Seeking Integration in a Fragmented World: Integration Requires an Integrative Epistemology: Michael Polanyi

The word, “integration,” can sound abstract, technical, unhelpful. But as I represented it in my first installment on this matter, I take it instead to be the central desire of our lives. We long to integrate life, and to integrate ourselves. I offered as a preliminary definition, that integration is creatively putting things together.

We sense that we live in an era of fragmentation, in which the disconnects eclipse and dissipate connectivity. We feel isolated, cut off from others, from reality, from ourselves. We feel the disconnect between the compartmentalized components of our lives and society. Meaning seems absent. We concede this as we settle, with a sigh, into our own little worlds of the lab, the job, the soccer team, the church. We feel this despite the ready access of information, communication, and people with few degrees of separation. I think, by the way, that the fact that we sense fragmentation itself bears witness to our longing for integration as the way it is supposed to be.

The philosophical questions which we are testify against us in this respect, ever raising the matter of integration and meaning: what is the meaning of life? Who am I? Why am I here and why is anything else here? We cope by repressing these, boxing them off into a junk closet in the spare back room. Difficult circumstances can blow the door off that closet, from time to time, and the questions can run around and wreak havoc, until we manage to force them back into the closet, perhaps by leveraging stand-by platitudes. “Keep calm and…” Note the jest that accompanies this; it too suggests our longing for something more. Or we simply make our bed, cynically, in meaninglessness. But this too, bears witness to the hope that we shut out.

On the other hand, we’re not comfortable, in the abstract, with the idea of attempts (especially by others!) to put things together. These threaten repression, absorption, exclusion, inauthenticity. Somehow, we can feel that fragmentation at least has honesty going for it. And air to breathe. We both do and don’t long for integration. This is something that must be addressed in a healthy understanding of integration.

In introducing the idea last time, my commentary reflected what has come to be my own studied stance on integration in my covenant epistemology. In this essay, I want to acquaint you with a critical source for my approach: Michael Polanyi’s epistemology of subsidiary-focal integration. His and my accounts begin with a critique of the dominant modern Western presumption about what knowledge is—a default epistemology that is defective. The dominant epistemic default necessarily engenders fragmentation. To state it positively: an immensely positive, health-restoring, step integral (!) to integration is an integrative epistemology. Integration turns out to be the fundamental orientation of ourselves toward our world. Embracing an integrative epistemology restores us to ourselves and our world. And it won’t turn out to be repressive to be restored to ourselves and the world.

The Hungarian Michael Polanyi was a premier scientific discoverer in the early decades of the 20th century. Polanyi was in conversation with the giants of science at the time. Multiple Nobel Prize winners emerged from his research lab, having first come to apprentice with him because of his renowned genius. Polanyi himself became more and more preoccupied with the critical matter of the age, that of understanding science as a practice, and defending science itself from extinction. For Polanyi, science just is the vision of reality that launches discovery—the creative, risk-taking, advance into the unknown. Specifically, he feared the encroachment of socialized and political programs on the liberty essential for scientists to discover. He saw that programmatic encroachment was a logical implication of an epistemic stance that had become widely accepted, but which entirely obscured the most essential elements of scientific success.

Consider this, Polanyi’s description of modern science: “Trained to measure the perfection of knowledge by the example of the exact sciences, [the modern biologist] feels profoundly uneasy at finding his knowledge so inferior to this standard. The ideal of the exact sciences, derived from mechanics, aims at a mathematical theory connecting tangible, focally observed objects. Here everything is above-board, open to public scrutiny, wholly impersonal. The part of tacit knowing is reduced to the act of applying the theory to experience, and this act goes unnoticed. And the fact that tacit powers predominate in the very making of discoveries is set aside as forming no part of science.”1

Polanyi the premier discoverer feared Marxist-inspired socialized science inexplicably popular in England (of all places!) between the wars. But what he feared even more was the inherent epistemic unfaithfulness of modern science to itself. And if we consult our own experiences and current perception of science, he had every reason to fear it. That science could be anything other than what he describes in the passage above is unthinkable and outrageous.

Again, as a sensitively thoughtful premier scientific discoverer, what struck Polanyi about science and discovery was that “its progress at every stage is determined by undefinable powers of thought.” Thus, “scientific discovery cannot be achieved by explicit inference, nor can its claims be explicitly stated. Discovery must be arrived at by the tacit powers of the mind, and its content, so far as it is indeterminate [which it is], can be only tacitly known.” 2 In the essay I cite here, delivered first to an unhearing and dismissive audience in Israel in 1964,3 Polanyi proceeds to develop his account of integration as the knowing feat. This essential, essentially human, tacit power undeniably on display in the simplest act of perception all the way to the most daring feat of discovery, displays a different sort of logic—a logic of tacit inference.

