Trusting and testing

The fiduciary tradition in epistemology insists that we have to trust in order to test. We cannot make a judgement, on proposals that are offered for our assent, from outside— from the detached position of an observer. As Isaiah says: 'Unless you believe you will not understand' (Isaiah 7.9 LXX). Faith, insists Augustine in his sermons De verbis Domini, ought to precede understanding, so that understanding may be the reward of faith. And Anselm speaks in the same tradition when he confesses: 'I believe in order to understand' (Credo ut intelligam). This insight of Anselm catalysed Karl Barth into a creative interpretation of Anselm, published in 1931 as Fides Quaerens Intellectum— faith seeking understanding (Barth, 1960).

Isaiah's oracle and Augustine's dictum were among Coleridge's mottoes. In the appositely titled Aids to Reflection, Coleridge considers that: To believe and to understand are not diverse things, but the same thing in different periods of growth' (Coleridge, 1993, p.194). That is why Coleridge could claim that we may be said to comprehend what we cannot properly be said to understand. In the Notebooks, Coleridge interprets the Gospels' use of 'faith' as 'a moral act or habit', adding: 'Believe, says St Augustine, and most profoundly too—and thou wilt receive an intellectual conviction (perception of its rationality) as the reward of thy faith' (Coleridge, 1990, vol. 3, p.3,888). Again Coleridge comments on the same theme: 'Try it. travel along it, trust in it and.. .obey in all respects the various guideposts both at its entrance and those which you will find along it—and this is the method, nay, this is from the nature of the thing the only possible method of converting your negative knowledge into direct and positive Insight. In all things worth knowing our knowledge is in exact proportion to our faith: and all faith begins in a predisposition, analogous to instinct' (Coleridge, 1990, vol. 4, p.4,611).

Michael Polanyi's account of 'personal knowledge' may be considered as a sustained exposition of the rule that one must trust in order to test. Polanyi insists that 'we know more than we can tell'. This tacit knowledge that cannot be fully specified or articulated is absorbed from the environment that we test for its truth and adequacy by trusting ourselves to it. This environment is constituted by the symbolic. As Coulson says: 'The Christian is one who places himself within an order of signs' (Coulson, 1981, p. 162). Polanyi calls this the 'fiduciary' approach to truth. He insists that 'truth is something that can be thought only by believing it' (Polanyi, 1958, p.305). Polanyi's personalist philosophy affirms that all truth is held in a framework of trust. Truth is not an external, objective entity that we can analyse, discuss and decide to accept if we will. It is not at our beck and call. We are responsible for our beliefs and cannot be relieved of that responsibility by appealing to a supposed set of objective criteria that will do the work of making up our minds for us. We grasp the truth only through the disciplined pursuit of a moral quest.

On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will

Reach her, about must, and about must goe;

And what the hill's suddenness resists, win soe.

Personal knowledge is heuristic and reaches out to the truth, indwelling it by anticipation, led on by intimations and clues that are picked up by our tacit awareness searching within the gravitational field (so to speak) of the object. For Polanyi, the interpretation of phenomena, whether in basic perception or in scientific research, is effected by acts of personal judgement that cannot be replaced by specified acts of explicit reasoning according to a formula. All our experience is of unities, rather than of atomistic facts in isolation. We have tacit knowledge of particulars through apprehending the whole structures within which they subsist. 'The efforts of perception are evoked by the scattered features of raw experience suggesting the presence of a hidden pattern which will make sense of the experience.' Thus 'knowing is always a tension alerted by largely unspecified clues and directed by them towards a focus at which we sense the presence of a thing' (Polanyi, 1962, p. 11). Polanyi emphasises the need to recover the ability to deliberately hold unproven beliefs for heuristic purposes (Polanyi, 1958, p.268).

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