Can Alasdair MacIntyre Relieve Grene's Polanyian Regret?

Author:Fennell, Jon
Position::Marjorie Grene and Michael Polanyi - Essay

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. Indeed, in terms of the final chapter [of PK], on the Rise of Man, it is that particular society toward which, since the origin of life, the whole creation can be said to have moved. Allegedly, the personal is saved from its precarious status by an ontology that places our commitment uniquely within a universe somehow meant to culminate in this very society, with these very fundamental beliefs.... And we need worry no more about Zande or supporters of apartheid or Arab or Christian or Jewish fundamentalists or anybody we happen to disagree with. That sounds fine on the face of it, perhaps. But where has historical contingency, where has fallibility gone? ("PS," 15) Grene's disappointment is manifest. And so too is embarrassment for having been unwittingly associated with this view for so long. What are we to say?

As it turns out, there is much to be said. This criticism of Polanyi by Grene has been usefully examined by Polanyi scholars. As a vehicle for more fully understanding Grene's position, let us look at the analyses of her comments offered by Walter Gulick and Phil Mullins as well as at some germane comments on related matters by Andy Sanders. (5)

After accurately summarizing Grene's critique of Polanyi, Gulick offers an extended commentary that mingles penetrating with misleading remarks. Early on, after showing that Polanyi more than once equates "subjectivity with error" ("TF," 53), he concludes that "Grene is quite right to point out that this is an incoherent and problematic usage" (53). This assertion by Gulick is occasion for some preliminary observations. That Polanyi's phrasing is problematic is incontrovertible. But it is wise to pause before concluding that it is incoherent. After all, the Zande views of the world (cited by Polanyi) are held with integrity and universal intent and therefore are true as far as Azande are concerned (which is, of course, an aspect of Grene's point). There is, then, a reasonable sense in which these views can be said to be "subjectively valid." From where we stand, what Azande assert is false and, therefore, it is fair to judge that their certainty on the matter is (merely) subjective (as opposed to the objectivity of our own stance) while at the same time admitting that it is clearly valid by their lights. Grene is correct (as are Gulick and Mullins) in saying that Polanyi's language regarding subjectivity creates confusion, but such difficulty need not entail incoherence. Gulick shortly thereafter aptly observes that "Polanyi's analysis betrays a not so latent positivism" (53). Now, Polanyi's thought as a whole is a protest against positivism in the most common understanding of the term. But, if we interpret Gulick as stating that for Polanyi there is in fact a world out there (i.e., reality), and that we can be accurate or inaccurate in our statements about it, then his assertion is uncontroversial. For Polanyi, the Zande claim in question is false, for it says something untrue about the world. To say, however, that in doing this Polanyi is betraying a commitment to an understanding about reality is possibly to cast aspersions where, instead, one ought to declare that something far more important and respectable has been revealed and ought to be acknowledged. This matter will occupy us in the closing section of the essay.

Later in his commentary Gulick observes that on these difficult matters there is a need for precision, to which one can only say "Yes, indeed; go on!" More substantively, Gulick adds that a significant danger posed by Grene's exasperated and impatient dismissal of Polanyi's formulation is "a relativistic world in which truth, an essential value for Polanyi [as it is for Grene], loses its value" (53). To his credit, Gulick in the spirit of conciliation then concludes, "any claim that a rival framework is false should be offered in a modest, confessional manner reflective of the fallible nature of personal knowing" (53). This recommendation is surely congenial to Grene's perspective and, especially with its mention of confession, sounds altogether compatible with Polanyi in Personal Knowledge. At the risk, however, of offending the growing irenic spirit, a further comment is called for. When confronting claims regarding reality, judgment is unavoidably called for (all the more so to the extent that one aims to live in light of principle). And, just as judgment is not to be avoided, neither are the consequences of such judgment. It is necessary to shoot the terrorist about to crash the airplane. The Native American apologizes to the Buffalo (perhaps even to the carrot) but still kills and eats it. As Polanyi concedes, and Grene would surely grant, imperatives accompany the mere fact of embodied existence. Matters are far more complex for man than they are for paramecium or horses. But, fundamentally, the challenge is the same for each organism. (6)

Generally, Gulick is sympathetic to Polanyi's position taken as a whole. He acknowledges the need for straightforward assertion in order to advance knowledge. Indeed, he follows Polanyi in recognizing that human beings typically operate in institutions within which conflicting claims are the engine and which, without judgment and conflict, would not operate properly. Because Grene herself is deeply embedded in such institutions, and has spent a lifetime struggling and at times thriving within them, she herself should, suggests Gulick, be the first to acknowledge these realities. Gulick thus concludes, "Grene's reaction against Polanyi's 'dogmatism' is overdone" (54), and adds that, while "I also don't see any problem with Grene's negative assessments" (Gulick is too conciliatory here), he does not "see why she thinks Polanyi should not make these assessments, so long as he does so with universal intent and while confessing the personal nature of his claims"...

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