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Gestalt epistemology: from gestalt psychology to phenomenology in the work of Michael Polanyi

Preston, J. ORCID: (2022) Gestalt epistemology: from gestalt psychology to phenomenology in the work of Michael Polanyi. Philosophia Scientæ, 26 (3). pp. 233-254. ISSN 1775-4283

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To link to this item DOI: 10.4000/philosophiascientiae.3668


Gestalt psychology of perception was one of the main inspirations behind the philosophical work of the Hungarian polymath Michael Polanyi. Seeing scientists and philosophers backing away from its implications, he proposed instead to take those implications seriously. I detail four ways in which he did so, the result of which was his theory of “tacit knowing”. This can be thought of as a Gestalt epistemology, because it takes the figure/ground relation as the model for all knowing. Polanyi took his Gestalt epistemology to apply widely. I argue that it is more successful with some of the problems to which he applied it than with others, and thus that Polanyi was wrong to think that they all exhibit a common pattern. Polanyi’s epistemological work led him to a position alongside phenomenology. He compared his project to the work of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in a positive way. But, while he sympathised with the phenomenological method, and strongly endorsed its anti-reductionist conclusions, he criticised phenomenologists for acquiescing in a positivistic or mechanistic view of the natural sciences, and he went on to develop a metaphysics or ontology which he considered to have gone beyond phenomenology. However, Polanyi did sometimes follow certain phenomenologists in an existentialist direction, to conclusions about meaningfulness and its “destruction”, and to his related account of the various degrees or levels of “indwelling”. I conclude by arguing that, in the places where he did this, Polanyi’s thought over-extends, and that this raises a problem for his entire theory of tacit knowing.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > Philosophy
ID Code:108505
Publisher:Éditions Kimé


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