Contact with Reality: Michael Polanyi's Realism and Why it Matters

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Puritanboard Clerk
Meek, Esther Lightcap. Contact with Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why it Matters. Cascade Books, 2017.

The truth is out there. Agent Mulder aside, we can really know the truth and make contact with it, even if we can never fully exhaust it. In fact, part of what it means to contact the real world is we will never fully exhaust our knowledge of it. The reason is obvious: we are always discovering new things.

Having read Esther Lightcap Meek’s Longing to Know and A Brief Manual on Knowing, I eagerly dove into her updated dissertation on Michael Polanyi’s epistemology. Understanding that it is a dissertation, the book succeeds. Because it is a dissertation, however, it is not written like the previous books. Those books had an almost healing texture to the prose. This book does not, nor probably should it. It is strictly academic work.

As such, it expands upon earlier Polanyian insights and places them within the larger dialogue on realist epistemology. It further explains key concepts in her earlier works, answering questions about the relationship between Polanyi and the different schools of modern philosophy, both analytic and Continental.

Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian chemist turned philosopher, attacked the post-Kantian notion that knowledge either involved a personal agent, and as such was never objective, or it denied the personal agent and reduced itself to positivism. By contrast, Polanyi cogently argued that the knower is more akin to a detective looking for patterns, trusting that reality is “out there” and we can access it.

Another of Polanyi’s key points is that we can know more than we can say. Lest this be misunderstood as some vague mysticism, we need to examine his distinction between focal and subsidiary. The human knower forms a triad of subsidiary, person, and focal. As personal knowers, we bring the facts into a larger integrative pattern. We are still at the level of tacit knowing. As the pattern emerges, our knowledge points to a focal point.

To use a concrete example, how do you know how you recognize a person in a crowd? You look for clues–the person’s chin, hair, ear–but you can never really say “how” these clues, these subsidiaries, merge into a focal point, allowing instant recognition of the person.

Every act of knowledge consists of the knower’s active integration of particulars into a larger whole. Subsidiary and tacit do not mean the same thing. Tacit is broader than subsidiary and includes concepts like imagination and intuition. The tacit knowing uses the subsidiary clues.

Athletes have a more intuitive (tacit?) understanding of this than anyone else. That is because they understand another Polanyian concept: indwelling. Indwelling means “our being is transformed as our bodies extend into the world…We come to dwell in the activity as we master the skills involved (render particular the subsidiaries) (Meek).” We move from thinking about to thinking through. For example, whenever you ride a bike, you just ride. You do not focus on how your body is balancing and the law of angular momentum, true as it is. Indwelling opens the world, connecting the knower more deeply in it. When my mind moves outward towards a pattern, I am trusting myself to that pattern, to the hope that it will open itself to me.


Realism is the belief that there exists a mind-independent reality. We can make propositions that correspond to the real world. This is a common-sense enough view. It is true, and Polanyi never rejects it, but it is not really how the day-to-day act of discovery works. Moreover, if made absolute, it is subject to a number of devastating criticisms.

Correspondence theories, while correct on one level, run aground on the temptation of the “God’s-eye view of knowledge.” In other words, to quote Quine, to check my words against the world requires an “illicit vantage point.” The idea of correspondence itself is part of the total theory that needs to be explained (e.g., Putnam). Must we then become postmodernists, embracing the horror of Continental Philosophy? No, for aim not at correspondence, but with contact. All we need for a statement to be true is for it to contact reality.

For Polanyi, as for scientists in general, Polanyi holds to a “correspondence of commitment,” personal passion → confident utterance → converges with accredited facts. We can never have a complete correspondence because we can never know all the subsidiaries. This means reality always presents before us the promise, even the hope, of discovery. No piece of information is able to capture completely what we mean by it. This is what Meek calls “indeterminate future manifestation.” Moreover, as Polanyi continues, any piece of information implies “a spectrum of information of which we at a particular time are not aware.”

What then is reality? Reality is “that which manifests itself indeterminately, experiences of which signals the knower’s contact with reality.” Real is that which may be expected to manifest itself indeterminately in the future.” The picture of knowledge is contact with reality, not mere correspondence.


Such is the essence of Polanyi’s thought. Meek spends the rest of the book surveying current models of realism and possible convergences with phenomenology. Phenomenology shares with Polanyi the insight that we are “always already” present in the act of knowing. What phenomenology (and Continental Philosophy in general) lacks is any clear explanation of how my presence in knowing extends however to the real. This is similar to the criticism that Martin Heidegger never really connects truth with mind.

If someone has not read Meek’s earlier works, then it is best not to begin with this one. This is an academic treatise. Her earlier works ably summarize Polanyi’s thought and prepare the reader for more difficult endeavors later on.
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