Ideas

William Poteat was known to be an original thinker, but also an extraordinarily agile one — in conversation, in teaching, and in writing. Consequently, many of his ideas start with, draw upon, and build upon the ideas of other thinkers, but develop them in ways that might have surprised their originators. As previously indicated, his students were often amazed to discover what was implied and presupposed by their own ideas in ways that might never have come to light had Poteat not drawn them out, usually while withholding his own opinions on the subject to enable his students to develop in their own ways. At times it wasn't clear to the student whether there was a difference between her own ideas and Poteat's.

 

Source: Dale Cannon, a Ph.D. student of Poteat. See Dale Cannon, "Haven't You Noticed That Modernity Is Bankrupt? Ruminations on the Teaching Career of William H. Poteat," ''Tradition and Discovery'' 21:1 (1994-95), pp. 22-24.

 

A similar process was at work when during class discussion and in published writing Poteat presented and explored ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein or Michael Polanyi or Maurice Merleau-Ponty among many others. Poteat would at times call attention to certain ideas of a particular thinker at one point and their tension or conflict with other ideas of the same thinker at another point, with the comment that (for example) Polanyi evidently did not realize what he was saying, what he meant to say, or what he should have said, and was not being true to his (Polanyi's) deepest insight at this point as he was at the other point.

 

Poteat was extraordinarily alert to ambiguities and nuances in language, and he mentored his students in developing a similar alertness in themselves. Although the awareness of subtle ambiguity facilitates the full comprehension of an idea, it produces the tendency found in many of his published works (and sometimes also in his students' writing) parenthetically to qualify and explain the precise sense of a word or phrase in the midst of an otherwise long and complex sentence, sometimes two or three times in a single convoluted sentence. On the other hand, Poteat often took what he was convinced to be one of these writers' key insights and, appropriating it to himself, drew its implications and developed it far beyond what the original writer made of it — especially evident in his book Polanyian Meditations. Not that he claimed their insight as his own, but rather that he sought by the aid of their insight to achieve a greater understanding of the realities that they sought to articulate and their deeper implications.

 

(An account of Poteat's extending and making use of Polanyi's and Wittgenstein's ideas is given in Ronald L. Hall, "Poteat's Voice: The Impact of Polanyi and Wittgenstein," Tradition and Discovery 35:2 [2008-09], 19-22.)  

 

One such idea, derived from both Polanyi and Merleau-Ponty, is Poteat's conception of the '''mindbody''' (a term he coined): persons are neither (simply) minds in bodies nor (simply) bodies with minds, especially not in the manner that Descartes conceived of them as extended matter and immaterial consciousness. Instead persons are mindbodies, both minds and bodies at once, one and the same, inextricable in every aspect, such that "mind" and "body" taken separately in reflection are seriously distorting abstractions from the whole person that we are prereflectively.

 

According to Poteat, one's mindbody is one's place in the world, the "oriented whence" of all of one's activities and the place by means of which, and only in relation to which, all other places and things can make any sense at all. In other words, the mindbody is the sentient, motile, and oriented self — the active center of every person's life. A good entrée into Polanyi’s understanding of the body is this statement: “Our own body is the only thing in the world which we normally never experience as an object, but experience always in terms of the world to which we are attending from our body.” Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1966), p. 16. Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the pre-reflective body as “body-subject” or as the “lived body” is even more radical. See his Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Donald Landes (New York: Routledge, 2013). Poteat's fullest account of the "mindbody" is given in Polanyian Meditations.

 

For good secondary overviews of Poteat's conception, see Walter B. Mead, "William Poteat’s Anthropology: 'Mindbody In The World,'" Tradition and Discovery 21:1 (1994-95), 33-44; and an even fuller account by the same author, “William H. Poteat’s Anthropology: Mindbody in the World,”The Political Science Reviewer 27 (1998), pp. 267-344. In an excellent but very brief review of Poteat’s account of the mindbody, David W. Rutledge writes: (David W. Rutledge, “William Poteat: The Primacy of the Person,” Tradition and Discovery 40:2 (2013-14), p. 40.)

 

Through his own phenomenological examination of his bodily being in thinking, writing, bike-riding, and playing tennis, Poteat reveals the insidious tendency of the critical tradition to make us think of our body as a thing like other things, when in fact is it, for us, radically unlike anything else in the universe. It is the center from which all our stretching forth toward the world commences, beginning, 

 

in my mother’s womb, within which her beating heart rhythmically pumps the blood of life through my foetal body, forming itself toward my primal initiation into the very foundation of my first and most primitive cosmos. … These forms are for me, even still for conscious, reflective, critical me, archetypically the forms of measured time: tempo, beat, strophe, pulse. … There is then an archaic prejudice far older than I in my prereflective and unreflecting mindbody to indwell all form, meaning, and order in the world as the kindred of the first order I have known, the order of my mother’s beating heart.  (Polanyian Meditations, p. 22).

 

The ground of the human notions of order, measure,“connectedness,” of “hanging together” (that is, logic) lies in this prelingual level of awareness, which is inescapably ours, which never leaves us, and from which all the articulations of higher thought are educed. Where else would the human sense of pattern, order, rhythm have come from, if we were not, long before formal reflection, not already immersed in a world that gave us meaning?

 

… it is clear that if the tonic mindbody is the omnipresent and inalienable matrix within which all our acts of meaning-discernment are conceived and brought to term, if, that is to say, the new picture of ourselves as beings in the world actively engaged in asking, seeking, finding, and affirming clearly situates us in the moil and ruck of the world’s temporal thickness, marinating there in our own carnal juices, then our rationality can only appear here, inextricably consanguine with our most primitive sentience, motility, and orientation.  (Polanyian Meditations, p. 246).

