Consciousness as Pure Self-Reflection in the Writings of Michael Polanyi

33 Pages Posted: 25 Jun 2008 Last revised: 6 Jul 2009

Date Written: June 25, 2008


Recognition that Michael Polanyi is one of the greatest minds of the Post-Modern era is rapidly increasing. His theory of "tacit knowledge" is one of Polanyi's most significant contributions to the philosophy of mind. In our view, that notion can be most fully understood when read in the context of his general assertions and assumptions about the nature of consciousness. Our analysis of Polanyi's use of the term "consciousness" finds three distinct meanings. These are: Consciousness 1, consciousness as self-awareness; Consciousness 2, consciousness as thoughts, feelings, perceptions, or the mental content of Consciousness 1; and, Consciousness 3, consciousness as understood in contrast to "unconsciousness."

Numerous instances of these usages are quoted and explained. In some cases, Polanyi's use of these terms is ambiguous, or misleading. This occurs especially with his use of the two words "attention" and "awareness." The paper concludes with the suggestion that social scientists, and other readers of Polanyi, who are interested in understanding his theory of "consciousness" can avoid the misleading connotations of those two terms by heeding these few suggestions: (a). read the term "focal awareness" as focal attention; (b). read the term "subsidiary awareness" as subsidiary reliance; and, (c). keep in mind that there are not "two levels" nor "two kinds" of "awareness," but only one awareness: self-awareness.

Keywords: Tacit knowledge, Michael Polanyi, personal knowledge, consciousness, pure self-reflection

Suggested Citation

Kelleher, William J., Consciousness as Pure Self-Reflection in the Writings of Michael Polanyi (June 25, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

William J. Kelleher (Contact Author)

The Empathic Science Institute ( email )

2158 La Canada Crest Dr. ste 4
La Canada, CA 91011
United States

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