Tradition and Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical

Volume 36, Issue 2, 2009/2010

Struan Jacobs
Pages 8-25

Tradition in a Free Society
The Fideism of Michael Polanyi and the Rationalism of Karl Popper

Michael Polanyi and Karl Popper offer contrasting accounts of social tradition. Popper is steeped in the heritage of the Enlightenment, while Polanyi interweaves religious and diverse secular strands of thought. Explaining the liberal tradition, Polanyi features tacit knowledge of rules, standards, applications and interpretations being transmitted by “craftsmen” to “apprentices.” Each generation adopts the liberal tradition on “faith,” commits to creatively developing its art of knowledge-in-practice, and is drawn to the spiritual reality of ideal ends. Of particular interest to Popper is the rationality of social traditions. Likened by him to scientific theories, Popper’s traditions are criticizable and improvable, assisting agents to understand, and act in, the world as stable and predictable. Polanyi’s is the more informative rendering of tradition. Polanyi delves deeply into important areas where Popper only scratches their surface: the tacit dimension, transmission by way of apprenticeship, the meaning of tradition for those who participate in it, and the extent of its authority over them.