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The Knower and the Known


The seventeenth-century revolution in philosophy stood-and we still stand-under the authority of the 'new science', and this was primarily the science of inorganic nature. 'Bits of matter, qualified by mass, spatial relations, and the change of such relations': such were the bare realities out of which experimental ingenuity and mathematical exactitude built their new universe. Once the new simplicity and clarity were extended to all subject matters, we should, as Descartes put it, have solved all the problems that would ever confront the human mind. Today, although such optimism has, fortunately, left us, the hope of a universal mathematics, of an exact science of life, of man, and of society, founded on the automatic manipulation of unambiguous, 'objective' variables, remains a predominant ideal of scientists and philosophers. Both the ideal of reason as analysis, in each of its guises and disguises, and the revolt against reason by more subjectivist philosophers, have remained, whether as acceptance or rebellion, within this single conceptual frame.
We have come, or are coming, at last to the end of this epoch, the epoch presided over by the concepts of Newtonian cosmology and Newtonian method. We are in the midst of a new philosophical revolution, a revolution in which, indeed, the new physics too has had due influence, but a revolution founded squarely on the disciplines concerned with life: on biology, psychology, sociology, history, even theology and art criticism. Seventeenth-century thinkers had to free themselves from the bonds of scholastic discipline, and we have had to free ourselves from the bonds of Newtonian abstraction, to dare, not only to manipulate abstractions, to calculate and predict and falsify, but to understand. The revolution before us is a revolution of life against dead nature, and of understanding as against the calculi of logical machines. The Newtonian ideal, said Whitehead (in a context to which I shall later return in more detail), has turned scientific procedure into 'a mystic chant over an unintelligible universe'. The conceptual reform in which we are now engaged must restore our speech about the world to intelligible discourse and the world it aims at describing to significant and coherent form. Nature must be understood once more as the multifarious scene, not only of an invisible billiards game played by chance against necessity, but of a vast variety of forms, energies and events, living and non-living, sentient and insentient, of processes alive, active and striving, as well as of conditions, dead, passive and inert.
For the Cartesian-Newtonian world was, in the last analysis, a world without life. That simple fact had, and still has, disastrous consequences for the conception both of the object of knowledge and of the subject who knows it. These consequences lie so deep in our habits of thought that the recovery from them is slow and difficult. Many thinkers have already tried to assist us on the road: philosophers like Dilthey, James, Dewey, Whitehead, Bergson, Collingwood, and many biologists and psychologists as well. I should not venture to better their instruction. But I think that looking back over the history of western thought we may find some clues to help us in understanding the need for and direction of such conceptual recovery.
My own starting point is in the theory of knowledge developed by Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge and other writings, or better, in my interpretation of that theory; for whatever I have misinterpre-ted, I alone bear the responsibility. As I see the matter, then, Polanyi restores knower and known to their healthy functioning by stressing the personal commitment of the knower and the tacit, unspecifiable element in knowledge. His approach has much in common with some forms of existentialist and phenomenological thought as well as with the Lebensphilosophie of Dilthey and the organismic philosophy of Whitehead. Particularly striking, however, is the convergence between the arguments of Polanyi in Personal Knowledge and of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology of Perception. As is evident from what follows, my debt to both books is pervasive. My own view of the history of thought, especially of the influence of Descartes, is, again, strikingly paralleled by the argument of Erwin Straus in his Vom Sinn der Sinne, a book to which, unfortunately, I had access only when this manuscript was nearing completion. I also regret that I did not have the opportunity of reading Edward Pols' The Recognition of Reason and Maurice Natanson's Literature, Philosophy and the Social Sciences until after my MS. had been completed.
Marjorie Grene

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Tags: science, relations, experimental, which, realities, Knower, Known