Making Delightful Sense of Knowing (Ad)Ventures, Part II

Esther Lightcap Meek explores Michael Polanyi's ideas about knowing and shows how understanding these can make us better teachers.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Covenant epistemology offers a multifaceted vision of knowing that pertains to knowing ventures in every corner of our lives.1 Its central claim is that our paradigm of knowing should be, not the widely held view of knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed, but rather a vision of knowing as love-drawn, covenantally forged, dynamically unfolding, interpersonal relationship. I believe that shifting from the more pervasive paradigm to this vision of knowing makes a radical difference to learning and teaching. It makes sense of what we already know is important. It suggests ways we may be even better at it. And it offers fresh encouragement to us in our mission. Covenant epistemology makes delightful sense of knowing, restoring, among many other things, the adventure to our knowing ventures.

In this two-part essay, we explore this alternative vision of covenant epistemology, and the difference it makes to learners and teachers. Part 1 (last issue) invited you to ponder some of the mysteries of knowing, and it also sketched covenant epistemology’s understanding of both knowing and being as interpersonal. Part 2 (this issue) introduces you to a key component of covenant epistemology: Michael Polanyi’s innovative account of the two-level structure of knowing.

Part 2: The Two-Level Structure of All Knowing, and the Difference it Makes

Covenant epistemology casts all knowing as a love-drawn, covenantally forged, dynamically unfolding, interpersonal relationship. In doing so, it endeavors to unseat the deeply seated, widespread, presumptive ideal of knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed. But we are so inured in the modern Western mindset of knowledge as information that we can hear
the injunctions of covenant epistemology as metaphorical platitudes, at best add-ons to knowledge, not knowledge itself. That is why covenant epistemology, as I have developed it, retains as its anchor Michael Polanyi’s unique epistemic insight, that all knowing has a mutually integrated two-level structure: all knowing is subsidiary focal integration. Polanyi’s account also makes sense of covenant epistemology’s vision of knowing as coming to know, and as attaining insight in a breakthrough that not so much informs but rather transforms.

Polanyian epistemology: knowing as subsidiary- focal integration (SFI) Polanyi, a premier scientist in the early part of the 20th century in Europe, rightly sensed that if the prevailing ideal of knowledge as information were true—if we had to restrict ourselves to explicit information we already possess—no scientific discovery could ever happen.2 Left without challenge, that prevailing ideal would jeopardize science and Western culture. Polanyi felt this so strongly that he actually left science to devote the remainder of his career to developing an alternative epistemology. His account of knowing as subsidiary-focal integration directly challenges the damaging false ideal of modernist epistemology; learning to see knowing this way frees us from the knowledge-as-information mindset like no other philosophy, or technique, I know.

According to Polanyi, all knowing has a two-level structure: the subsidiary and the focal. In all our knowing, we indwell and rely on subsidiaries to integrate to a focal pattern. We attend from subsidiary clues and attend to a focal pattern. The process of knowing involves a responsible and sometimes risky personal investment to shape, recognize, and submit to a coherent pattern. The pattern is not derived in a linear way by focusing on explicitly identified particulars. Instead, accessing it involves indwelling—seeking to “get inside,” or take inside yourself, the particulars you are trying to understand, so as to be able to attend from them as subsidiaries, to seek the transformative, meaning-giving, focal pattern.3

For example: as you read these sentences, you are relying on and attending from the marks on the page to focus on what I am saying. There was a time when someone taught you to make and sound letters focally. But you began reading only when you were able to shift from attending to letters to attending from them.4 Even now, you could stop thinking about what I am saying and focus on my spelling, or grammar, the font I am using, or the caliber of my writerly craftsmanship. This assuredly is a helpful exercise from time to time.5 But you can’t simultaneously focus on and also rely on the same particulars. The two kinds of awareness are mutually exclusive. Focusing on the particulars actually prevents your achieving the focal pattern. You can’t get from the level of the particulars to the level of the pattern in any linear (or random), merely focal way.6 Instead, you must seek to indwell, or “get inside,” and subsidiarily attend from the particulars to discern the pattern that makes sense of them. It’s going to take, not deduction, but integration—a creative, synthetic leap to a transformative pattern. The achievement of such a pattern can never itself be a linear, step-by-step procedure, although it can be prompted by one. Rather, it takes a creative breakthrough of insight in which you make sense of things in a fresh way.

