July 28, 2006

Skepticism and moral inversion

By The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was one of the most brilliant physical scientists of the Twentieth Century...Polanyi, the scientist, became convinced that the source of the nihilism and self-destruction that he witnessed rested on a false understanding of the nature of knowledge and the act of knowing. He called this false notion of knowledge “Objectivism” and sometimes “Scientism”. This ideal of knowledge elevated methodological doubt as the primary element in dependable knowledge. That which was really real was that which could be known by the dispassionate, distanced, neutral observer on the basis of direct observation...
Polanyi believed that “Objectivism” created a particular moral problem for the “modern mind.” On the one hand, the effectiveness of the scientific revolution intensified the human thirst for moral perfection and for a truly just society. These impulses Polanyi thought the inheritance of the Christian civilization of Western Europe. On the other hand, the objectivist principle caused a deep cynicism and doubt about all traditional and received wisdom...
“These two forces, skepticism and moral passion, then fused together in various ways, without losing their dangerous incompatibility. The first kind of fusion produced the individual nihilist, burning with moral fervour and hatred of existing society” . . .”The second kind of fusion of moral passion with scientific skepticism appears when the individual nihilist turns to political action and chooses political violence; this occurred in Europe with the rise of the armed bohemians who were the agents of the European revolution”. Lady Drusilla Scott, in her book “Everyman Revived"
This idea of a moral inversion which is the product of inflamed moral passion and thoroughgoing skepticism and which has a tendency to produce an oscillation between apathy and self-destructive violence in the service of a utopian vision is a powerful critique of contemporary society...Polanyi thought that Americans and the English in any event were saved from the worst aspects of moral inversion by their tendency not to take theories too seriously and by their pragmatism.
John Wilkins Says: July 26th, 2006 at 5:56 pm Interesting, although most of us on the progressive side who actually think about these things find some strength - not in relativism. The current sources of theological thinking include, for example, Girard, Levinas and Pierce, none of which were particularly nihilistic. Given that Levinas was also responding to the Holocaust, I wouldn’t overlook him. I also don’t think this description of Polyani exhausts, for example, Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher and Rauschenbusch’s influence on liberal Christianity. But have you ever read Feyerabend? He seems to address similar questions.

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