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Published very shortly before his death in February 1976, Meaning is the culmination of Michael Polanyi's philosophic endeavors. With the assistance of Harry Prosch, Polanyi goes beyond his earlier critique of scientific "objectivity" to investigate meaning as founded upon the imaginative and creative faculties.
Establishing that science is an inherently normative form of knowledge and that society gives meaning to science instead of being given the "truth" by science, Polanyi contends here that the foundation of meaning is the creative imagination. Largely through metaphorical expression in poetry, art, myth, and religion, the imagination is used to synthesize the otherwise chaotic and disparate elements of life. To Polanyi these integrations stand with those of science as equally valid modes of knowledge. He hopes this view of the foundation of meaning will restore validity to the traditional ideas that were undercut by modern science. Polanyi also outlines the general conditions of a free society that encourage varied approaches to truth, and includes an illuminating discussion of how to restore, to modern minds, the possibility for the acceptance of religion.
THE ECLIPSE OF THOUGHT
IN A SENSE THIS BOOK COULD BE SAID TO BE ABOUT INTELLECTUAL freedom. Yet its title, Meaning, is not really misleading, since, as we shall see, the achievement of meaning cannot properly be divorced from intellectual freedom.
Perhaps it could go without saying that intellectual freedom is threatened today from many directions. The ideologies of the left and the right of course have no use for it. In every one of these ideologies there is always some person, group, or party (in other words, some elite) which is supposed to know better than anyone else what is best for all of us; and it is assumed in these ideologies that it is the function of the rest of us—whether doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs—to support these "wise" decisions. The examples of fascism and of Marxist communism, especially as developed under Stalin, remain only too painfully present in the consciousness of twentieth-century man; moreover, the works of such writers as Milovan Djilas show us that even the most anti-Stalinist and liberal Communist regimes also engage in the repression of intellectual freedom.
We of the so-called Western world have opposed these totalitarian tyrannies—even to the extent of war. But we outselves have also threatened intellectual freedom. We have not, to be sure, drowned it in blood, as Hitler and Stalin did. Our threats have been much more devious. We have choked it with cotton, smothered it under various blankets. We have concealed our own affirmation of the value and freedom of our intellect under detached explanatory principles, like the pleasure-pain principle, the notion of the restoration of frustrated activity, the principle of conditioning—and even the concept of free choice itself! In such circuitous ways as these we have denigrated thought and all its works, demoting them to subordinate positions in which thought is conceived to function rightfully only when serving as a means to the satisfaction of supposedly more basic needs or wants, i.e., more material, more biological, more instinctive, more comforting.
Utilitarianism and pragmatism have both, in different ways, declared thought to possess a legitimate function or significance only in relation to social welfare—a welfare conceived largely in terms of physical and material satisfactions. The behaviorists, culminating in B. F. Skinner, have reduced thought to various forms of conditioned behavior and have directed us to look "beyond freedom and dignity"—beyond the life of self-control and self-direction—to the manipulated learning of a set of tricks supposed to be ultimately good for us to have learned. This learning would require us to be placed (by whom?) in a better-organized Skinner Box than that constituted by our present societies. Old Protagoras, if we can trust Plato's interpretation of him, would have felt right at home with these ideas.
The only modern philosophic school that seems to exhibit respect for intellectual freedom is existentialism, but since it manages to smother the intellectual part of intellectual freedom under a more generic notion of freedom per se, it tends to weaken, in the end, our respect for intellectual freedom by reducing it in practice to the level of betting on the turn of a die. For these philosophers say there are no grounds for choices except the grounds we give ourselves, i.e., except the ones we choose. As Sartre puts it, value arises simply from our choices. What we choose, we value simply because we have chosen it (and apparently we remain scot-free at any moment to nonvalue it by simply un-choosing it). In other words, we do not choose (in his view) because we see the value of something. We see the value of something because we have chosen it. For him, therefore, every choice must ultimately be nonrational, because every rational choice, it is said, is ultimately grounded in a "prerational" choice. This position tells us, therefore, that there can be no reasons for our basic choices. Thought turns out to be of utilitarian value only—and then only when it happens to be of such value.
That this view may very well falter in its respect for intellectual freedom can be seen in the examples both Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have given us by their on-again-off-again acceptance of various Communist suppressions of "bourgeois" artists and thinkers. After all (as Sartre and de Beauvoir say—sometimes), no one governs innocently anyhow. All governments interfere with the exercise of some sorts of freedom. Since these philosophers (consistently) refuse to make any philosophically based value distinctions between different sorts of freedoms—or even between different uses of these different freedoms—they seem to echo old Bentham's remark: "Pushpin is as good as poetry" To repress one is no better and no worse than to repress the other.
