A Critical Exploration and Theological Critique of Michael Polanyi’s Structured Ontology

  • Andrew W Steiger

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by OU/Aberdeen)


Scholarship has tended to focus on Polanyi’s critique of objectivism that led to his philosophical contributions, predominantly in epistemology - what Polanyi calls personal knowledge; however, Polanyi’s critique is equally tied to his ontology - which can be similarly referenced as personal existence. There is need to explore and critique Polanyi’s structured ontology, particularly as it applies to cybernetics and human persons. Polanyi did not provide a fully developed ontology, but the philosophical pieces are evident as he critiqued objectivism. By appealing to the broad corpus of Polanyi’s published and unpublished works, his ontology is pieced together. What emerges is an ontological structure connecting epistemology and ontology, built on dual control between a world of particulars,
subject to natural shaping—and composites, subject to artificial shaping, as defined by boundary conditions and operational principles. Reasoning from artificial shaping, Polanyi proposed an ontology from purpose in which persons both create meaningful composites and decipher them, with examples in language and machines. Polanyi understood that his proposed example of machines has the potential to undermine his philosophy, particularly within cybernetics, such as machine learning. As addressed; however, it also provides the opportunity to decipher a human ontology as a biological machine. It is contended that an appreciation for Polanyi’s moral and duty-bound concern is largely missing from Polanyian scholarship—a concern that underpins his critique of objectivism and ultimately grounds his ontological conclusions of what defines humanity’s ontological purpose. Applying Polanyi’s structured ontology to human persons, a deontic operational principle is encountered that requires top-down support. In critiquing objectivism, Polanyi advanced a more ontologically
balanced philosophy that values both pure and applied science but, given the irreducibility of boundary conditions and operational principles, requires greater existential top-down priority upon composites and in personal existence particularly. It is argued that theism can provide the top-down structure necessary to support Polanyi’s ontology, without it collapsing into
Date of Award18 Jan 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Aberdeen
SupervisorInnes Visagie (Supervisor) & Jamie Grant (Supervisor)

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