Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Polanyi on Stage Fright

Michael Polanyi's 1958 book Personal Knowledge gets my vote for most important neglected philosophical masterpiece of the 20th century. It's a wonderful book by a chemist- turned-philosopher of science that is in many ways far more profound than the much more influential work of Karl Popper.

I first read Polanyi's book about 10 years ago and have recently begun re-reading it. One of his central themes is that there is necessarily a "tacit dimension", an inarticulable background, to all human thought. Hence, human thought cannot be fully formalized or articulated.

Polanyi supports this idea in many ways, one of which is a phenomenological analysis of stage fright in terms of "focal" or conscious, attentive awareness and "subsidiary" awareness:
Subsidiary awareness and focal awareness are mutually exclusive. If a pianist shifts his attention from the piece he is playing to the observation of what he is doing with his fingers while playing it, he gets confused and may have to stop. This happens generally if we switch our focal attention to particulars of which we had previously been aware only in their subsidiary role.
The kind of clumsiness which is due to the fact that focal attention is directed to the subsidiary elements of an action is commonly known as self-consciousness. A serious and sometimes incurable form of it is 'stage-fright', which seems to consist in the anxious riveting of one's attention to the next word - or note or gesture - that one has to find or remember. This destroys one's sense of the context which alone can smoothly evoke the proper sequences of words, notes, or gestrues. Stage fright is eliminated and fluency recovered if we succeed in casting our mind forward and let it operate with a clear view to the comprehensive activity in which we are primarily interested. (p. 56)
This seems descriptively accurate to me. When I first read this it occurred to me that my struggles with stuttering are an instance of the same phenomenon as stage fright. Given certain stressers of which I'm often not consciously aware, my focal attention spontaneously shifts to the mechanics of my speech and I start tensing the muscles in the neck in anticipation of certain words. Since air can't flow smoothly through one's vocal chords when the necks muscles are tensed, stuttering results. But whenever my focal awareness stays on the thoughts I'm trying to express and not on the physiological mechanics involved in saying it, I have no trouble.

I encourage readers to test this out. Try doing an activity which you do well, like riding a bike, while consciously focusing on every little detail of that activity: push left foot, adjust handlebars to right, push right foot, etc. You'll quickly see that it's very difficult to operate smoothly. (Warning: Please don't do this while driving on the freeway!)


At 3/09/2006 12:29 PM, Blogger dru said...

Hello Alan,

I picked up on your blog through the prosblogion. I am a huge fan of Polanyi through his popularizer Esther Meek. I began studying philosophy because of Polanyi and Ester Meek.

Anyway, people who know (or even understand) Polanyi are few and far between amongst the analytics. Good to see that you are revisiting him.

BTW- My name is Dru Johnson. I'm writing my master's thesis on Polanyi and randomness at UM-St. Louis.


At 3/09/2006 1:08 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Nice to meet you Dru. I'm going to be out on vacation for the next few days, but I'd love to hear more about your thesis. Take care.



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