Dru Johnson

Dru Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The King's College (NYC) and a Visiting Professor at Covenant Theological Seminary. Before that he served as an IT manager and then pastor of 10 years in St. Louis, Missouri and St. Andrews, Scotland. He studied analytic philosophy at the University of Missouri (St. Louis). His doctoral research (University of St. Andrews, Scotland) explored epistemology in the Pentateuch and Mark's gospel. He has a forthcoming book called Getting It Wrong: A Biblical Theology of Knowing and Error (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming). He is the husband of one wife and father of four children.

Polanyi's Scientific Epistemology and the Tanakh's Suppositions for Knowing

In this paper, I will offer a précis of Michael Polanyi's scientific epistemology and demonstration of similar epistemological sensitivities in the Pentateuch and Wisdom literature. Specifically, I will focus on Polanyi's discussion of scientific epistemology in terms of scientists': 1) skill/connoisseurship, 2) reliance upon testimony, 3) use of maximic language, 4) the process of illumination/discovery, and 5) the role of scientific controversy. Further, I will address why socio-epistemological constructs, such as Kuhn's "paradigm shift", do not sufficiently grasp a Tanakhic way of describing the community's knowledge and epistemological controversy (i.e., when two competing interpretations are adjudicated).

In appealing to examples from the Torah and wisdom literature, I hope to demonstrate that the biblical sense of normative knowledge requires the accreditation of the same scientific features upon which Polanyi focuses his work in Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 1958). As a physician and chemist turned philosopher, Polanyi could not reconcile the mechanistic views of Scientific Positivism with the actual logic of discovery that he observed as a member of the scientific guild.

I will argue that in the Torah we see a description of community discovery (i.e., epistemology) guided by skilled seers, sometimes labeled prophets, who attempt to bring Israel toward skilled knowledge (i.e., discernment/wisdom). Merely considering the Torah's suppositions for proper knowing, the role of trust in testimony, accreditation of authoritative guides, the role of propositional guidance, and the necessity for a definitive point of illumination beyond brute observation (i.e., a eureka of sorts) requires a robust epistemological model; one that can account for the role of the body, the community, and analogical reasoning, which the Tanakh appears to presume at many places.

The goal here is not to create a comprehensive theory of all things epistemological. Rather, the goal is to redirect, to point toward the supposition that there might be one underlying epistemological model that funds the various aspects of that robust model which is evinced in the variegated texts of the Tanakh. For instance, the maximic language of the Proverbs must presume the prophetically skilled seeing that we see described in the Pentateuch. The reason that Polanyi's scientific epistemology might be ideal for this task is that this model is a unifying epistemology that can accommodate 1) the phenomenal sense of knowing through one's body, 2) the sociological sense of epistemological confidence through testimony in a community, 3) the employment of inference that is not limited to a propositional view of rationality, and 4) language without clear propositional content that is necessary to express what one knows. Rather than presuming multiple epistemologies in the Tanakh, as Michael Carasik and others have reasonably assumed, we will suppose one possible account of knowledge which is both robust and extends quite naturally from a non-Positivist view of scientific discovery.