Thursday, July 27, 2006

Leander Harding's Use of Michael Polanyi

You might not be familiar already with Michael Polanyi, a scientist with broad interests encompassing the philosophy of science; in philosophy circles he is probably best known for his '52 Gifford lectures (a very prestigious lecture series) which became the book, Personal Knowledge. But he has alot of other stuff: Science, Faith, and Philosophy, Meaning, Tacit Dimension, and Knowing and Being are all ready to hand. He is associated with Hayek's effort to mount a defense of the free market, and that would seem to mark him as a classical liberal. Yet he influenced Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, an ur-text for all manner of radical projects decidedly anti-individualist. You might ask, how much distance is there really between Polanyi and, say, late Wittgenstein or Lyotard? Here is a short article setting out how Polanyi's fundamental concept, "tacit knowledge," has been developed in contemporary circles.

Much of the gist of Polanyi's work is consistent with the theology of TEC worked out by Westerhoff and Holmes in Christian Believing and Griffiss in The Anglican Vision. Both works presume an obligation among Christians to epistemic humility, implying that some of our convictions cannot be formulated in propositions that in turn might be proven or disproven. We have, as Polanyi would put it, a tacit knowledge embodied or incarnate in our practices as a community. This practice is what Griffiss et al would have called primary theology: the worship of the church. Propositional formulation can always only be secondary and dependent on worship. Indeed, no final articulation in propositions can exhaust the primary practice: in principle, all confessional covenants consisting of propostions can only defectively state the articles of Christian faith. Prima facie, someone should quickly pack up collections of Polanyi's collected works and send them off to Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Orlando, Lagos and Lambeth Palace.

Dr. Leander Harding, however, uses Polanyi to infer, presumably with TEC in mind--though I am only guessing:

(1) ...the churches of the established Christian homelands have deeply accommodated themselves to the world view of what Polanyi calls Objectivism and that a profound skepticism about tradition has infected the churches of the West with a loss of confidence in their own truths as anything but private beliefs and values; and so [t]he task of evangelizing post-Enlightenment culture cannot go forward as long as the churches’ guiding theologies are so deeply compromised by this syncretism with the epistemological pessimism of Objectivism.

and (2) The second implication is that this combination of moral passion and skepticism about traditional morality and teaching helps to explain the current interior dynamics of the churches.

Inference (1) is false: TEC's epistemic humility does not proceed from methodological doubt or any skepticism proceeding from an expectation that all knowledge conform to canons of Objectivism. TEC's never been positivist; indeed, that can hardly be pegged as an Anglican vice given the priority of worship-in-community among our churches.

(2) is false as well. It is not skepticism about traditional morality that drove GC2003 and GC2006, et al, but moral conviction proceeding from the practice of worship, worship centered around the Baptismal Covenant. For instance, no prominent TEC theologian I know of promotes emotivism or non-cognitivism as the only way to handle moral claims.

But there is some good news here. Common ground is not far off; if Harding has mis-diagnosed TEC's condition, nevertheless he seems to share some of its primary aims. As Harding says, The idea that there is no dependable truth leads only to the destruction of our inheritance and the loss of our humanity. It is the discovery of the truth that sets us free and indeed guarantees our freedom and humanity. I think most Episcopalians in favor of GC2003 would agree that there is dependable truth, of course: Christ the Lord who is the Truth and the Way. Moreover, they would agree with the connection between that Truth and liberation, being set free as Harding has it. In fact they might proclaim that GC2003 was just such an instance of coming into the liberating presence of Truth. Thus one should agree with an "Amen" when he says The thirst for truth must be reawakened by a renewed confidence in the possibility of truth and this will be as much by the witness of living as by argument. I would assure him that thirst was alive at GC2003 and 2006 in the witness of living.

Interesting: there is a real foundation for unity here. Properly viewed, TEC has been living into a version of Polanyi's religiosity for some time. It seems there is significant, very significant common ground between Harding advocating Polanyi and the mainstream of TEC. Let it be so.


At 3:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


When Lesslie Newbigin came back from India Cardinal Suens asked him what he thought of contemporary English Theology. "Tepid Syncretism" was the response. My critique of contemporary Western Theology as compromised by epistemological minimalism is not original. I get it entirely from Newbigin, who was a very close student of Polanyi. He makes the case far better than I can. "Proper Confidence is the book to look at.

