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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.3 (2002) 198-224

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Peirce's Abduction and Polanyi's Tacit Knowing

Phil Mullins
Missouri Western State College


Charles Sanders Peirce was born about fifty years before Michael Polanyi. But both demonstrate a similar pattern in their intellectual careers, for both were first-rate scientists who became philosophers with particular interest in science. Both figures were especially interested in what might be termed the "logic of discovery." The full scope of each figure's philosophical ideas on this topic is too complex to treat in a short essay. In what follows, I treat an interesting and more manageable component of this larger topic: I compare some of Peirce's ideas about abduction with Polanyi's account of tacit knowing. 1 What is the philosophical significance of such a hermeneutic comparison? Peirce and Polanyi are both thinkers critical of the tradition of modern philosophy. The constructive philosophical thought of each figure departs significantly from much that is modern. Linking Peirce's account of abduction to Polanyi's account of tacit knowing is a way quickly to zoom in on some central shared philosophical innovations of these thinkers. It reveals interesting parallels in the ways in which these figures think of belief and agency as well as the way they think of the scientific community and scientific work. Also I hope my comparison will illumine some difficult aspects of each figure's account of knowing. As Marjorie Grene has pointed out, Polanyi's claims for tacit knowing are central to his thought but have frequently been misunderstood by philosophers. It is the relation between what Polanyi calls the tacit underpinning and the explicit focus of knowing that is philosophically important, providing what Grene dubs "a one hundred and eighty degree reversal in the approach of philosophers to the problems of epistemology" [End Page 198] (1977, 168). Examining tacit knowing in conjunction with Peirce's ideas about abduction provides a new and rich context within which to appreciate Polanyi's claims for tacit knowing. At the same time, I hope my comparison will illumine some of the odd things Peirce says, in his discussions of abduction, about such things as human instinct and natural light. That is, aspects of abduction appear more commonsensical when seen in connection with Polanyi's account of tacit knowing with its emphasis upon indwelling, the acquisition and combination of skills, and interpretative communities. In sum, exploring the connection between Peirce's abduction and Polanyi's tacit knowing will suggest some new ways to appreciate the resonant depths of both of these thinkers.

Peirce on Abduction

When Peirce discusses "abduction" (sometimes termed "hypothesis," "retroduction," or "presumption"), he frequently does so in conjunction with induction and deduction:

Abduction is the process of forming an explanatory hypothesis. It is the only logical operation that introduces any new idea; for induction does nothing but determine a value, and deduction merely evolves the necessary consequences of a pure hypothesis. (5.171) 2

Abduction is an "originary Argument" (2.96), which pulls things together into a kind of coherence that allows—and indeed should lead to—further investigation:

Presumption, or, more precisely, abduction . . . furnishes the reasoner with the problematic theory which induction verifies. Upon finding himself confronted with a phenomenon unlike what he would have expected under the circumstances, he looks over its features and notices some remarkable character or relation among them, which he at once recognizes as being characteristic of some conception with which his mind is already stored, so that a theory is suggested which would explain (that is, render necessary) that which is surprising in the phenomena. (2.776)

For Peirce, the unexpected phenomenon is surprising. In this comment, he emphasizes that the unexpected confronts and prompts recognition of connection between a conception and the state of affairs. 3 Peirce, of course, also has things to say about surprise and doubt: "Doubt, usually, perhaps always, takes its rise from surprise, which supposes previous belief; and surprises come with novel environment" (5.512). But it is quite easy to make too much of...


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