Keep on keeping on. In my dropped-out years in the early 1970s, I spent a year in a commune in the Bay Area of California. One of the posters of that counter-cultural moment-in-the-sun was of a very hip-looking guy with exaggerated features walking along, and the words, “Keep on keeping on.” In its own way the picture was weighted with the meaning of a generation in transition, no longer wanting to be what was and not quite sure what was to come—but a poetic and playful charge to keep at it, wherever your shoes took you.
The words are hard to live by, and harder and harder as we get older. But some people do. For a thousand reasons known and unknown, they keep on keeping on. When my parents were in their last years of life, my father became increasingly sick, and was unable to take care of himself. My mother slowly, slowly entered into the vocation of his full-time caregiver. While on the one hand it was true that she had been that for the 55 years of their marriage, serving each other in love as they had, the last few years of their life together were very hard. She watched her friend and companion– a good neighbor to people near and far, and a good scientist whose work rippled across the country and around the world –become more and more disabled, almost completely dependent on her to take care of him.
As we would talk on the phone across the country, her in California and me in Virginia, I would regularly ask, “Do you still want to do this, Mom?” And again and again she said to me, very simply, “It’s hard to do this– but I want to do this. In fact, I’m glad to do this.” My father died the year of their 60th anniversary, in their home with my mother by his side.
The last years were a long ways from the hope and glory of their wedding day in Greeley, Colorado, at the end of World War II, at a time in their young lives when the whole world seemed open before them. Promises made in hope, words from the deepest places of the heart, and a life to be lived together– having no idea what the years would bring to them: moving for study to Michigan, and back to Colorado, and then to California, and then a decision with life-long consequence to stay in California after my father’s studies were done. Along the way, four sons were born whose lives would become stories with unimagined complexity, with the happiest of realized hopes alongside the crush of disappointments. It could not be otherwise: we are a family like every family, a normal family in an abnormal world.
Theirs was a long story of joys and sorrows, like human beings in every time and place. We choose, and then live, not knowing what our choices will mean over the course of our lives. And the deeper truth is that none of us know what the next day will bring. We cannot know anything from the outside, in abstraction. In marriage, in work, in politics, from moving into a neighborhood to visiting a new city or country somewhere in the world, we do not know until we do. Across the whole of life, it is only as we step in that we understand what we believe, and what we love; it is only as we begin to live into that we understand what our beliefs and loves will require of us. Words always have to be made flesh, if we are going to understand them.
True as this is, it is a hard truth to come by. In the waywardness of our hearts, we resist it, wanting ideas to simply be ideas, beliefs to simply be beliefs. We allow ourselves theories that have nothing to do with practice, in our lives or the rest of the world. In the yearning of my late-adolescent heart, wanting intellectual coherence as I had never imagined possible, I dropped out of college in hope that I might find what I was looking for—and it was then that I first begin reading Michael Polanyi, whose seminal work on the integral relationship of knowing to doing, of belief to behavior, recast the paradigm for those with ears to hear. Some of my teachers were reading him, and with my deepening criticism of the Enlightenment Project, I was drawn to his unusual story.
Who was he? And why does his work matter here? Born into a Jewish family in Budapest, he was unusually gifted in the sciences, and by the time he was in his 30s he had moved to Berlin and was working in the same institute where Albert Einstein worked. By the middle of that decade, as Germany was becoming increasingly hostile to Jews, both men left, Einstein to the United States and Polanyi to the United Kingdom.
The next years were very hard for anyone who cared about life– we call it “the Holocaust,” after all. Polanyi kept at his laboratory research, and those who watched carefully were sure that his insights would lead him to a Nobel Prize in chemistry. But by the time the war ended, his questions had changed. No longer was he most fascinated by chemical compounds; another question dominated everything else: how dare we call ourselves enlightened?
A surprising question, perhaps, for a child of the Enlightenment, especially for someone like Polanyi whose work was focused on understanding the nature of science and its chemical reality, a “project,” so to speak, at the very heart of the modern world. But having lived through two worlds wars in his relatively young life, he was horrified that Europeans dared see themselves as “enlightened,” as somehow more morally and intellectually mature than previous generations. Those who brought us into cultural chaos through the devastation of war had “gone to the best universities we have,” he lamented.
How is it possible that someone could be brilliant and bad at the same time? For the rest of his life, Polanyi pursued that question. After several years of reflection, in 1951 he presented the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, a series that became his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. At its heart, a critique of the Enlightenment Project and its epistemological hubris, he called into fundamental question the Cartesian dualism of objective and subjective knowledge, the split between facts and values.
A long and complex analysis, Polanyi was convinced that his own experience as a research scientist proved that so-called “objective” analysis was just that, so-called. As he put it, colloquially, the viewer is always viewing. The scientist does not leave himself at the door of the laboratory, Polanyi argued; in truth, he cannot.
For Polanyi, “personal knowledge” did not mean subjective, but something more deeply and profoundly human. Leaving behind the philosophically-flawed assumptions of the Enlightenment, he began to think through a more truthful account of human knowing, one that honored the best of the scientific method but was more intellectually honest about its limitations.
One of his simple stories gets at this with an unusually common wisdom. He offered his readers a little girl who has recently mastered the art of bicycle-riding. Does she know how to ride a bike? Does she really know? “Of course I know how to ride a bike!” she insists, sure the questioner must be slow to not understand that “everyone knows how to ride a bike!” Pressing into the story, Polanyi asks a brilliant physicist to enter the conversation. Requesting that the scientist summarize the physics of bicycle-riding onto a page, the little girl is then given the paper, “Here is what someone must know to know how to ride a bike.” Befuddled at the complexity of the numbers and letters, the little girl responds, “I don’t know about this, but I do know how to ride my bike!”
Polanyi asks: which one is the more certain, the girl or the physicist? His point, and the argument of “personal knowledge” is that they know in different ways, and each is properly certain of their knowledge. The so-called “subjective” knowledge of the one is not less certain than the so-called “objective” knowledge of the other; each has a proper confidence.
His work is remarkably rich, and worthy of more attention someday. But central to Polanyi’s insight is that we only truly learn when we indwell what we want to learn. We cannot understand anything that matters standing on the outside looking in—whether bicycle-riding, or marriage, or social histories with seemingly intractable complexity. It is only when we step in, that we begin to know—and to see what love will ask of us.
Sometimes, though, love asks more of us than we are able to give, more than we have imagined. As much as we see that “stepping in” is right, it is in indwelling our loves and longings that we understand them. We do not know until we do.
See “Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing: The Thought and Life of Michael Polanyi.” (Charlottesville: Mars Hill Audio)
In Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence he takes up Polanyi’s work, with great skill showing that the Enlightenment assumptions about the nature of knowledge do not account for the way that human beings know and live.