My point was not in anyway about particular theologians and certainly not about the semi-offical magesterium you identify. I don't know most of them in detail with the possible exception of Westerhoff for whom I was a teaching assistant and Holmes about whom I have written a paper for the Sewannee review. Holmes I think fair to say was exactly what Lindbeck would call an "emotional expressivist" and would have entirely bought into the objectivist myth. His Ph.D thesis at Marquette was entitled "Ineffable Mystery."

In any event I was speaking about the epistemological scepticism which powers the relativism of so many clergy and can be heard I think in the new PB's interview in Time. This is not from particular theologians primarily, (though that may be a factor) but is in the drinking water.

I don't quite get your argument about tacit knowing. It doesn't seem to me that tacit knowledge is an alternative to robust epistemological claims but an explanation about how judgement and personal committment work in the develpment of dependable theories.

I find a combination of moral passion and extreme scepticism about religious truth as public truth to be extremely characteristic of The Episcopal Church in both formal and informal conversations. Polanyi's idea of moral inversion looks a fit to me.

How alternatively would explain what looks baffling to me at first sight; the combination of extreme scepticism about received teaching and an increasing authoritarianism and strict use of the canons of the church. To find the scriptures so undependable and the canons so dependable begs for some kind of explanation.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Hi; I thought the main point from your post was the linking of moral relativism with moral nihilism. And it seemed you agreed with Polanyi's idea that the demands of objectivism lead to relativism. So far, so good.

My mini-magesterium consists of those whom beginners might have read in Inquiry classes or the like--ECUSA guys speaking to the church self-consciously giving an introduction to what ECUSA is all about.

Emotional expressivists were not the only ones who denied human beings comprehension of the divine essence; supposing that theology is, first of all, God's self-knowledge, it follows truth can be known only to God. Human beings--indeed any creature--can at best participate partially in the divine essence without comprehending it.

This, of ourse, is straight Aquinas--and he would go on to add that at best--at best--our cognition of God owes its truth to analogy: God exists; God is just; God is merciful; God is wise. I.e. we never get beyond a merely partial apprehension of the truth regarding anything at all, and if we mistake analogy for something grand, we may lose our grip over even those partial truths.

Emotional expressivism is consistent with this traditional understanding of the human grasp of the divine. They are different, but need not stand in contradiction--hence the slew of transcendental Thomists who once roamed the earth.

You, with your "robust epistemological claims" seem to be up to something else entirely, something rather novel. You seem to think you can make unconditioned claims about God. Bless your soul.

Polanyi is a relativist, just as Lindbeck is a relativist. Their strategy of recourse to modes of life makes Christian tradition unum inter pares with Islamic tradition or secular tradition or.... That is hardly robust. It's not me making this up; evangelicals like McGrath have been rightly suspicious of narrative theology, and should be similarly suspicious of Polanyi, for denying the universality of Christian truth claims. I mean, Polanyi inspired Kuhn, of all people! He of "paradigm shifts."

Tacit knowledge is really the only piece of live tissue one can salvage from the Polanyi corpus; and what is healthy in it is developed in a different direction in ECUSA.

Remember Polanyi was a great big Liberal, a Classical Liberal like Hume, Smith, Mandeville, Friedman, and Hayek. Indeed, his overall project was very close to that of Hayek. The more you look over this aspect of his thought, the less it looks like it can fit in with any stripe of Christian orthodoxy.

At 10:44 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

For what it's worth, Holmes, Westerhoff, and Griffiss do not constitute a megesterium in any real sense, but they do speak with authority.

Holmes' "What is Anglicanism?" was part of an international effort called the Anglican Studies Series; while not welcomed on all sides, it did include a diverse range of voices, e.g. Peter Toon, Owen Chadwick. It cannot simply be chalked up to the effort of a piece of ECUSA.

Holmes and Westerhoff's "Christian Believing" was part of ECUSA's Church Teaching Series of the '70s. It was not simply a work of individual authors, but was governed by a diverse committee and editorial board, including Fitz Allison and Philip Turner.

"The Anglican Vision" of the '90s NCTS was not part of a committee or international effort, but was included by the office of the ABC amopng works suitable for theological education throughout the Anglican Communion.