Polanyi rightly fingers the glaring oversight of Immanuel Kant, father of contemporary Western philosophy, with regard to “mother wit”—a “secret trick of Nature” which is the fundamental agency in our knowing, which Kant dismissed as outside the rules of knowing that he was so bent on articulating precisely. “One may wonder how a critique of pure reason could accept the operations of such a powerful mental agency, exempt from any analysis, and make no more than a few scattered references to it. And one may wonder too that generations of scholars have left such an ultimate submission of reason to unaccountable decisions unchallenged. Perhaps both Kant and his successors instinctively preferred to let such sleeping monsters lie, for fear that, once awakened, they might destroy their fundamental conception of knowledge. For, once you face up to the ubiquitous controlling position of unformalizable mental skills, you do meet difficulties for the justification of knowledge that cannot be disposed of within the framework of rationalism.”4

Polanyi points out that fundamental acts of perception, at their core, involve the perceiver in integration: “A successful integration of a thousand changing particulars into a single constant sight makes me recognize a real object in front of me.”5 After a first act, we can and do come to find this effortless, but the very structure of subsidiarily adjoining (bodily and other) clues, which otherwise would be disparate particulars, in a feat of integration to a coherent pattern, remains. All knowing has a two-level, “from-to,” subsidiary-focal, integrative structure. (To be a great knower/discoverer, you want to be intentional, skilled, and artful, about that undeniable structure.) Polanyi’s claim is that scientific knowing displays this structure; it “consists in discerning gestalten that indicate a true coherence in nature.”6 And he claims that integration just is the tacit power that Kant and modern Western epistemology has systematically blinded itself to.

Examples abound under our noses. This is what you are doing in knowing, even if you have been programmed to self-describe in line with a defective default that denies it. Even as you read this text, you are subsidiarily indwelling (relying on as clues) the virtual marks on this virtual page as clues to a coherent pattern, struggling to make sense of what I am saying. The vectorial, integrative, from-to of subsidiaries and sought-after meaningful gestalt pattern is entirely conscious, but evidently consciousness from that is conscious to. If your computer suddenly shuts down, the coherent meaning of the text and of my argument aborts as well. Integration of subsidiaries to a focal pattern just is the dynamic essential to making sense of text. If words and text are meaningful, integration is occurring. If you revert to focus on the text, it loses its meaning. Text makes sense only as it is subsidiarily indwelt as the essential proximal term of integration.

Polanyi was concerned to defend science from sophocating programatization because of and by means of its essential, pervasive, unformalizabilities and indeterminacies. He proposed that knowing is integration, and to summon us to accredit it, to this end. In subsidiary-focal integration—and this would be especially evident in the pursuit of an as-yet hidden reality—no exact procedure can be specified. The matters that puzzle us cannot remain focal and articulate if we are to make sense of them. We must riskily forgo pat certainties to scrabble subsidiarily to attend from them, as clues, pregnant pointers toward the surprising gestalt that beckons us. What is more, once insight has broken in in the moment of discovery—and even as the scientific community may go on to confirm the discovery and rely on it—that integrative pattern becomes dynamically alive with ever more unspecifiable possibilities. This is just how we know that we’ve made contact with reality. A successful integration satisfies deeply but hardly can be said to shut us in. It roots us joyously in an inexhaustively capacious reality.

The tacit powers of integration are what Polanyi termed, “personal,” because they involve the responsible person in consent, a very undemocratic brilliance and expertise, indwelling participation, anticipating in hope a yet-to-be revealed coherence. Philosopher Marjorie Grene called Polanyi’s from-to integrative structure of knowing, “grounds for a revolution in philosophy.”7 I contend that it is also grounds for a revolution in cultural and personal integration.

To draw to a close. The core dynamic of human knowing is integration. It is not the linear addition of focal bits of information. To focus on the bits (as we might be thinking that we do in analysis) is to prevent our understanding. This is not at all to despise information gathering but rather to depose it as epistemic paradigm. Info gathering only is freed to sing with significance when the fact that we creatively, subsidiarily indwell it to integrate it is understood.

The presumption that knowledge is focally apprehended and ordered information is, paradoxically, a vision that blinds. It rules out of court as non-knowledge the very things that drive real knowing. It exalts dis-integration and prevents integration. We have been epistemically acculturated to dissect in order to know.8 This includes, for us as knowers, dissecting, fragmenting ourselves. Yet integration, with the inexhaustively abundant unspecifiabilities which drive it, is the undeniably operative core of human knowing. We are compelled to integrate—that’s what it means to make sense of the world.

Whatever else is germane to the matter of integration, epistemology is. If you don’t revamp your root epistemological presumptions, integration is unattainable, or merely privatized and marginal. As we are able to recalibrate our vision of knowing to one of integration, we are embracing the very dynamic that yields integration. This is a fundamentally healing, integrative, epistemology. Let it permeate to every corner of your life.

Aliquippa, PA

Season of Lent, 2018

Esther L. Meek, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, as well as a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar. Her books include Contact With Reality:​Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters; A Little Manual for Knowing; Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.

References   [ + ]

1. Michael Polanyi, “The Logic of Tacit Inference,” in Marjorie Grene, ed., Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969), 151.
2. Polanyi, “Logic of Tacit Inference,” 138.
3. Marjorie Grene, A Philosophical Testament (Chicago: Open Court 1995), 122-23.
4. Polanyi, “The Unaccountable Element in Science,” in Grene, ed., Knowing and Being, 105-6.
5. Polanyi, “Logic of Tacit Inference,” 139.
6. Ibid., 138.
7. Grene, “Tacit Knowing: Grounds for a Revolution in Philosophy,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 8 (1977), 164-71.
8. Kimbell Kornu