Here I will conclude my posts on the philosophy of Michael Polanyi. I am very interested in the meaning we construct from our existence and how this impacts our understanding of and value we place on others. I am fairly pragmatic, so I am quite interested in how our world view impacts the way we treat ourselves and others. I not only want to know if it is true, but how it works. At work, I ask questions about world view and its effects on a daily basis in counseling sessions. For example, clients who come to see me who have extensive abuse histories often tell me they view life as quite harsh and have a limited capacity to trust and develop reciprocal relationships with others. They may treat others as objects to be used and seek to gratify themselves to the detriment of others. After all, they have experienced life as a dog-eat-dog world. Other clients react against abuse histories and make a point of seeking justice for themselves and others around them in an effort to rectify an unjust world. It is clear that humans are uniquely gifted at meaning making. It makes all the difference in how we live our lives. As Victor Frankl has told us, making meaning in the face of suffering allows us to survive and even thrive when we might otherwise give up in despair.
Polanyi fought the meaning made of our world and personhood within the reductionistic and nihilistic framework of 20th century western philosophy. He developed his philosophy during the World War II era while watching his world collapse under tyranny, war, and annihilation. In regard to reality and personhood, Polanyi wrote:
What is most tangible has the least meaning, and it is perverse then to identify the tangible with the real. For to regard a meaningless substratum as the ultimate reality of all things must lead to the conclusion that all things are meaningless. We can avoid this conclusion only if we acknowledge instead that the deepest reality is possessed by higher things that are least tangible...It is this sort of mechanical reductionism that is the heart of the matter...It is this that is the origin of the whole system of scientific obscurantism under which we are suffering today. This is the cause of our corruption of the conception of man, reducing him either to an insentient automaton or to a bundle of appetites. This is why science denies us the possibility of acknowledging personal responsibility. This is why science can be invoked so easily in support of totalitarian violence, why science has become the greatest source of dangerous fallacies today.
About Polanyi, Drusilla Scott wrote:
We all in some degree start from our conclusions, as Polanyi said he did. Bertrand Russell started from the conclusion that the rules and methods of the laboratory rule out persons, and was stoically prepared to be ruled out in theory, though in fact he went on illegitimately being there...Polanyi starts from the other end, from knowing persons and never doubting their entire reality, finding them decidedly more real than atoms. He looked full in the Gorgon face of this 'Science' whose rules of knowledge turn man to matter, and found it to be a false mask, for the real face of science is discovery, and discoveries are made by persons, not by rules. And the reality that persons know is, like persons, recognised as real because it can be known but never fully known; it draws and leads us by having always more to reveal, unforeseeable but in character.
History and personal experience inform us that it is not in the best interest of humanity to live out of a purely reductionistic, mechanistic worldview. When we don't view ourselves and others as having intrinsic worth, we use, objectify, and annihilate. In the field of psychology, we adamently assert to our clients that they are worthy, they are special, they are deserving of respect, and we express these values as self-evident. These values probably have root in the humanistic theories which replaced the mechanistic behaviorism from earlier in the 20th century. We've found that the mental health of clients doesn't fare well in the face of nihilistic philosophy. Maybe that in itself is an indication that it is fatally flawed. But what of humanistic philosophy that is not grounded in anything deeper than itself? Are there any fatal flaws there? What about the narcisism that appears to pervade our culture? Is it intellectually honest to value all life equally 'just because'? Is there really instrinsic worth? Where does it come from? Is this an indication that there is something transcendent which gives worth and meaning? Or is this unnecessary? Does the fact that our emotional wellbeing seems dependent on experiencing a sense of value and worth reflect a truth about our inherent value? What do you think?