Achieving insight does not mean that you leave the subsidiary level behind. In fact, it is only in the insight that the subsidiary becomes subsidiary—that is, you are able to move from attending to particulars focally to growing in indwelling them as pregnant clues, to subsidiarily attending from them to their transformative sense-making pattern. In the successful integration, subsidiary and focal dynamically interconnect and amplify each other, as transformed part to transforming whole.

Whatever is subsidiary in the act of knowing is, in that act, not focal, and thus not something we can articulate as information. Much of what we indwell, in fact, we never know focally—such as the workings of our central nervous system. But even if we did, in the act of knowing we are relying on it, indwelling it, as subsidiary, rather than attending to it focally. The human mind is only known by way of subsidiarily indwelling the body—one’s own or another ’s.

The subsidiary level of any knowing event includes three sectors of clues: our felt body sense, the surrounding situation (the place of our puzzlement), and any normative words of authoritative guides and interpretive frameworks. We subsidiarily indwell all these dimensions in making sense of things. Focally naming or identifying them, while this can be helpful, does not anchor our knowing; subsidiarily indwelling them does. The foundations of our knowledge, therefore, must not be explicit certainties. The foundations of our knowledge must be an embodied giving of ourselves in tacit trust to indwell that which we understand only in what they achieve. Coming to know, therefore, involves a creative scrabbling to find our way toward making sense of puzzling particulars. But even to have deemed the particulars “puzzling” is to be half-way to making sense of them. And in the process, we actually need to be guided by clues, pregnant with meaning, which we do not yet understand. Then, it turns out, we can scrabble imaginatively, creatively, subsidiarily, toward a focal that we cannot yet identify or articulate, and we can have—we must rely on—a sense

that we are getting closer to it. We must find a way to shift from looking at to looking from; we must actively shape a creative pattern that makes sense of the clues. Then, when we achieve the pattern, it comes to us as an epiphany, a break-through insight. We simultaneously recognize it and are surprised by it.

And now here’s my favorite part: that freshly discovered pattern has about it hints of future possibilities that are at this moment unspecifiable but nevertheless felt. Polanyi said that scientific discoverers know that they have made contact with reality when they have a sense of the possibility of indeterminate future manifestations.7 In fact, the profounder the insight, the greater the sense that you have only laid hold of an aspect of reality, and that there are more horizons that beckon you to explore. It’s more what we don’t know of something that testifies to its reality and draws us, than what we do know. This is how it is that a breakthrough is both an end and a beginning in a knowing venture. So knowing involves in equal measures active personal responsibility to shape a pattern and submission to that pattern as a token of reality.8 It is these tantalizing “ifms”—indeterminate future manifestations—which have suggested to me that the yet-to-be-known is personlike: it graciously self-discloses; it contacts back. For me this shows that we may augment Polanyian epistemology to covenant epistemology.

Knowing works this way whether those involved are Christian believers or not. But Christian believers can see that the paradigm of all coming to know is the redemptive encounter—knowing and finding oneself graciously, transformatively, known by the Lord Christ. Every tiny moment of insight or breakthrough signposts redemptive encounter; it is a wooing of the Lord himself. Conversely, celebrating the Eucharist, I believe, becomes additionally a “best epistemic practice”: it makes us better as knowers in our inviting the real. Our already transformative adventure of knowing, no matter how lowly, with this realization, is transformed afresh, infused from on high with the fragrant presence of the Lord. All knowing becomes delighted communion with Him.

SFI subverts the information mindset, and reorients our epistemic default Polanyi’s account reveals the problem with the knowledge-as-information epistemology: the Western tradition of ideas and culture, specifically in modernity, installed focal, explicit knowledge as the ideal form of knowledge. In doing so it has eclipsed and hampered true knowing. There is nothing at all wrong with information, or with amassing it. The problem is with making it function as the epistemic ideal. What you want to do with information is subsidiarily indwell it to seek a transformative pattern.

Subsidiary focal integration shows how knowing is, at heart, not a merely passive amassing of information but a responsible personal investment seeking transformative insight. Significant dimensions of knowing are unspecifiable focally as information, and only thereby are they integral and palpably operative in our knowing. The roots of knowledge do not consist of lucid certainties. Nor does its goal. Knowing roots in commitments and clues we understand only in indwelling them, and involves giving ourselves in trust, in advance, to a significance that resonates well beyond what we can codify. And this structure represents no defect or inadequacy, nor sin or even finitude in our knowing. Rather, it is the glory of human knowing, its strength, its care for the world; it is our humanness.9 Knowing thus understood, roots the knower profoundly in his/her body, in the world, and in a dynamically, transformatively, ever-unfolding reality.

