, Volume 64, Issue 1-2, pp 107-120
Date: 21 Mar 2012

Perception, knowledge and freedom in the age of extremes: on the historical epistemology of Ludwik Fleck and Michael Polanyi

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Abstract

This paper deals with Ludwik Fleck’s theory of thought styles and Michael Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowledge. Though both concepts have been very influential for science studies in general, and both have been subject to numerous interpretations, their accounts have, somewhat surprisingly, hardly been comparatively analyzed. Both Fleck and Polanyi relied on the physiology and psychology of the senses in order to show that scientific knowledge follows less the path of logical principles than the path of accepting or rejecting specific conventions, where these may be psychologically or sociologically grounded. It is my aim to show that similarities and differences between Fleck and Polanyi are to be seen in the specific historical and political context in which they worked. Both authors, I shall argue, emphasized the relevance of perception in close connection to their respective understanding of science, freedom, and democracy.

An earlier version of this article was first published in German under the title „Sehen, Gestalt und Erkenntnis im Zeitalter der Extreme. Zur historischen Epistemologie von Ludwik Fleck und Michael Polanyi”. In: L. Bader, M. Gaier & F. Wolf (Eds.), Vergleichendes Sehen (pp. 575–595). Paderborn: Fink 2010. For the present version, the paper was revised and extended. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for critical comments and to Carrie Assman for her translation of this text.