Man of No Formula

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Amartya Sen’s foreword doesn’t demystify Polanyi.
The Tacit Dimension | Michael Polanyi | Penguin | 99 pages | Rs 299

The reader — unless he has an IQ of 140 plus and is a scientist untrusting of his own instincts and has a profound interest in epistemology (that branch of philosophy which explores the knowing of knowing) and does not mind it being combined with metaphysics (that branch of philosophy which explores the being of being)—is well advised to give The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi a miss. Most of the book is incomprehensible.

That the reader might be none of the above is, of course, his own failure, but since the book is being promoted to him, a foreword by Amartya Sen serves little purpose in making it easier. A commentary was absolutely necessary, not just to make it slightly more lucid for him who shells out Rs 300, but because the argument Polanyi makes was done 50 years ago when science was perplexed about the direction to take, with forces like the Marxist theory in its established prime to confuse it. For example, communists, who ruled half the world’s governments, were arguing that scientific pursuit had no business being done for its own sake. It must fit into the grand historical movement of making the world an equal and perfect place. Polanyi’s case is that clear objectives are redundant. Professor Sen merely saying in the foreword that The Tacit Dimension is relevant today does not help; someone should have interpreted how. 

Michael Polanyi was a Nobel laureate in chemistry who bridged the social sciences and later turned to philosophy. The Tacit Dimension is the outcome of three lectures he gave in 1962, briefly outlining the idea that much of what we know cannot be spelt out. Science, however, demands absolute clarity about the problem being pursued and in the method by which it is pursued. Polanyi makes a philosophical case for a reaffirmation of instinct. That inability to elucidate one’s gut feeling is no reason to not pursue a field of inquiry. This he does in the language of Nobel laureates. To give an illustration: ‘Minds and problems possess a deeper reality than cobblestones, although cobblestones are admittedly more real in the sense of being tangible. And since I regard the significance of a thing more important than its tangibility, I shall say minds and problems are more real than cobblestones.’ And that was an example to make the understanding of a concept better.

There are, of course, legible portions—most of the third part of this thankfully short volume where he talks about the implications of his theory. But it is seriously in doubt if anyone except serious academicians like Sen or students of philosophy would reach that far to relish it.