Published Volume XXX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2017

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

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). 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.

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