We shall see, however, that the existentialists are closer to the truth in their view than any of the other academically popular Western philosophies, because there is a sense in which it is true that determinative reasons cannot be given for every choice—in fact, not for any choice. But the way existentialists have conceived this fact has generated unnecessarily antiintellectual attitudes, with disastrous consequences for the very freedom they value so fundamentally or, in their terms, "choose" so fundamentally.
It might be thought that our inquiry should now be directed to whether or not these erosions of respect for intellectual freedom in our day are justifiable. But even to raise this question is to answer it in the negative. For the attempt to judge any matter whatsoever is the attempt to think seriously about this matter, and such thinking cannot be undertaken without a tacit acceptance of the power of thought to reach valid conclusions. So our attempt to discover whether a right to intellectual freedom, i.e., the freedom to pursue subjects or problems intellectually, is or is not justified already assumes tacitly that it is justified.
Admitting, therefore, that the eclipse of our respect for freedom of thought cannot be justified, since it would require freedom of thought to justify it, we realize that nothing could have destroyed respect for freedom of thought but its own misuse; for it is only free thought that could call into serious question the validity of anything, including itself. Let us see therefore if we can discover how this self-destruction of thought came about.
From a careful study of the history of thought in our own time it is possible to see that freedom of thought destroyed itself when thought pursued to its ultimate conclusions a self-contradictory conception of its own freedom.
Modern thought in the widest sense emerged with the emancipation of the human mind from a mythological and magical interpretation of the universe. We know when this first happened, at what place, and by what method. We owe this act of liberation to Ionian philosophers who flourished in the sixth century B.C. and to other philosophers of Greece who continued their work in the succeeding thousand years. These ancient thinkers enjoyed much freedom of speculation but never raised decisively the issues of intellectual freedom.
The millennium of ancient philosophy was brought to a close by Saint Augustine. There followed the long rule of Christian theology and the Church of Rome over all departments of thought. The rule of ecclesiastic authority was impaired first in the twelfth century by a number of sporadic intellectual achievements. Then, as the Italian Renaissance blossomed out, the leading artists and thinkers of the time brought religion more and more into neglect. The Italian church itself seemed to yield to the new secular interests. Had the whole of Europe at that time been of the same mind as Italy, Renaissance humanism might have established freedom of thought everywhere, simply by default of opposition. Europe might have returned to—or, if you like, relapsed into—a liberalism resembling that of pre-Christian antiquity. Whatever may have followed after that, our present disasters would not have occurred.
However, there arose instead in a number of European countries—in Germany, Switzerland, Spain—a fervent religious revival, accompanied by a schism of the Christian church, which was to dominate people's minds for almost two centuries. The Catholic church sharply reaffirmed its authority over the whole intellectual sphere. The thoughts of men were moved, and politics were shaped, by the struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism, to which all contemporary issues contributed through their alliance with one side or the other.
By the beginning of the present century the wars between Catholics and Protestants had long ceased, yet the formulation of liberal thought still remained largely determined by the reaction of past generations against the old religious wars. Liberalism was motivated, to start with, by a detestation of religious fanaticism. It appealed to reason for a cessation of religious strife. This desire to curb religious violence was the prime motive of liberalism in both Anglo-American and Continental areas; yet from the beginning the reaction against religious fanaticism differed somewhat in these two areas, and this difference has since become increasingly accentuated, with the result that liberty has been upheld in the Western area up to this day but has suffered an eclipse in central and eastern Europe.
Anglo-American liberalism was first formulated by Milton and Locke. Their argument for freedom of thought was twofold. In its first part (for which we may cite the Areopagitica) freedom from authority is demanded so that truth may be discovered. The main inspiration for this movement came from the struggle of the rising natural sciences against the authority of Aristotle. Its program was to let everyone state his beliefs and to allow others to listen and form their own opinions; the ideas which would prevail in a free and open battle of wits would be as close an approximation to the truth as can be humanly achieved. We may call this the antiauthoritarian formula of liberty. Closely related to it is the second half of the argument for liberty, which is based on philosophic doubt. While its origins go back a long way (right to the philosophers of antiquity), this argument was first formulated as a political doctrine by Locke. It says simply that we can never be so sure of the truth in matters of religion as to warrant the imposition of our views on others. These two pleas for freedom of thought were put forward and accepted in England at a time when religious beliefs were unshaken and indeed dominant throughout the nation. The new tolerance aimed preeminently at the reconciliation of different denominations in the service of God. Atheists were refused tolerance by Locke on the ground that they were socially unreliable.
