti-Philosopher

F.R. Leavis

Thesis: The various academic disciplines of the university world are each “jealous gods” who proclaim, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This is true whether we are speaking of philosophy, history, literature, arts or sciences. Each would be the Master Discipline, the organizing center of intellectual and cultural life. Each one may develop a natural antipathy to its competitors. Each one may create a vortex of knowledge that becomes a silo of power. But there are better options.

I hold in my hands a collection of essays and papers by the great English literary critic F.R. Leavis entitled “The Critic as Anti-Philosopher.” The companions to this book include Dickens the Novelist, Nor Shall My Sword, The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought, and Thought, Words, and Creativity: Art and Thought in D.H. Lawrence. Leavis was invited to deliver the prestigious Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1965 that was later published as “English Literature in Our Time and the University (1967). Leavis’ subjects of literary criticism included Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Conrad, Coleridge, Arnold, James, Hopkins, Hardy, Joyce, and Dickens, among others. Leavis did admire the philosophical writings of Michael Polanyi, author of “Knowing and Being,” and so his “anti-philosopher” stance was selective rather than universal.

Leavis was a friend of the philosopher Wittgenstein who also taught at Cambridge and on one occasion playfully (but seriously) urged him to “give up philosophy.” This is ironic because in fact Wittgenstein did give up teaching philosophy for a while to go teach school children, something for which he was singularly unsuited. Leavis describes Wittgenstein as an intellectual genius of remarkable intensity who was fascinating to watch at he wrestled in a sustained spontaneous effort to resolve self-imposed problems of his intellectual discipline. Leavis writes, “Wittgenstein has an intensity of a concentration that impressed itself on one as disinterestedness.” But the same could be said of Leavis. There is something obsessive in each of these men’s intellectual passion. Maybe there is something “obsessive” in the temperament of all intellectuals who enjoy working tirelessly on various thought-problems they assign themselves to work on.

And yet it must also be said that there was an intellectual incompatibility, “an antipathy of temperament” between these two men of genius. Leavis puts it this way, “Wittgenstein couldn’t in any case imagine that literary criticism might matter intellectually. Even at that time I had the opposing conviction: it was, as it is, that the fullest use of language is to be found in creative literature, and that a great creative work is a work of original exploratory thought.”

Another literary critic who shares Leavis’ sensibility is Michael Wood, author of “Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.” Wood is the Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, and from 1995 to 2001 he was the Director of Gauss Seminars in Criticism at Princeton. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. But here’s his difference from Leavis. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society. His works include books on Stendhal, Garcia Marquez, Nabokov, Kafka, and films. In addition, he is a widely published essayist and book reviewer. And so we can deduce that Michael Wood is a secular henotheist who is able to render some limited devotion to the god of Philosophy but his supreme devotion belongs to the god of Literature.

Several blogs ago I wrote about the binary nature of intellectual discourse within the various intellectual disciplines of the university world. But it is also true that there is a binary fixation between the liberal disciplines as well. For some that binary tension between Literature and Philosophy. For others it will be a binary tension between Philosophy and Science, or say philosophy and Religion. Any combination of intellectual disciplines can become a binary fixation and focus of dialogue, discourse, dialectic and debate.

What happens rather spontaneously in the complex mental lives of intellectually inclined individuals in general and of professional academics in particular is a gradual concentration and intensification of knowledge and reflection that consolidates principally around one “master discipline.” Its scholarly body of knowledge, assumptions, methods and styles become normative. The deeper one goes into that intellectual discipline and critical domain the more it becomes a creative vortex that gathers up and organizes one’s thought until we see the world almost entirely through its lens. Of course this same process is what creates academic silos from which the intellectual partisans come to view each other across disciplines with growing suspicion.

Occasionally something surprising will happen. A few “organic free-range” intellectuals and “home-grown polymaths” will adopt a radically pluralistic and pragmatic approach to intellectual and cultural inquiry. Such a pluralistic and diversified approach is characterized by “interdisciplinary complementarity” in which no single academic discipline or ideology of any discipline “captures the flag” or “gets to have the last word.” It is a continuing and open dialogue between multiple modes, methods and styles of discourse, like learning to fluently speak multiple languages and dialects. This, of course, is extremely rare. Most domesticated and sequestered academics believe, whether they will publicly admit it or not, that only one intellectual discipline can serve as the master discipline that explains (at the most fundamental level) what is really going on, and it just happens to be the one they have devoted their lives to studying with almost religiously passionate intensity of sustained devotion.

Occasionally something perhaps even curious will happen. An intellectual who had devoted his life to the primary study of one academic discipline, for example natural science, decides that his time would be better spent in the study of philosophy or literature, music or art, and so he switches horses. One can become disillusioned or weary of one’s own intellectual discipline. It may lose its magical luster and persuasive power. And of course this switching of horses may happen in any direction.

In addition, let us admit that we are each naturally influenced by the people around us and by the interests of others. Academic types figure out what seems to have intellectual pizzaz and cultural cache. Let us say one is studying and teaching the humanistic disciplines such as philosophy, religion, history, literature or the arts in an academic community that is overwhelming dominated by the prestigious and well-funded disciplines of science, technology, business and economics. In such an institution professors of the humanities and the arts are likely to feel marginalized and irrelevant to the serious business of the increasingly corporate university, which is, well, business. Colleges and universities that can’t generate income, compensate their faculty, staff the administration and pay their bills go out of business. Let’s be realists here.

One “realist” approach to teaching follows the principle: “If you can’t beat them join them.” Let’s say one is teaching philosophy, an intellectual discipline that some utilitarian cynics question as being relevant, since it is unlikely that one will ever be able to use it to make a living or become a success in the world. The sensible way for a politically astute professor of philosophy to attain at least a measure of status, relevance and respect in a science and technology-driven institution is to teach courses in “Philosophy of Science” and “Ethics of Technology.” Likewise, if theoretical and practical studies in “Economics, Finance, Business and Management” have become the academic center of university  then one hones his liberal academic discipline to address the philosophical and ethical problems of those domains. The ways in which the liberal disciplines of history, linguistic, literature and the arts justify their existence in such a utilitarian academic institution remain deeply problematic.

In any case, it is not only the specialized literary critic like Leavis who is the anti-philosopher. Every intellectual specialization will breed disciplinary elitists who can at best tolerate the distracting presence of the competing intellectual disciplines. They will assume that what is “explained” or left “unexplained” by other disciplines is “fully explained” by their discipline. After all, we only have so much physical and mental energy to spread out and use up.

Here’s my pitch: The great benefit of a true liberal arts education is that we “learn how to learn” through broad and in-depth encounters with multiple disciplines and perspectives that continuously engage each other in critically reflective and constructive dialogue. We learn how to question, compare, contrast, communicatecooperate and collaborate. We learn from others who have “casts of mind” and “styles of temperament” that are quite different from our own. We learn that philosophers, theologians, historians, scientists, literati and artists, among others, can be friends and colleagues without succumbing to suspicion, contempt, alienation or reproach. And this knowledge is precious in any progressive society that values the importance of cultural literacy, intellectual discourse, human solidarity and civil society.