Polanyian Perspective on “The Abolition of Man”

The Abolition of Man is sometimes viewed as an attack on science. Anticipating this criticism, Lewis states that his remarks are not an attack on science but instead a defense of value—the value, among other things, of science. Lewis goes on to suggest that science might itself be the remedy for the dark moral malady that The Abolition of Man accounts for and describes. The purpose of this paper is to show that, in the work of Michael Polanyi, Lewis’s aspirations regarding the curative powers of science are in fact realized. Polanyi not only demonstrates the bankruptcy of scientism, but he does so in a manner that, while revealing the inspiring character of genuine science, greatly clarifies Lewis’s project.

Jon Fennell

Jon M. Fennell is Director of Teacher Education and Dean of Social Sciences at Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of California, Davis before moving to the University of Illinois where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of education. Prior to arriving at Hillsdale in 2005, Dr. Fennell spent four years in the Idaho State Department of Education and more than 20 years in the wholesale distribution, computer hardware, and ERP so ware industries. His teaching and research re ect a deep interest in philosophy, politics and education and is frequently focused on the domain where the three disciplines overlap. Dr. Fennell has wri en on educational topics as well as on the thought of seminal thinkers ranging from Rousseau and Dewey to Allan Bloom, Leo Strauss, Harry Ja a, and Michael Polanyi. He is currently pursuing the intellectual connections between Polanyi and C.S. Lewis.

John Dewey and the War of Ideas in American Education

There is a widespread sense that something is deeply wrong with American public education. In this session, Jon Fennell suggests that the quality of public education is a function of the ideas upon which it is built. Therefore, if public education is failing, that is because of the ideas that control it. What are those and what alternatives exist? Many critics of education assert that John Dewey is a primary source of bad ideas that are crippling our schools. To what degree is this allegation accurate and fair?

Jon Fennell

Jon Fennell is Dean of Social Sciences and Director of Teacher Education at Hillsdale College.

Liberal Education and the Art of “Seeing”

For more than forty years, except for an occasional recess, I have played pool frequently and with serious intent. In early 2003, I found myself in a game of “straight pool” – the game Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman (“Minnesota Fats” and “Fast Eddie” Felson) were playing in the classic movie, “The Hustler”—with a very good player indeed. My opponent was formerly the billiards champion for all U.S. military forces in
Europe. And he played like it!

In this particular game, my opponent had left me “safe,” which is to say that since he had no feasible opportunity to pocket a ball, he used his formidable skills to leave me without anything to shoot at when it was my turn to play. I was about to play “safe” in return when all of
a sudden I saw something. Incredibly, within the unpromising cluster of balls in front of me I clearly perceived a makeable shot. Then, as did Minnesota Fats and Fast Eddie in similar situations in the film, I approached the table with confidence and struck the cue ball. It worked. My opponent simply sighed, said not a word, and sat down. Such “seeing” is common among competent pool players. Perhaps my opponent had seen the shot as well and was hoping that I had not.

Imagine what Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson must see when they prepare for their next shot on the golf course. Jack, Phil, and I have something in common: In our play we manifest the very thing that constitutes the central consequence of a liberal arts education. In this article I would like to say a few words about that consequence— “seeing”—and how a liberal arts education makes it possible.

The “seeing” that I am referring to is the capacity to identify something as an instance of what one already knows. This happens to us all of the time, and is done more or less well. Perhaps we encounter a natural phenomenon, or witness a human behavior, or just emerge from a daze. We have an urge to make sense of what lies before us. And, with very rare exception, we do make sense of it (or, at least, think we do). How is this possible?

The answer to this question becomes clearer when I remind you that when we “see” we typically are “seeing as.” The sense that we achieve in the face of novelty is a function of the operation of concepts and categories that we already possess. These concepts and categories serve as tacit and largely inarticulate clues to an understanding
that we confidently anticipate we will achieve. The ever-changing future that unfolds in every moment is understandable because we can, and do, apply to it that which we have learned in the past. The educated mind is rich in such concepts and categories. The world, as a result, is accessible and can be turned to our purposes. It is the nature of liberal arts education to make this possible. Such an education is a systematic effort to provide students with the understanding that makes possible a rich and effective life.

And so, in a liberal arts curriculum we teach subjects such as history, mathematics, and literature. Each of the disciplines contributes
to a student’s capacity to make sense of what he encounters in the world. Those who have studied fascism or the disappearance of Christian civilization in North Africa will have little difficulty developing at least a preliminary understanding of what is taking place in Western Europe today. Persons equipped with the concepts and categories of psychological inquiry (the in uence of groups, for example, or the impact of early childhood experience, or of our emotions) will better understand not only the behavior and thoughts of others, but also those of oneself. One hopes that those who study economics will find the management of our national economy (as well as their personal or corporate nances) more understandable, and, therefore, more subject to moral and intellectual control, than have many others in recent times. And, touching on a subject of particular importance to readers of this journal, one hopes that the study of Education introduces prospective teachers to the treasures not only of systematic thinking in psychology and other disciplines in the social sciences, but also to the important contributions available to intelligent teaching from literature and other humane studies, especially philosophy. We do these things so that our students can better appreciate the world in which they find themselves. We also do them so that our students can, where it is appropriate and needed, take charge of their circumstances and thereby exercise due in uence over their future. As stated by the Dean of Faculty at Hillsdale College, “We offer a liberal education not because it is useful, but it is useful nevertheless.”

But I would be remiss should I fail to mention that “seeing,” while vital, is not the only thing that the liberal arts aim to cultivate and produce. In addition to “seeing,” the educated mind possesses the capacity to modify or adapt what it knows in light of that which it encounters. It can, in other words, learn something new, and it wishes to learn anew on a regular basis. This power to learn is an indispensable component of the comfort in, and connection to, the world that liberal arts education offers to those who imbibe it. Because we have understood in the past, we possess a growing confidence that we will do so in the future. Or, to put the matter in slightly different terms, the liberal arts nurture our faith in the accessibility of the world. They teach us that the world is rational—that it embodies and reflects an order that can be understood by the mind. We are open to the world because we expect what we encounter to make sense and thereby make us be er for coming to know more about it. In our teaching, then, whether the subject is “Abnormal Psychology” or “The Principles of Science,” or whether it is “The Early Middle Ages” or “Austrian Economics,” we express our commitment to the liberal arts by conveying to students the concepts and categories required to understand the world they inhabit as well as, through this very process, by promoting the confidence and faith that are so important to a fulfilling and effective life.