On the Continent the twofold doctrine of free thought—antiauthoritarianism and philosophic doubt—gained ascendance somewhat later than in England and moved straightway to a more extreme position. This position was first effectively formulated in the eighteenth century by the philosophy of Enlightenment, which was primarily an attack on religious authority, particularly that of the Catholic church. It professed a radical skepticism. The books of Voltaire and the French Encyclopedists, expounding this doctrine, were widely read in France, while abroad their ideas spread into Germany and far into eastern Europe. Frederick the Great and Catherine of Russia were among their correspondents and disciples. The type of Voltairean aristocrat, represented by the old Prince Bolkonski in War and Peace, was to be found at court and in feudal residences over many parts of Continental Europe at the close of the eighteenth century. The depth to which the philosophes had influenced political thought in their own country was to be revealed by the French Revolution.
Accordingly, the mood of the French Enlightenment, though often angry, was always supremely confident. Its followers promised mankind relief from all social ills. One of the central figures of the movement, the Baron d'Holbach, declared in 1770 that man is miserable simply because he is ignorant. His mind is so infected with prejudices that one might think him forever condemned to err. It is error, he held, that has evoked the religious fears which shrivel men up with fright or make them butcher each other for chimeras. "To errour must be attributed those inveterate hatreds, those barbarous persecutions, those numerous massacres, those dreadful tragedies, of which, under pretext of serving the interests of Heaven, the earth has been but too frequently made the theatre."
This explanation of human miseries and the remedy promised for them continued to carry conviction with the intelligentsia of Europe long after the French Revolution. It remained an axiom among progressive people on the Continent that to achieve light and liberty you first had to break the power of the clergy and eliminate the influence of religious dogma. Battle after battle was fought in this campaign. Perhaps the fiercest engagement was the Dreyfus Affair at the close of the century, in which clericalism was finally defeated in France and was further weakened throughout Europe. It was at about this time that W. E. H. Lecky wrote: "All over Europe the priesthood are now associated with a policy of toryism, of reaction, or of obstruction. All over Europe the organs that represent dogmatic interests are in permanent opposition to the progressive tendencies around them, and are rapidly sinking into contempt."
I well remember this triumphant sentiment. We looked back on earlier times as on a period of darkness, and with Lucretius we cried in horror: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum —what evils religion has inspired! So we rejoiced at the superior knowledge of our age and its assured liberties. The promises of peace and freedom given to the world by the French Enlightenment had indeed been wonderfully fulfilled toward the end of the nineteenth century. You could travel all over Europe and America without a passport and settle down wherever you pleased. With the exception of Russia, you could, throughout Europe, print anything without prior censorship and could sharply oppose any government or creed with impunity. In Germany—much criticized at the time for being authoritarian—biting caricatures of the emperor were published freely. Even in Russia, whose regime was the most oppressive, Marx's Kapital appeared in translation immediately after its first publication and received favorable reviews throughout the press. In the whole of Europe not more than a few hundred people were forced into political exile. Over the entire planet all men of European origins were living in free intellectual and personal communication. It is hardly surprising that the universal establishment of peace and tolerance through the victory of modern enlightenment was confidently expected at the turn of the century by a large majority of educated people on the Continent.
Thus we entered the twentieth century as on an age of infinite promise. Few people realized that we were walking into a minefield, though the mines had all been prepared and carefully laid in open daylight by well-known thinkers of our own time. Today we know how false our expectations were. We have all learned to trace the collapse of freedom in the twentieth century to the writings of certain philosophers, particularly Marx, Nietzsche, and their common ancestors, Fichte and Hegel. But the story has yet to be told how we came to welcome as liberators the philosophies that were to destroy liberty.
We have said that we consider the collapse of freedom in central and eastern Europe to be the outcome of an internal contradiction in the doctrine of liberty. But why did it destroy freedom in large parts of Continental Europe without producing similar effects, so far, in the Western or Anglo-American area of our civilization? Wherein lies this inconsistency?
The argument of doubt put forward by Locke in favor of tolerance says that we should admit all religions since it is impossible to demonstrate which one is true. This implies that we must not impose beliefs that are not demonstrable. Let us apply this doctrine to ethical principles. It follows that, unless ethical principles can be demonstrated with certainty, we should refrain from imposing them and should tolerate their total denial. But, of course, ethical principles cannot, in a strict sense, be demonstrated: you cannot prove the obligation to tell the truth, to uphold justice and mercy. It would follow therefore that a system of mendacity, lawlessness, and cruelty is to be accepted as an alternative to ethical principles and on equal terms. But a society in which unscrupulous propaganda, violence, and terror prevail offers no scope for tolerance. Here the inconsistency of a liberalism based on philosophic doubt becomes apparent: freedom of thought is destroyed by the extension of doubt to the field of traditional ideals, which includes the basis for freedom of thought.
Excerpted from Meaning by Michael Polanyi, Harry Prosch. Copyright © 1975 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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