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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Michael Polanyi, Articulation, and Marx’s Fatal Flaw

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 10, 2007

The obscure Hungarian philosopher Michael (Mihaly) Polanyi surfaced this week on Doc Searls’s Weblog. Referring to our years together as philosophy undergraduates, Doc supposes that Polanyi might still influence my thinking. After reactivating my philosophy “chops,” I realize Doc is right, Polanyi does continue to influence my thinking … and my work and personal life as well.

I remember two things from Polanyi. The first is his succinct summation of his investigations into epistemology and the role of intuition in scientific discovery, as expressed in his simple dictum: “We know more than we can tell.” The second is his concise critique of some streams of Marxist thought. In his examination of the personal nature of knowing, Polanyi seems to have stumbled onto Marx’s Achilles heel.

In Polanyi’s view, what we are able to put into words is only a part of what we actually know; indeed, there are many things that we know and learn viscerally and intuitively in ways that defy articulation. A mystic Slavo-Semitic side of me likes this idea, as does the side of me that photographs, for it leaves room for wonder and for the ineffable. But a more Anglo-Saxon side of me (a tip of the hat to the logical positivists), takes Polanyi’s dictum not as a description but as prescription, a challenge to spend a lifetime trying to articulate all that I see, sense, and feel. This is been the driver of my life-long obsession with multidisciplinary learning that is my real “core business.” It also has been the basis of my decades of work in strategic consultancy, policy analysis, organizational change, and corporate communications and public information.

In the work world, I’ve found that strategy and policy can be successfully formulated, applied, and refined only when articulated over and again until all ambiguities and all misrepresentations of external realities disappear. Likewise, organizations achieve successful change only when they can fully articulate what they do, and why and how, and in what environment. In the same way, project management is dependent on continuously articulating where one stands and should stand. Successful marketing communications, in turn, is dependent on clear articulation of who one is addressing and what one really has to say. It sometimes takes an irritating gadfly like me to help companies and institutions achieve this, but I believe in the mission and even enjoy it. Maybe this is what has enchanted me about the internet, i.e. the theoretical possibility it affords for ultimately articulating all that is from every perspective possible.

To close, a few words about Polanyi and Marx. In his book Personal Knowledge, Polanyi examines what may be Marxism’s tragic flaw, the key to its self-destruction, this being its futile attempt to clothe moral rage in the guise of scientific objectivity and historical necessity. By abandoning the language of morality some streams of Marxism lost their moral rudders and became sidetracked, preoccupied with their own rectitude and the illegitimacy of all who questioned it, rather than with the wrongs and inequities Marxism was conceived in response to in the first place. This also poses a lesson for all of us in our personal lives — and not just to moderate our Marxism! – but never to forget that all that we seek, desire, approve of, or work toward is not necessarily what is right or what should be. (In this light, another tip of the hat to G.E. Moore.)

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3 Responses to “Michael Polanyi, Articulation, and Marx’s Fatal Flaw”

  1. Tom said

    Steve, nice article. A couple of comments–in practice I don’t think Marxism ever remained true to its principles, which I attribute more to human frailty than an irreversible flaw in Marxism. Also morality doesn’t have to depend on religious beliefs, practices, etc. but it helps even if it is an opiate; there are certainly occasions when relief from pain can clear the mind, although I am not advocating heavy drug use metaphorically or literally!

  2. Boyan Penkov said

    Well said!

    I like the more general characterization what we know and can express: applied epistemology as the quadrant of the knowledge-knowledge plane, where the first refers to knowledge about the real, and the second axis is representative of knowledge about the knowledge about the real. This, we can live comfortably in the first quadrant (because we know we know stuff there), can work to improve the second (where we know we don’t know it), should be wary of the third (where we don’t know we don’t know it) and can afford to be surprised by the fourth (where we don’t know we know it).

    I was introduced to this idea by listening to Rumsfeld make excuses about “unknown unknowns” but would like to think the idea is older than that.

    • Excellent model …and how delightfully ironic that the very nature of knowledge even enables an evasive malapropism of Rumsfeld’s to lead us our own way to understanding! It brings out the religious side of me!

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