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On the Intellectual Passion in Scientific Research


Personal Knowledge. Toward A Post-Critical Philosophy, 1958

The affirmation of a great scientific theory is in part an expression of delight. The theory has an inarticulate component acclaiming its beauty, and this is essential to the belief that the theory is true. No animal can appreciate the intellectual beauties of science.

It is true that the active principle of animal life, in which I have found prefigured all intellectual strivings of man, already sounds a passionate note. Köhler clearly demonstrated that chimpanzees derive pleasure from the discovery of a new ingenious manipulation, quite apart from the practical benefit they derive from it; he described how they will repeat the practical benefit they derive from it; he described how they will repeat the performance for its own sake, as a kind of play. W.N. and L.A. Kellog found that a young chimpanzee is just as much inclined as a child of the same age to repeat in play a manipulation involving the use of a tool which it had first invented for some practical purpose. The animal was also as keen as the child to climb into the place where it was usually confronted with the task of solving problems. These intellectual tastes of the animal prefigure, no doubt, the joys of discovery which our articulate powers can attain for man, but in the animal they do not remotely approach these joys in scope and elevation. As language enlarges the range of our thought, the ape's pleasure in playing with a stick is expanded to a complex system of emotional responses by which scientific value and ingenuity of many kinds are appreciated throughout natural science, technology and mathematics. This is the kind of feeling described in the title of this chapter as 'Intellectual Passions'. Before going into it further, let me notice the new context into which science is shifted by attending to this aspect of it. A scientific theory which calls attention to its own beauty, and partly relies on it for claiming to represent empirical reality, is akin to a work of art which calls attention to its own beauty as a token of artistic reality. It is akin also to the mystical contemplation of nature: a kinship shown historically in the Pythagorean origins of theoretical science. More generally, science, by virtue of its passionate note, finds its place among the great systems of utterances which try to evoke and impose correct modes of feelings. In teaching its own kinds of formal excellence science functions like art, religion, morality, law and other constituents of culture.

This alignment greatly amplifies the perspective of our enquiry. Though we had noticed before that science claims to appraise order and probability and accredits scientific skill and connoisseurship, these evaluative components of science were emotionally colorless compared with the intellectual passions by which science appreciates its own beauty. If the upholding of scientific truth requires that we justify such passionate valuations, our task expands inevitably also to the justification of those equally passionate valuations on which the affirmation of the several domains of culture is predicated. Science can then no longer hope to survive on an island of positive facts, around which the rest of man's intellectual heritage sinks to the status of subjective emotionalism. It must claim that certain emotions are right; and if it can make good such a claim, it will not only save itself but sustain by its example the whole system of cultural life of which it forms part.

Yet while accepting the inescapable solidarity of science with other cultural provinces, I shall have to strike a compromise in this book between the claims of this connection and the limitations of my space. Though it may eventually prove easier to uphold a fuller truth on broader grounds, I cannot attempt this task here in its entirety. I propose, therefore, to continue my enquiry into the conditions for upholding factual truth, while digressing only from time to time to indicate the wider implications of this project.

From the start of this book [Personal Knowledge] I have had occasion, in various contexts to refer to the overwhelming elation felt by scientists at the moment of discovery, an elation of a kind which only a scientist can feel and which science alone can evoke in him. In the very first chapter I quoted the famous passage in which Kepler announced the discovery of his Third Law: "nothing holds me; I will indulge my sacred fury." The outbreak of such emotions in the course of discovery is well known, but they are not thought to affect the outcome of discovery. Science is regarded as objectively established in spite of its passionate origins. It should be clear by this time that I dissent from that belief; and I have now come to the point at which I want to deal explicitly with passions in science. I want to show that scientific passions are no mere psychological by-product, but have a logical function which contributes an indispensable element to science. They responded to an essential quality in a scientific statement and may accordingly be said to be right or wrong, depending on whether we acknowledge or deny the presence of that quality in it.

What is this quality? Passions charge objects with emotions, making them repulsive or attractive; positive passions affirm that something is precious. The excitement of the scientist making a discovery is an intellectual passion, telling that something is intellectually precious and, more particularly, that it is precious to science . And this affirmation forms part of science. The words of Kepler which I quoted were not a statement of fact, but neither were they merely a report of Kepler's personal feelings. They asserted as a valid affirmation of science something else than a fact: namely the scientific interest of certain facts, the facts just discovered by Kepler. They affirmed, indeed, that these facts are immense scientific interest and will be so regarded as long as knowledge lasts. Nor was Kepler deceived in this majestic sentiment. The passing centuries have paid their cumulative tribute to his vision, and so, I believe, will the centuries yet to come.

The function which I attribute here to scientific passion is that of distinguishing between demonstrable facts which are of scientific interest, and those which are not. Only a tiny fraction of all knowable facts are of interest to scientists, and scientific passion serves also as a guide in the assessment of what is of higher and what of lesser interest; what is great in science, and what relatively slight. I want to show that this appreciation depends ultimately on a sense of intellectual beauty; that it is an emotional response which can never be dispassionately defined, any more than we can dispassionately define the beauty of a work of art or the excellence of a noble action.

Scientific discovery reveals new knowledge, but the new vision which accompanies it is not knowledge. It is less than knowledge, for it is a guess; but is more than knowledge, for it is a foreknowledge of things yet unknown and at present perhaps inconceivable. Our vision of the general nature of things is our guide for the interpretation of all future experience. Such guidance is indispensable. Theories of the scientific method which try to explain the establishment of scientific truth by any purely objective formal procedure are doomed to failure. Any process of enquiry unguided by intellectual passions would inevitably spread out into a desert of trivialities. Our vision of reality, to which our sense of scientific beauty responds, must suggest to use the kind of questions that it should be reasonable and interesting to explore. It should recommend the kind of conceptions and empirical relations that are intrinsically plausible and which should therefore be upheld, even when some evidence seems to contradict them, and tell us also, on the other hand, what empirical connections to reject as specious, even though there is evidence for them - evidence that we may as yet be unable to account for on any other assumptions. In fact, without a scale of interest and plausibility based on a vision of reality, nothing can be discovered that is of value to science; and only our grasp of scientific beauty, responding to the evidence of our senses, can evoke this vision.

M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. Toward A Post-Critical Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983). pp. 133-135.