Michael Polanyi on the Arts

I have recently become interested in how the scientist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi’s understanding of the arts can help us theorize how creating or appreciating the arts has a role to play in clinical psychology, in particular psychoanalytic or psychodynamic approaches.

In his 1958 book Personal Knowledge, as he leads up to a discussion of ‘indwelling’, Polanyi sets forth a theory of the arts. He compares the abstract arts (music, abstract painting), to pure mathematics, describing both as ‘appreciated for the beauty of a set of complex relations embodied in them.’ Like mathematics, music ‘articulates a vast range of relationships for the mere pleasure of understanding them’ (193).

He continues: ‘Laments for the dead and songs of love are likewise formulations of earlier shapeless emotions, which are refashioned and amplified into something new by words and music.’ (194). If the arts give words to ‘shapeless emotions’ which are then ‘refashioned and amplified into something new’, is this not what psychoanalysis is trying to do within the psychoanalytic encounter?

How the arts differ from mathematics or science is that they do not try to map precisely what those underlying formulations are. The scientist is trying to construct a framework which will handle experience on our behalf, while the artist is content to allow that framework to remain such that allows us a ‘contemplative experience’ of those shapeless emotions. At the other extreme is mystic experience, which attempts to ‘dissolve the screen [which separates us from experience], stop our movement through experience […] we cease to handle things and become immersed in them.’ (197). Appreciating artistic works, we are able to contemplate those ‘shapeless emotions’ in a position that is at once immersive and detached:

‘Music, poetry, painting: the arts – whether abstract or representative – are a dwelling in and a breaking out which lie somewhere between science and worship […] Owing to its sensuous content a work of art can affect us far more comprehensively than a mathematical theorem […] Art, like mysticism, breaks through the screen of objectivity and draws on our pre-conceptual capacities of contemplative vision.’ (199).

This intermediate position of the arts reminds me of psychoanalysis as a discipline caught somewhere between a science (as holding universal ‘truths’) and an art (as always coloured by our ‘personal’ or  ‘tacit’ knowledge, that lies beyond the grasp of scientific propositions). And so, if the two share this liminal position, might they both have interesting things to teach each other?

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