Covenant-epistemological pedagogy

To learn and to teach is to undertake and attend to knowing (ad)ventures. And to recognize this is to make delightful sense of what learners and teachers love to do. Here are only a few implications of covenant epistemology for pedagogy. No doubt you can easily think of others.

Savvy, caring teachers are already attuned to the critical keys of teaching: love and delight—in your students, and in your subject. What covenant epistemology reveals is that these are epistemic—something that a knowledge-as- information epistemology radically disavows. Conferring dignity, noticing regard, creating a space that welcomes student and subject and their unfolding communion, that models covenant pledge to the yet-to-be-known, as well as to classmates—these efforts form the posture that invites the real. The goal of teaching is to cultivate lovers. And the goal of knowing is inviting the real into shalom. Plus, in teaching, you are inviting the real in your students.

Second, seeing the act of coming to know as the main act of knowing (as opposed to information-amassing), and seeing that this venture unfolds, not linearly but transformatively, helps teachers to expect and accredit some things that the information mindset cannot even recognize. All knowing is knowing on the way—half-understanding. It’s possible to be clueless and close. It’s possible to be knowledgeable and really far from the truth. It’s always the case that we get part of it right and part of it wrong at any point in time. There is anticipative knowledge. Teachers can see and accredit and encourage a student who is on the verge of a breakthrough but not there yet—especially since this can be a most distressing period of conflict. Teachers can exercise and encourage patience. We need to teach that knowledge unfolds in grace-filled lurches forward, and enjoin students themselves to develop and navigate that awareness.

Third, if knowing involves creative effort to integrate hitherto disconnected and meaningless particulars into a transformative pattern, then our approach can be seen to involve something like throwing a catalyst into a solution (or throwing the yeast into the flour and water mixture as we make bread.) Already in the solution must be love. We cultivate a hospitable space of welcome and noticing regard. We insist that delight invites the real. Love is “non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other,” according to James Loder.10 We may model and cultivate and ensure this in the classroom.

Then we encourage students to take to themselves the responsibility of pledge to the yet-to-be-known. One could even render this a ceremony! Help them see that this responsible buy-in on their part, both individually and together as a class, is critical to inviting the real.11

Also already in the solution must be the currently disconnected particulars that we need to seek to have linked and transformed in inbreaking insight—these math problems, these historical figures and events, these trivium skills, these scales or warm-up exercises.

Then, it seems to me, that skilled teachers are skilled because they have some reliable sparks or catalysts—things they know to say or do or model that can prompt a learner’s integration. For example: when I was a not-so-young young mom, a girlfriend talked me into taking a ballet class. For me, that was a first-ever such experience. I “learned” all those positions and movements that make up barre work. Every such session ends with the summons to let go of the barre and balance on your toes with your hands over your head (and look beautiful! Hah!). I was entirely unable to hold that pose—until the day that the wise teacher said, “Pretend you are sucking yourself up through a straw.” From that moment, even to this day decades later, I can balance on my toes! That sentence sparked my body to feel integratively what it was to do.

Fourth, you should expect that understanding involves existential change. After all, the knower’s felt body sense constitutes one of the three sectors of clues. Knowing changes the knower. And you should expect that reality will change for the knower. The directions change in this sense: they have become meaningful and fraught with future possibilities. Transformed learners themselves become semper transformanda—always transforming.

Finally, realize that what is at stake is not just learning and pedagogy. What is at stake is nothing short of redemptive healing and cultural change. The knowledge-as- information mindset is the pawn and hit-man of a Western modernist cultural milieu of power, mastery, control, over nature and over others. It depersonalizes and reduces to manageable bits to leverage its domination. It seeks each one of us for subservience to a machine. It seeks robots to rule the world. I state this starkly and offer no justification here at the end of this essay. But even if this aggressive spirit of the times only partially pertains, cultivating knowers as lovers is one key way we may healingly subvert it, by reinstating humans as lovers who are semper transformanda, to “look the world back to grace.”12

Knowing is always a knowing venture in which we do best to seek the real in love, pledge, invitation, and indwelling. In gracious, generous, surprising response, reality reveals itself to be more than I could have anticipated. It is the whole tenor of this dynamic
that has led me to cast it as persons covenantally forming relationship, to the end of communion. Knowing is more of an adventure than the reigning modern epistemic paradigm has entitled us to acknowledge. And perhaps like the hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, we find, once embarked, that the adventure is bigger than we ever could have imagined.