Practical Reasoning as Personal Knowing
Cover of issue 37
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Practical Reasoning as Personal Knowing: Pedagogical Implications of Polanyi’s Insights into the Development of the Moral Self. (2008). The Political Science Reviewer, 37, 122-138.


Fifty years after the publication of Personal Knowledge, philosophersand theologians have appropriated insights fromthe works of Michael Polanyi into their projects, but comparativelyfew ethicists have done so. This situation is something ofa surprise for several reasons. The first is that Polanyi’s accountof personal knowledge is motivated by an intensely moral concern,that of moral inversion. This term serves as Polanyi’s answerto a question that many people were asking in the post–World WarII era: "How could the destructive, totalitarian regimes of NaziGermany, fascist Italy, and the communist Soviet Union havearisen in the cultured, liberal West?" As Polanyi tells the story,moral reflection is severely damaged by epistemologies developedin the modern period in which thinkers come to judge allhuman knowledge by what they call "scientific objectivity." Theresult is that Western societies develop a deep skepticism aboutthe truth of moral standards. At the same time, however, humanbeings continue to exhibit moral passions that will find expression—even when de-coupled from belief in the truth of moralstandards. Those passions, according to Polanyi, become invertedin such a way that they end up directed toward ends thatultimately destroy, rather than sustain, a free society. Because ofthis moral vision at the heart of his work, one would expect moreethicists to have paid attention.
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