In my opinion, the danger is that critics of TEC might only engage a straw man when they attck positions without citing an authoritative theologian or work from TEC where the view in question can explicitly be found.

At 11:05 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Another point on TEC Not treating the canons with epistemic humility:

While having canons is necessary for order, they are not a holy mystery. Their ambiguity is of the same type as the ambiguity in merely secular law, or in Robert's Rules of Order.

Presumably the Word is a mystery of altogether another order--you might comprehend the canons, but you cannot comprehend the Word. Thus, epistemic humility is called for in relation to the Word, humility of a sort not called for in relation to the canons. Coming before the Word without epistemic humility is sinful.

There is no similar sin in relation to the canons. No?

At 12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that Polanyi is fairly described as a relativist but as a crtical realist who believes that personal responsibility in the act of knowing cannot be avoided by reducing that which can be known with confidence to the narrow circle you seeem to represent, in complete agreement in so far as I can see, with the regnant objectivism which makes doctrinal claims nothing more than inarticulate epressions of Schliermachian piety.

I, of course, do not think that Polanyi provides the paradigm into which the Gospel must fit but he does helpfully identify how the act of human knowing works in a general way and how it is not possible to know anything without committment to an authoritative tradition.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Contarini said...

I haven't read Polanyi, but I have read Kuhn. And I don't think Kuhn is the total relativist he's been made out to be. Of course, it all depends on what we mean by "relativist." Insofar as relativism simply means that none of us have a "neutral" vantage point from which we can identify a truth by which to judge competing narratives, I am indeed a relativist. Our narratives are true or false insofar as they coincide with God's narrative. I don't think Kuhn had anything to say about this aspect of things one way or the other--nor should he be expected to. From a purely human vantage point, I think Kuhn is completely right.

It's also worth noting that Kuhn didn't think he was formulating some radical theory about the nature of knowledge as a whole. He thought he was telling scientists that their particular ways of knowing were not as different from other ways of knowing as they thought.

At 11:32 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


On my lights, you count as a relativist. The key in your statement is the claim, roughly: none of us has a neutral vantage point from which to identify a truth by which we may judge inconsistent narratives.

The way you put it seems self-defeating to me; the assertion itself can only be true-within-a-narrative-or-disjunction-of-consistent-narratives, which might be less than what you wanted to say, since its so holding is consistent with there being such a neutral standpoint. That is, there might be a neutral standpoint, like that of God, but it would be unintelligible to you.

This feature of being locked within a framework or narrative is an essential feature of relativism.
It permits a world of monadic frameworks/narratives without windows, to borrow an image from Leibniz.

Leander Harding,
i would repeat my answer to Contarini to you; in effect, just as Kuhn is a relativist, so is Polanyi--even if he never intended it. He might even claim, like Wittgenstein, that relativism is contrast dependent, and since thre is no coherent realism, the accusation of relativism is meaningless--but that is just a fudge.

The worst part about the relativism in question here is its incompatibility with traditional Christian theism. One may revise dogma accordingly, but a Christianity revised to fit Polanyi or Kuhn is a novelty indeed, a novelty ironically far beyond what is implied by same sex blessings or ordaining active gay bishops.

At 11:44 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

I am missing the point in the last post. I take it no party debating here really wants Christian relativism, and the pluralism that would imply, right?

We are trying in different ways to rehabilitate realism. The question is how to go about doing so; where do we find the tools? This is of course urgent: relativism of various stripes is in the air and flourishes.

My point to Leander Harding was: the Episcopal Church is not consciously relativist; its epistemic humility walks a fine line, and there are prominent pluralists in high places--Yes.

But in the big picture, Lindbeck's alternative to emotional expressivism is a no-go because of the threat of relativism. We are left with expressivism and the propositional model, on Lindbeck's schema. The Episcopal Church has tried to combine these: expressivism at the root, propositional formulations following. Some such combination seems the only way left to go.

I submit that the Global South is working out a combination with propositional confession at the root, expressivism in evangelical fashion following.

The question, pace Lindbeck: can we formulate the Faith finally in propositions? I do not think so, and that, if true, does not imply relativism and does imply the basic correctness of Episcopalian theology.


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