Michael Polanyi, Alasdair MacIntyre, and the Role of Tradition

By Mitchell, Mark T. | Humanitas, Spring-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Michael Polanyi, Alasdair MacIntyre, and the Role of Tradition


Mitchell, Mark T., Humanitas


Introduction

Modernity has reached a dead end. The optimism in which the modern world was conceived and nurtured has been replaced by a thoroughgoing skepticism that denies the possibility of making meaningful truth claims, especially when those claims bear on morality and religion. The irony is that this has occurred as we have become increasingly confident of scientific utterances. Thus, as our facility to grasp the facts of the material world has exploded, our confidence in moral and religious claims has atrophied to the point that we are compelled to speak of them as mere subjective preferences. From a certain vantage, this situation might appear as a stable solution to the interminable wrangling and occasional bloodlettings that moral and religious truth claims spawned. Yet at another level, such a position is simply intolerable, for it is inhuman. It is not possible to deny for long the very things for which human souls most yearn. In fact, if these sorts of claims are denied, they will invariably assert themselves in perverted and often violent ways.

The work of both Michael Polanyi and Alasdair MacIntyre contributes significantly to overcoming the problems posed by late modernity. (1) Unlike some, they harbor no nostalgic illusions about the possibility of returning to a golden past. Yet neither do they believe that skepticism and despair (or apathy) are satisfying alternatives. Both lament the early modern rejection of the role of tradition in enquiry. Such concepts as belief, authority, and the possibility of speaking of the reality of moral and theological truths were, in the wake of Cartesian doubt, undermined and eventually dispensed with altogether. Both Polanyi and MacIntyre argue that what has come to be called postmodernism is a logical continuation of the modern project. Ironically, both believe that the way to move beyond what they perceive as the dead end wrought by modernity is a rediscovery of the central role played by tradition. Thus, a discussion of tradition will provide a vantage point from which to compare the views of these two thinkers and comprehend the complementary way each seeks to remedy the defects of modernism and its postmodern offspring and thereby create a context within which the meaningful discussion of truth can occur. If they are correct, then we do well to attend to their work, for they serve as guides calling us out of the dark woods of modernity and offering the tantalizing possibility of something that is truly postmodern.

In the late 1970s MacIntyre mentions Polanyi with some frequency and discusses him on several occasions. (2) He criticizes him primarily for succumbing to irrationalism, which, according to MacIntyre, results

from Polanyi's fideism. There is a double irony here, for MacIntyre himself has also been accused of irrationalism, (3) and as I will show, MacIntyre's fully developed account of knowledge is, in many important respects, similar to Polanyi's. (4) I should note at the outset that MacIntyre's criticisms of Polanyi seem to have ceased. One might conclude that Polanyi is simply no longer a concern of MacIntyre's, but one can also explain this shift by arguing that, as MacIntyre has become more Thomistic, he has found Polanyi's thought less objectionable. (5) This seems to be evidenced in 1990's First Principles, Final Causes and Contemporary Philosophical Issues in which MacIntyre, now firmly converted to Thomism, makes a positive though fleeting reference to Polanyi, who, MacIntyre argues, recognizes that phronesis requires the possession of the other moral virtues, and, as such, Polanyi's work was in this respect anticipated by Aristotle and Aquinas. (6) If it is indeed the case that MacIntyre's view of Polanyi has modified, then MacIntyre's earlier criticism of Polanyi helps us to track MacIntyre's development as a thinker.

MacIntyre writes, in 1977, that "Polanyi is the Burke of the philosophy of science. …

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