Seeking Integration in a Fragmented World: Indwelling Polanyian Integration

So far I have claimed that, especially in this era of fragmentation, we seek some way to integrate our lives. I have suggested that the view that modernity holds of what knowledge is has actually been a critical source of the fragmentation we sense in the modern West. Imagining knowledge to be impersonal, explicit, transferable, factoids of information, data points, masks its own presumption and results in fragmentation. I presented premier scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi’s innovative account of knowing as subsidiary focal integration. And I suggested that a critical key to personal integration would be embracing an integrative epistemology.

In the last post, I considered what is meant by “the good life.” I claimed that the good life is a matter of epiphanic encounter and communion with reality. I noted that I think that the movement toward the good life is one of integration.

I concede that it is quite a leap for the reader to make, to move from the alien terminology of “subsidiary focal integration” to epiphanic encounter and communion with the real! In this essay and the next, I want to fill in the intermediate steps, and draw you more deeply into the feel of the thing. Specifically, I will make some more comments about the implications of Polanyi’s account of knowing. In another post I will talk about covenant epistemology—further proposals about knowing that I developed out of reflecting on Polanyi’s account of knowing. Covenant epistemology brings us to the doorstep of communion with the real.

As I said, Polanyi shows us that all knowing involves integration from clues on which we rely to a Gestalt-like pattern that makes sense of the clues. All knowing displays this two-level, from-to structure, with integration connecting the levels. Integration is a creative, active, shaping of a pattern, or the receptive, often sudden, seeing of a pattern. It is a dynamic shift, a logical leap. We are all familiar with the delightful experience of an aha moment, a moment of insight. This is the moment of integration. The pattern make transformative sense of whatever disparate pieces we had been trying to understand, as it integrates them as parts of this fresh pattern. You can identify subsidiary focal integration in any act of coming to know. Skilled performances, such as reading or bike riding or driving a car, are superb examples. You are engaged in subsidiary focal integration this minute as you read and ponder with me.

Polanyi noted various aspects of this phenomenon. One just is the fact that we know the subsidiaries as such only from within the pattern. Yes, there is a physics formula for balancing on a bike; I as a bike rider only know that formula as I enact it in the pattern. Secondly, the pattern makes the clues it integrates appear differently from what they did before. Coming to identify one’s calling, for example, can change the way your life in your past now appears to you. Third, the integrative pattern ascribes fresh meaning to the clues. Reading, of course, is such a great example of this. Unrecognized letters and words on a page are devoid of meaning. Read words alone are meaningful words. You can’t simultaneously focus on a word and find it meaningful. Fourth, the experience of integration compels a sense that we have made contact with reality, a connection with something objectively real that is fraught with possibilities that extend beyond the ones we can name. Polanyi himself designated these four aspects.

Meaning and meaningfulness, then, is tied to integration. This is the second of the four aspects I noted above. When we make sense of things, put them together creatively in a pattern, in an insight, meaning invades us. Integration just is the dynamic of meaning. (That’s why the good life involves integration.)

Also, integration changes the appearance of things, including yourself. This is the third of the four aspects. In my teaching these matters, I often refer to Joseph, the Israelite patriarch, saying to his brothers: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20) Imagine the trauma of your brothers selling you into slavery, being accused falsely and imprisoned, cut off from any to help you. But as Joseph eventually makes sense of his life and even his hardship, this is what he comes to be able to say. He has integrated to a farther pattern. Things appear differently. So integration is also a dynamic of forgiveness and of healing.

The fourth aspect of subsidiary focal integration is that it connects us with reality. Integration gives us the sense that our newly discovered pattern is in some way objectively real. Integration connects us deeply in and with the world. I will return to this in my next essay about covenant epistemology.

What does it take to undergo such integration? You actually have to let go. You have to let go of fixating the disconnected particulars, let go of the way you are currently seeing them. The picture that comes to mind is of the classic trapeze artist who only flies to grasp the other trapeze once she has let go of the first. In aspiring to integration, you must let go of your focal fixation on the particulars. You must seek to trust them and move from them and beyond them. You seek to relate to them in a different way. You must grope forward in half understanding and anticipation. The Christian believer knows this: crying out to God, asking him to resolve things—those are prayers that get answered as the Lord changes us to rise above our circumstances and in so doing make sense of them. But something like that is actually going on in any quest of ours for a solution that makes sense of things.

There is another intriguing integrative aspect of subsidiary focal integration. I have been attending to how the integrated pattern, the result of our integrating, integrates us. But it’s thrilling (and immensely freeing) also to consider the integration of the subsidiaries with each other. A pattern integrates a vast array of otherwise disconnected, and even focally contradictory, particulars. And it does so dynamically: the specific set of subsidiaries (not that it is possibly to specify them all!) can be continually changing in the performance or committed whole. Our bodies are tremendous examples of this: we can concoct ever new collections of actions to open a door, for example (especially if we are parents of very young children!) Our bodies find ever new ways to get the job done. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a master of dynamically integrating the subsidiaries to achieve the performance of a successful touchdown drive. Every subsidiary-focal integration is like that. So seeing several matters as subsidiary to a larger pattern actually allows them to meld creatively and meaningfully. This state of affairs actually allows us to meld matters that at first seem utterly disparate. We may do so creatively and with virtuosity, in a dynamically ongoing performance. When seen as a life-long venture, it can be a life well and wisely lived. Wisdom can be seen as the art of integration.

Finally, remember that subsidiary focal integration is operative in the simplest perception, the smallest seeing. So understood, the simplest seeing is a creative act that is a healing—a putting of you together. Consider the flowers people send to the bereaved, or the sky at night, a melody you hear or make, or wonderfully roasted Brussel sprouts. In seeking integration in an era of fragmentation, do not only look to an all-encompassing integration. Stay attuned to the tiny quotidian ones as well.

This bodied integrative dynamic of from-to directly counters the modernist epistemic presumption that all knowledge is exhaustively explicit and transferable information. Specifically, subsidiary focal integration makes it evident that our knowing requires indwelt, and thus inherently unformalizable, inarticulable, embodied knowledge. So it challenges the still-prevailing winds that fragment, disconnect and dehumanize. The more we can see knowing as integration, the more we will be freed to it and the better we will be at being integrated people.

Aliquippa, PA

Eastertide, 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 KnowingLoving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.