Heuristic of Passion: Michael Polanyi and Enthusiasm

I’ve been reading Michael Polanyi‘s book Personal Knowledge (1958). Some aspects of Polanyi’s work have been popular in organisational studies primarily due to his conceptualisation of ‘tacit knowledge’. I have been reading Polanyi’s work for the purposes of the article I am currently writing on an ‘economy of know-how’. Maybe I’ll write another post engaging with how organisational studies have used Polanyi’s ‘tacit knowledge’, at the moment I need to finish this article I am writing.

The subtitle of the book Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy indicates Polanyi’s general program of locating affirmation as a central element of the discovery and development of scientific knowledge. Indeed, instead of a heuristic of doubt or a suspension of belief, Polanyi argues for a heuristic of passion premised on belief. Although deployed in any number of occasions in his argument the character of passion is a given and is nearly always described in terms of its function. In those occasions where Polanyi does discuss the character of this passion it is largely through analogy with what he calls the inarticulate intellect of animals and also in the context of instinctual drives. Silvan Tomkins’s work on the ‘analog’ ontology of affect as compared to the ‘digital’ ontology of drives enables contemporary readers of Polanyi’s to explicate what Tomkins calls a “co-assembly of affects” as characterizing the motivational drive of the ‘passion’ he describes.

For Polayni, ‘intellectual passion’ is an integral element in the process of scientific discovery and development of scientific knowledge. He argues that “into every act of knowing there enters into a tacit and passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and that this coefficient is no mere imperfection, but a necessary component of all knowledge” (329). The passion coefficient of knowledge is necessary for the process of discovery. In his discussion of explorers , Polanyi describes commitment to belief as an integral element of intellectual passion that is satisfied by discovery. The explorer enjoys a “daring anticipation of reality” (327). He isolates this as the creative dimension of scientific progress, and this creative dimension relies on ‘heuristic passion’:

“We have to cross the logical gap between a problem and its solution by relying on the unspecifiable impulse of our heuristic passion, and must undergo as we do so a change of our intellectual personality. Like all ventures in which we comprehensively dispose of ourselves, such an intentional change of our personality requires a passionate motive to accomplish it. Originality must be passionate.” (151)

Polanyi argues that the gratification of instinctual appetites (hunger, sex and fear) is a manner of verification. There is a parallel to intellectual passions in that “all passions animating and shaping discovery imply a belief in the possibility of a knowledge of which these passions declare the value” (183). That is, Polanyi suggests, a (not infallible) ‘competence’ of intellectual passions is to recognise truth. The satisfaction of intellectual passions is a kind of verification of discovery, as discovery “terminates the problem from which it started” and “leaves behind knowledge” (183). The knowledge is expressed as part of the ongoing development of an “articulate framework” (183).

He argues that the interpretative framework built upon previous discoveries is changed by future discoveries; hence it is “logically impossible to arrive [at future discoveries] by the continued application of our previous interpretative framework” (151). This insight is troubled, however, by his use of ‘recognition’ in the process by which problems are identified:

“To see a problem is a definite addition to knowledge, as much as it is to see a tree, or to see a mathematical proof—or a joke. It is a surmise which can be true or false, depending on whether the hidden possibilities of which it assumes the existence do actually exist or not. To recognize a problem which can be solved and is worth solving is in fact a discovery in its own right.” (127)

There is a contradiction of discovery based on ‘recognition’. This is not a question of mere semantics, but relates to the functioning of ‘intellectual passion’ itself. Useful here is Deleuze’s development of a post-Kantian philosophy of the Idea as essentially ‘problematic’ instead of ‘regulatory’. That is, without regulatory universality ideas become problematic, and ‘recognition’ in the way Polanyi discusses it here is no longer straightforward. Polanyi himself argues that radical manifestations of this process of breaking with conceptual frameworks dissolves a “screen” between us and things and in doing so dissolves the subjective into experience itself as a form of radical contemplation distinct to our normative experience of experience: “as observers or manipulators of experience we are guided by experience and pass through experience without experiencing it in itself” (209). Perception itself is co-assembled though experience…

Polanyi is primarily concerned with the freedom of intellectual passion necessary for scientific discovery. There is an “essential restlessness” of the human mind expressed through the scientist in terms of pondering new problems and discovering solutions to them (209), but it is not only the scientist that enjoys that satisfaction of discovery. The scientist, in Polanyi’s analysis, is concerned with the “natural order,” while another, for example, the technician or technologist, although working within a similar framework of discovery, has a far more focused heuristic passion.

“He follows the intimations, not of a natural order, but of a possibility for making things work in a new way for an acceptable purpose, and cheaply enough to show a profit. In feeling his way towards new problems, in collecting clues and pondering perspectives, the technologist must keep in mind a whole panorama of advantages and disadvantages which the scientist ignores. He must be keenly susceptible to people’s wants and able to assess the price at which they would be prepared to satisfy them. A passionate interest in such momentary constellations is foreign to the scientist, whose eye is fixed on the inner law of nature.” (188)

The constellation of interests organized around the focused heuristic passion of the technician is in part determined by the set of material advantages afforded by a technology; what Polanyi calls a technology’s “operational principle”: the rules by which a technology “teaches us actions undertaken for material advantages” if we “imputed [in the technologist] the purpose of achieving the consequence of this action” (186). My interest is in ‘know how’ which describes a form of knowledge that engages with such ‘operational principles’ and their material instantiation in a particular technological state of affairs. Unlike the knowledge of qualified technicians however, ‘know-how’ is the accumulation of partial understandings, but full appreciations of such “operational principles”. I call ‘enthusiasm’ the heuristic passion that is in-acted as a constituent element of the experience of discovering the operative principles of technology.

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