Introducing New Ideas

The following excerpt was adapted from a paper by Gerald Holton, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of History of Science at Jefferson Physical Laboratory, Harvard University, titled Michael Polanyi and the History of Science.” The adaptation was crafted to shift the focus from the challenges of introducing new scientific discoveries to those of introducing new philosophical ideas.



Accepting New Philosophical Ideas Requires a ‘Conversion’


Before a philosophical idea can be considered for entry into the canon of philosophical thought, it must possess a certain degree of certainty, reflecting a truth that is inherently reliable and replicable within the philosophical discourse. This attainment is achieved through the articulation of new ideas in peer-reviewed philosophical journals and presentations at conferences, coupled with their contemplative examination and validation by fellow philosophers.

In the realm of philosophy, the significance of a philosophical proposition lies not merely in its isolated existence but in its ability to evolve, deepen, or rectify the current understanding of philosophical principles. A novel philosophical concept, when actively pursued and disseminated, garners importance if it contributes to the expansion or correction of prevailing philosophical knowledge.

Persuading others of newfound philosophical insights

However, the two fundamental philosophical factors, namely certainty and systemic relevance, are insufficient in themselves. An interpersonal or communal element must be present to usher a new philosophical discovery into the established canons of philosophical thought. The discovery must inherently captivate the interest of the philosophical community—an ‘extra-philosophical’ component that seizes the imaginations of philosophers before it can attain ultimate acceptance and inclusion. This process often sparks widespread controversy, opposition, and challenges for the philosopher endeavoring to introduce a new idea.

The journey of philosophical discovery can be arduous, and the struggle for acceptance can be even more formidable. Various factors contribute to this controversy, including personal competition among philosophers, where the first to publish a discovery claims precedence over others. Additionally, the deeper epistemological issue, as articulated by philosophers like Polanyi, revolves around the presumed objectivity of philosophical discovery. Philosophers may be reluctant to acknowledge their higher faculties, and a tendency persists to describe profound insights as mere ‘economic descriptions’ or assured convictions as ‘working hypotheses.’

Insight, intuition, and thinking beyond the accepted boundaries of current philosophical beliefs are the means through which new truths are uncovered.

In Michael Polanyi’s three-factor model within the philosophical context, the discovery of a new idea is merely the initiation. Philosophers must then embark on a campaign to introduce these new ideas to the broader philosophical community—a process characterized by conflicting passions. For Polanyi, the discoverer steps into a new vision of reality, one that incorporates existing philosophical knowledge but contradicts it in some manner. The discoverer must articulate the language of philosophy in a way that opens new vistas, engaging in a persuasive process, both written and personal, often fraught with conflict that transcends reasoned argument alone.

Polanyi describes a scenario where two competing conceptual frameworks emerge, challenging the established one. The discoverer collides with the old framework, presenting a new one that is not easily accepted and requires bridging a “logical gap.” Formal operations relying on one framework cannot demonstrate a proposition to those relying on another. Convincing the audience requires winning intellectual sympathy for a doctrine not yet grasped—a heuristic process, a self-modifying act, and, to some extent, a conversion.

Polanyi’s use of the term ‘conversion’ is fitting, given the fervor with which philosophical beliefs are typically held. In summary, the process of philosophical inquiry involves extensive training, apprenticeship, trust, knowledge of philosophical methods, imagination, and the ability to communicate findings to others.

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