The Logic of Committment

In ‘Personal Knowledge’, Michael Polanyi makes a couple of interesting meta-logical points. After a sustained examination of just what it means to assert something as true, he reaches the following conclusion:

…’if ‘p is true’ expresses my assertion or reassertion of the sentence p, then ‘p is true’ cannot be said to be true or false in the sense in which a factual sentence p is true’ declares that I identify myself with the content of the factual sentence p, and this identification is something I am doing, and not a fact that I am observing. The expression ‘p is true’ is therefore not itself a sentence but merely the assertion of (an otherwise unasserted) sentence, the sentence p.  To say that ‘p is true’ is to underwrite a commitment or to sign an acceptance, in a sense akin to the commercial meaning of such acts. Hence we cannot assert the expression ‘p is true’, any more than we can endorse our own signature; only a sentence can be asserted, not an action.’ (‘Personal Knowledge’, p. 254)

The distinction between the act of assertion (which cannot be true or false – or, to use more modern terminology, is not something which can have a truth-value) and the content of that sentence (which can be true or false, or have a truth-value) which is asserted serves to clear away some logical problems that Polanyi sees as rising out of the habit of ‘disguising’ an act as a sentence and serves to also lay the groundwork for showing just where commitment itself comes into play.

Briefly, Polanyi argues that only something which can be true or false can be believed – belief can only be had if what you believe might be false. This introduces an element of risk to epistemology, and from there it follows that to hold a belief as true requires, or may even actually in itself be, an act of commitment. From this it follows, on Polanyi’s scheme, that our assertion of a given sentence as true isn’t so much a statement of the facts – he distinguishes between ‘I believe p‘ and ‘p is true’ (which is something you might expect to find in a school textbook) – but an expression of commitment:

‘Admittedly, to say ‘p is true’, instead of ‘I believe p‘, is to shift the emphasis within one’s commitment from the personal to the external pole. The utterance ‘I believe p‘ expresses more aptly a heuristic conviction or a religious belief, while ‘p is true’ will be preferred for affirming a statement taken from a textbook of science.’ (p. 305)

The truth, in a more metaphysical or ontological sense is, for Polanyi, something that is sought after by us and hidden from us – it is an object of passionate desire (intellectual passion) that reveals itself only after sustained inquiry. This is the external element of truth – the internal, epistemic sense of truth is that truth ‘can be thought of only by believing it’ – i.e., from within a framework of commitment.

What this roughly serves to show isn’t that we are doomed to throw up our hands and declare that there isn’t any truth, or that truth is ultimately a matter of attitude – far from it. While there are indeed ‘facts of the matter’, as it were, outside of us, independent of our own minds, what Polanyi’s logic of commitment shows is that in any talk, pursuit or thought of the truth , there is a personal, tacit and fiduciary act of commitment, from scientific inquiry (which I’ve written on in a bit more detail here) to the cold mechanics of formal logic.


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