Many professions have an annual convention or conference to attend. Academics have scholarly conferences and societies, meetings whose sole agenda is to read papers, hear papers, and talk about papers. “Ugh!”—I can hear some of you cry! I agree that it’s pretty weird. But it’s the way scholarship moves forward. Scholars grow by proposing and defending theses and eliciting helpful critique. Plus, it’s an amazing benefit to be on the faculty of a college or university that actually picks up the tab for your trip.
I finished a dissertation on Michael Polanyi years before I ever was able to attend the Polanyi Society. Actually they came after me, finally, graciously roping me in by asking me to present a paper. I cannot tell you the joy it was for me to meet people whose work I had used in my own, whose names were well-known to me. It was astounding to realize that they were referencing my work as if it were an old friend. That was 1999 or so; I don’t think I have missed a meeting since.
They are a motley crew, mostly males older than I am. Some knew Polanyi when he was alive, and refer to him as Michael. Most are authors. One Jesuit who looks like Jesus. A couple Catholic theologians. One Montanan who looks the part. A head of a great books program at a private university. Other people from religion departments. One blackbelt in karate (maybe)—ok, he’s younger than I am. One retired business consultant from the Napa Valley, who offers me his wisdom generously, and who once taxied me wildly to O’Hare in a desperate effort to get me on my flight—talking Polanyi and business all the while. If we’re lucky, one Netherlander with twinkling eyes, scarf and mustache. One editor of our journal who remembers every article and every name on the mailing list. One retired political philosopher/Methodist minister/bachelor who drives a red sports car and loves to stand on the ocean beach and sing the verse of the hymn, “O Worship the King,” that says, “and round it hath cast like a mantle the sea.” One theologically conservative female philosophy professor (that’s me). And then others, including some wonderful young people, to whom we hope to pass another sort of mantle.
We gather every November in some new city, finding each other somehow, often in the dark. We do indeed hear and give papers, often having read them en route. We also talk Polanyi nonstop, walking city blocks to find places to eat, over every meal, and into the night. And then we disperse one-by-one to return to our lives, until another year. But at some point, during our time together, we will have left the papers behind and launched together into creative, collaborative, fresh, probing conversation about Polanyi’s work and its far-reaching implications.
This year I took one of my students, who gave a paper. Even before she presented it, a few of them warmly encouraged her about its quality. Why are these people so welcoming to all comers, so intrigued to embrace new thoughts and the people who have them?
I think it’s because all of us have been formed in the tradition of Michael Polanyi. Polanyi’s epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) is distinct in its humble openness to listen beyond categories for the sake of finding creatively fresh insight, and to do that convivially.
Polanyi the man modeled conviviality par excellence. In Personal Knowledge, Polanyi wrote it into his epistemology. All knowledge is rooted in “tacit coefficients.” Tacit coefficients of knowledge are communally held and nourished. Conviviality involves a real communication on the inarticulate level, and shared intellectual passion. Pure conviviality is the cultivation of good fellowship, especially in small groups, in joint activities. Language, culture, and understanding move forward in the context of conviviality. My Polanyi Society buddies always sign their letters, “Convivially, So-and-so.”
Polanyian epistemology stands out radically from other epistemology, Western, modern, or postmodern, by characterizing knowing, not as individualist, isolationist, competition to prevail in one’s expertise, but as an adventure of navigating by clues to a profound insight; something involving people humbly together in humbly listening to the real; with the hope of yet profounder truth.
I think it’s Polanyian epistemology that makes the Polanyi Society distinctively inviting and exciting to attend. Why am I telling you all this? Because I think conviviality is also profoundly Christian. Convivium is Latin for a feast—for communion.
Perhaps you might join us next November. Maybe you can dip into a little Polanyi in the interim. You will be delightfully surprised at the conviviality.