William Poteat taught philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill from 1947 to 1957 and Duke University from 1960 to 1987. Emphasizing the activity of philosophy, he identified himself as a “practicing dialectician,” skilled through the use of Socratic irony in “elucidating conflicting points of view” thus encouraging students and readers to recover the ground from beneath the layers of confusing, self-alienating abstractions of modern life. Especially important to Poteat’s project was the work of the Hungarian scientist turned philosopher, Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) whose “The Stability of Beliefs” he read in 1952.
Poteat first met Polanyi in the UK in the mid-1950s where, on the basis of a transcript of Polanyi's Gifford Lectures (1951-52), he immediately recognised a profound convergence with his own incipient critique of the abstracting tendencies of modern (post-Cartesian) thought. Poteat later remarked that his initial encounter with Polanyi “accredited and greatly enriched the context within which initially to obey my own intimations” thereby establishing a profound and unprecedented intellectual association that lasted Poteat’s entire life.
As well as Polanyi's influence, Poteat’s writing also creatively drew upon an eclectic range of kindred critics of modern culture—Kierkegaard, later Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hannah Arendt among others—whose philosophical work Poteat came to identify as post-critical (rather than "postmodern") tellingly employing a key category from Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958).
Poteat was largely responsible for introducing Polanyi’s ideas to Anglo-American philosophy through his publications but also significantly through his teaching, which, according to the testimonials of his ex-students, was an exhilarating and life-altering experience.
William H Poteat (1919-2000)
"My mindbodily being in the world, itself finally opaque to reflection, is my bedrock assumption."
Content Text by Dale Cannon
Professor Emeritus, Western Oregon University