Researchers owe tacit debt to Polanyi

May 1, 1998

PETE Mann's advice to postgraduate research students to trust more in tacit knowledge is well-founded (THES Research, April 17). But his brief allusion to Michael Polanyi scarcely conveys his indebtedness to Polanyi's study, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, which opens up issues of profound significance in education.

Polanyi highlighted the role of belief, and what he termed "passionate commitment", as necessary components of every act of knowing. Within that context he reframed the debate on objectivity and what may be universally valid, describing, for instance, empiricism's value as a maxim, rather than as an absolute: "The scientist's procedures are, of course, methodical. But his methods are but the maxims of an art which he applies in his own original way to the problems of his own choice."

Polanyi's discussion of the nature of art and "connoisseurship" focused on the transfer of skill by contact, observation and example rather than by precept (and the consequence that an art in disuse for a generation may be lost irretrievably). On another level he pointed to the "logical gap" that separates antecedent knowledge from consequent discovery, emphasising how major discoveries alter our interpretive frameworks: they are not possible by logical application of previously known and specifiable procedures.

His hypothesis that "consciousness is intentional," and his description of "heuristic fields" as part of an evolutionary pattern of emergence will continue to fuel the debate on what and how we know.

On a more pragmatic level his great essay can provide guidelines (and caveats) for declared educational policy: as when we consider the implications of promoting "information technology", or seek to develop and quantify "transferable skills".

Certainly the possibility of striking an effective balance between these two complex and potentially competing aims would be increased by studying what Polanyi has set down about the nature of both.

Alexander Hutchison

Lecturer in educational development Department of educational and staff development University of Paisley

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