Academic journal article Humanitas

Can Alasdair MacIntyre Relieve Grene's Polanyian Regret?

Academic journal article Humanitas

Can Alasdair MacIntyre Relieve Grene's Polanyian Regret?

Article excerpt

There is no surer protection against the understanding of anything than taking for granted or otherwise despising the obvious and the surface. The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.  --Leo Strauss (1) 

In her address to the Kent State University Polanyi Centennial Conference, Marjorie Grene concludes by expressing regret, and not a little embarrassment, regarding what strikes her as intellectual excesses by Polanyi in the final pages of Personal Knowledge (and in the last chapter of Personal Knowledge generally). (2) In what follows I will suggest that Grene, and others who read Polanyi in a similar fashion, may be spared such regret and embarrassment. This alternative response is ours if only we join Polanyi in his impressive attempt to achieve ultimate consistency. In this effort the very meaning of "ultimate" will have become transformed, as too will our grasp of what it is to be a thoughtful human being. Our success in joining Polanyi in his perceived calling will be indicated by the degree to which we become less uncomfortable remaining in his company.

The plan for this study is simple. In the opening section we will look closely at Grene's criticism of Polanyi. It must be noted at the outset that Grene's discomfort with Polanyi has multiple sources but the scope of this essay is restricted to just one of these. More specifically, Grene cannot abide the theistic and Christian themes in Personal Knowledge. She also believes, based on her own late-in-life emergence as a premier philosopher of biology, that Polanyi's grasp of evolutionary theory is woefully inadequate. Although there are substantial reasons to believe that Polanyi's thought can in its fundamentals survive the criticisms launched by Grene on these two fronts, we will confine ourselves in the present inquiry to her third and even more important criticism of Polanyi, namely, that he at a critical point, arbitrarily, with flagrant inconsistency, and hence embarrassingly, retreats from his earlier admirable admission of the contingency and fallibility of his own position.

As a valuable source of relevant insights on the issues raised by Grene, we in the second section of the inquiry will lay out the central argument of a seminal essay by Alasdair MacIntyre. In this essay MacIntyre purports to show that it is possible rationally to attack a competing intellectual system (and argue for the supremacy of one's own) even while conceding the absence of neutral authoritative foundations to which one might appeal during the critique or defense. Then, in the closing section, benefitting from MacIntyre's argument and drawing extensively from what Polanyi has to say in Personal Knowledge, we will address the question of the adequacy and advisability of Grene's regrets about Polanyi's allegedly unfortunate assertion of the superiority of his own framework and point of view.

Grene's Regrets

Marjorie Grene possesses a legendary vehement voice which is on clear display in her 1991 Kent State fusillade. Her address is primarily concerned with the meanings of "subjective" (as opposed to the "personal") outlined by Polanyi in Personal Knowledge. (3) In carrying out her task she draws our attention ("PS," 14) to a section of the book in which Polanyi clarifies "four grades according to which we have classified reasonable action and perception" (PK, 374). The third of these, on Polanyi's scheme, is "Conclusions arrived at by the correct use of a fallacious system." Polanyi judges that "[t]his is an incompetent mode of reasoning, the results of which possess subjective validity" (374; Polanyi's emphasis). There is at this point a footnote pointing back to pages 286-88 where Polanyi has described the belief system of the Azande (a primitive people in Africa). (4) Let us now hear Grene at length. Through this reference, Polanyi

appears to provide us with a new sense, and a new reference, for subjectivity: it is whatever is out of accord with the canons of our modern, liberal, science-sponsoring and science-grounded society. … 
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