Michael Polanyi’s Theory of Tacit Knowing: Appropriating Technological Means Toward Appropriate Technological Ends

Marie Bullock & Christopher Peet

Charles Taylor claims that Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) provides some of “the most insightful philosophy of the twentieth century”. Unfortunately, much of Polanyi’s work has been forgotten or neglected, despite its ongoing and continuing relevance. A distinguished chemist in the middle of a successful career, Polanyi turned away from his work in science to pursue social philosophy, in particular issues in philosophy of science, during the Second World War. Through a sustained reflection on his experience as a scientist, Polanyi developed an unusual and insightful understanding of science as an active skill ultimately rooted in what he called “tacit knowing”. By conceiving of scientific research in this way, Polanyi articulated a novel conception of the mind-body relationship and of technology as extending, not merely our practical capacities, but our beliefs and commitments, through its being embodied by the user. The implications of this two-fold conception are far-reaching, not only for developing a deeper understanding of the relations between science and religion – a central concern for Polanyi, as a Christian scientist-cum-philosopher – but also for appreciating the role of technology in impacting these relations, and more generally.

Bullock, M., & Peet, C. (2008). Michael Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowing: Appropriating technological means toward appropriate technological ends. Poster presented at the Second annual Baylor Symposium on Faith & Culture conference, Bottom-up Approaches to Global Poverty: Appropriate technology, social entrepreneurship, and the church, held in Waco, Texas, 23-25 Oct., 2008.

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