Last week at Honors Tea, I heard someone say that Michael Polanyi comes up a lot in your conversations, especially those of you who’ve taken Honors Philosophy with Dr. Reppmann. For the rest of you, Polanyi is, shall we say, an understandably underexamined resource. But I have to say I get pretty geeked up about Polanyi. What excites me about the guy–what makes me bring him up in conversations, in conference papers, and in blog posts—is that he connects formal structures to material experience.
Ah, you say, that explains everything.
Okay, what’s a formal structure? Well, language is the example I reach for first. It’s a formal structure, because it has grammar, syntax, rules, built-in conventions. And what’s material experience? The stuff you’re living through. All the bumps and resistance and strain and heft of everyday reality. Polanyi hooks these together by situating them both in what he calls the tacit dimension. That sounds like a room with glowing walls somewhere in the basement of South Hall. But it’s actually Polanyi’s way of saying that our lived experience is always greater than we have words for. We always live more than we can say. At the same time, our language is excessive. We always say more than we know.
Most days, of course, we don’t notice this excess, because our language names our experience fairly well. Let’s say that you win a scholarship, so you text your soul sister to tell her the good news. She immediately texts you back, “OMGYG2BK!” Your roommate sees you laugh and asks what your friend said. You would not say, “She said, ‘OMGYG2BK.” No, you’d translate, “Oh my god, you’ve got to be kidding.” Chances are, you may not even remember that you read this initially in an eight-letter abbreviation. In Polanyi’s terms, you attended from the text talk to its meaning—and you did so pretty easily.
But some days, your speech doesn’t quite jive with your lived experience. Think about times when you’ve made a mistake in using a slang term. The other day in a communication arts course, my students made up a word, “zigit.” The class decided it should mean, roughly, “A term of appreciation for someone’s sexual attractiveness.” To say, “He’s zigit” is to say, “He’s really hot.” Now, if I walk into class tomorrow and fan my face and wipe my brow and say, “Gosh, it’s zigit in here,” everybody would laugh. The room may be hot, but it’s certainly not zigit.
This misalignment of speech and experience can also happen when you say something that is truer than you know. A quick story might explain it best. Our kitchen in the mornings can be a pretty chaotic place: people are going every which way making sandwiches, pouring milk, emptying the dish drainer, and so forth. One morning a few years ago, my son, Winston, trying desperately to get into the Cheerios box, called out, “Would somebody help me?” Nobody heeded him. Everybody kept making lunches and rinsing dishes and signing homework pads; so he called it again, “Would somebody help me?” Again, he went unnoticed. So, after a few minutes of growing impatience, he shouted out, “All I need is help!” We all stopped, frozen in mid-action, and then burst into laughter.
Why did we laugh? What Winston had meant was, “Would somebody please open this thing for me?” What made his statement funny was that he was saying more than any knew. Given the stress we were all feeling that morning about things far more complicated than opening a box of Cheerios, it was as if he were saying, “All I need is everything!” His speech fumbled farther into human experience than three-year-olds usually go. Thirty odd years farther into existence than he, all I know and all I need suggest that there is more to life than I know what to do with. Which is why we pray with the Psalter, “O God, come to my assistance; O LORD, make haste to help me.”
So, all this to say, that Polanyi gets me geeked because he helps me understand how two things are true. Words mean more than we intend; life exceeds our words. But it gets better. Polanyi also says we experience this fearful and wonderful experience as a kind of vocation, a calling to be involved in the project of naming things with each other. Dr. VanderWeele has called this “the difficult gift of human exchange.” You might call it the basic project of every one of your classes this week. If your professor disagrees with you, try Winston’s slogan. Raise your hand and cry out, “All I need is help!”