Tag Archives: Paradigms

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.”

On Scientific Method Without “Reductive Scientism”

Multi-Functional Mind

Today there are many excellent introductions to the nature and methods of science available to read on the Web, and of course in textbooks. For our purposes it is sufficient to reference the beginning of the Wikipedia article on scientific method:

The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

What, then, is “reductive scientism” as distinct from “scientific method?” Allow me once more to reference the Wikipedia article on that topic:

Scientism is a term used to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. It has been defined as “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.” An individual who subscribes to scientism is referred to as a scientismist. The term scientism frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Tzvetan Todorov to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable. ‘Scientism’ has also been taken over as a name for the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge by philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg.

Scientism may refer to science applied “in excess”. The term scientism can apply in either of two senses:

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims. This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply,such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case, the term is a counter argument to appeals to scientific authority.
  2. To refer to “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry,” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

The term is also used by historians, philosophers, and cultural critics to highlight the possible dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism in all fields of human knowledge.

Obviously one may have great appreciation and respect for “scientific method” without falling prey to the excesses of “scientism,” that is: (1) excessive deference to claims made by scientists and an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific; and (2) the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in them, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry;” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

My discussion of “tacit and explicit knowledge” in the last two blogs makes evident the tacit if not explicit presence of the philosophical, ethical, psychological and social dimensions of experience, regardless of whether one is engaging the humanities, arts, or sciences.  It has been a myth of modern scientism (not science as such) that empirical truth-claims presented as “scientific” are objectively true, and that measurable and quantifiable “explicit knowledge” eliminates the subjective and inter-subjective personal and cultural influence of the tacit dimension. Philosophers and scientists like Michael Polanyi have come to realize that this assumption is intellectually simplistic and naive. Even scientists are human beings first (with tacit assumptions, perceptions, judgment, beliefs, values and commitments) before they are scientists, during their scientific experiments, and after they are done with their scientific work. There is no way to entirely remove the tacit dimension. All knowledge is embodied human knowledge and human knowledge is not “value neutral.”

Like anyone who has long been interested in various scientific as well as philosophical, religious, historical, literary and artistic accounts of the world, I’ve encountered countless physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists who have set forth different Theories of Everything. Sometimes these “grand theorists” cross over quite unknowingly from scientific method to reductive scientism. Many popular theories within the physical, biological, cognitive and social sciences have have attempted to elevate themselves — through scientistic reductionism — to universal explanatory principles or Theories of Everything. These have included Neo-Darwinian survival of the fittest, Dawkins’s selfish genes, Freud’s projection theory, Jung’s archetype fixation, Marx’s class struggle, Feminist’s oppressive patriarchy, Skinner’s operant conditioning, physicist’s Quantum Everything, Santayana’s animal faith, and Frans de Waal’s animal empathy. There are countless others. As partial accounts of the world they may be useful. As totalizing accounts they become ideology. If reality is more than we know, and if what we know is always more than we can tell, and if what we can tell is what we can effectively communicate to the understanding of others, then we will recognize that there is always “a surplus of meaning” that our language never fully encompasses. We never communicate the “totality of reality,” without remainder.

Of course not all physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists present their questions, hypotheses, predictions, tests, analyses and conclusions as Theories of Everything, but only as partial and probably explanations with limited rather than universal extension. But the hubristic temptation is to assume that one has “finally discovered” the Rosetta Stone, is key to all knowledge and understanding of the fundamental nature of reality.

There are several aspects to reductionism. One involves explaining (or explaining away) all religious, philosophical, ethical, historical, literary, artistic and aesthetic phenomena as “really reducible to” sociological, psychological, biological, neurological, physiological and/or computational, algorithmic and mathematical. Another aspect of reductionism involves fierce competition between the various reductive scientistic explanations within physics, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology and economics that have all generated multiple and competing Theories of Everything.

Each of these reductive scientistic theories plays the game of King of the Mountain, seeking to be the interpretative key to all fundamental phenomena. As one listens for years to the exaggerated and grandiose claims of these various  and competing grand theories it is not surprising that some people have developed a post-modern allergy and suspicion toward Grand Narratives and Theories of Everything, including those that claim the imprimatur of science, god of the modern age.

The shift from scientific method to reductive scientism coincides with the tacit or explicit adoption of a materialistic, physicalist, mechanistic and deterministic worldview, as if it were the only show in town. Those who adopt dualist, theist, realist-idealist, neutral monist and pan-psychist worldviews may also engage the scientific enterprise with rigor and intelligence but perceive the world differently.

The tacit/explicit (softer/harder, autopoietic/representational, participation/reification) model of Michael Polanyi and others offers a way to temper the polarizing impulses toward post-modern relativistic subjectivism and ironism on the one hand and modern scientistic objectivism and reductionism on the other.

What is needed today is a recovery of the wisdom of the middle way. What is needed is a “third culture” that mediates between the humanities and the arts on one side and the sciences and technologies on the other. We can have reason without hyper-rationalism, science without scientism, psychology without psychologism, economics without economism, ethics without moralism, spirituality without fundamentalism, history without historicism, literature without escapism, and art without effetism. Liberal arts and cultural literacy are not our problem. Our problem is entrenched ideologies and totalizing dogmas, and they are never more pernicious than when they mask their agendas behind one or more of the liberal arts, including the great and liberating human enterprise we call science.