 

Another of Poteat’s significant ideas is touched on in this last quotation, in support of which Poteat’s Search of a Post-Critical Logic is dedicated, is that all explicitly formal modes of rationality—including logic, mathematics, geometry, and computer processing—and of all the wonderfully useful things with which they endow us in our technocratic world ultimately rooted and grounded in the prereflectively lived flesh of our mindbodies in the world—not in any sense as a compromise to their validity but as the enabling power of their meaning and coherence. In Poteat’s own words,

 

I argue therefore that contrary to the subtly pervasive “picture” in the regnant Cartesianism of this culture that conceptually estranges thought about our minds from thought about our bodies, formalized rationality—mathematics and formal logic—derives from and remains parasitical upon the “hanging togetherness” and “sense-making” of our integral mindbodily rootedness in the as yet unreflected world and in our unreflected “thinkings” and doings in that world. This of course means that the mix among our uses of such concepts as ‘reason,’ ‘logic,’ ‘body,’ and ‘mind,’ to mention only some, will come to be drastically revised. (Polanyian Meditations, p. 9).

 

Among the most significant ideas that Poteat made his own, starting with an idea of another thinker, is the concept of the Post-Critical. The phrase, “Post-Critical,” Poteat drew directly from Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958), but Poteat discovered that what Polanyi meant by it was substantially akin to shifts in thinking advocated under other names by other philosophical critics of Age of Enlightenmen modern intellectual culture—specifically, critics of the Critical mode of thinking that has come to dominate that culture, particularly in the Academy. Chief among these critics for Poteat, in addition to Polanyi, were Pascal, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, and Arendt. Polanyian Meditations, p. 2.

 

In different ways, all sought to move beyond and break with the “Critical” intellectual sensibility that has defined intellectual thinking since the Enlightenment period. As articulated originally by Descartes, Discourse on the Method (1637), the full text of which is available online at <http://www.bartleby.com/34/1/ , the Critical mode of inquiry seeks to arrive at the undistorted truth by filtering one's encounter with reality through a lens of extreme suspicion and doubt—specifically toward each and every candidate for belief to require that it be rendered clearly and distinctly explicit and therewith prove itself to be undoubtable before granting it credence. This, of course, calls into question all things taken for granted unreflectively, all things passed on from tradition, all things held as a matter of faith, the deliverances of our sense experience, and commonsense judgments—especially things uncertain, indefinite, or non-explicit .

 

Since its emergence as the predominant epistemic paradigm of the modern era and taken to be the central component of the method of modern science, the Critical mode has been assailed by many of the thinkers mentioned previously, but especially by Polanyi for breeding a pervasive skepticism toward higher-order realities and ideals, and all meanings and alleged realities traditionally associated with the arts and the humanities. As a result , with inherent meaning, purpose, and value thus filtered out of what is allowed to make up objective reality, surviving only as apparently baseless projections of human subjectivity, it is no wonder that great numbers of people within our culture have suffered and continue to suffer from rootlessness, nihilism, and despair.

 

(Polanyi’s views on this subject are treated in many places, e.g., “Beyond Nihilism,” in Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, edited by Marjorie Grene (U of Chicago Press, 1969), pp.. 3-13; “History and Hope: An Analysis of our Age” and “A Postscript” in Society, Economics, and Philosophy: Selected Papers of Michael Polanyi, edited by R. T. Allen (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publisher, 1997), pp.79-106.)

 

See also Poteat’s Polanyian Meditations, pp. 4-6; and for a more extended statement of Poteat’s views on this matter and arguments in support, see “Persons and Places,” in The Primacy of Persons: Essays by William H. Poteat, pp. 23-42, and “Appendix: For Whom Is the Real Existence of Values a Problem: Or, an Attempt to Show that the Obvious is Plausible,” in Recovering the Ground, pp. 187-221. In the latter book, Poteat makes a case for a modern form of Gnostic spiritualism to be the flip side of modern nihilism (see pp. xif and 11f et passim).

 

Ultimately, in the view of Poteat and Polanyi, “Post-Critical” designates a shift from the Critical mode to a profound recognition of something quite different at the heart of all genuine intellectual inquiry, something unrecognized and unrecognizable by the Critical mode. In place of suspicion and doubt, there is a tacit methodological faith—which is to say, an intellectual passion—to discover truth and make sense of things. To recognize and embrace this shift, Poteat realized that it requires not only an intellectual breakthrough but an existential transformation: from a detached, withdrawn, and withheld faith and passion to a pouring forth of one's personal presence, empathy, and creative powers, actively reaching out to apprehend and indwell intimations of truth and yet undisclosed realities in whatever field of inquiry.

 

For Polanyi’s views on this, see his “The Fiduciary Programme” in Personal Knowledge, pp 264-268; Dale Cannon, "Construing Polanyi’s Tacit Knowing as Knowing by Acquaintance Rather than Knowing by Representation: Some Implications, Tradition and Discovery 29:2 (2002-03): 29-32; and Phil Mullins, “The ‘Post-Critical’ Symbol and the ‘Post-Critical’ Elements of Polanyi’s Thought” in Polanyiana, 10:1-2 (2001), pp. 77-90, available online at this website<chemonet.hu/Polanyi/0112/tartalom.html>.

 

For Poteat’s views, see Polanyian Meditations, pp. 139-142, and Dale Cannon, “Haven’t You Noticed that Modernity Is Bankrupt? Ruminations on the Teaching Career of William Poteat,” Tradition and Discovery, 21:1 (1994-95), pp. 20-32.

 

One of the distinctive philosophical methodologies employed by Poteat in his teaching and particularly in his later writing is closely akin to what some writers (especially Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception) have called "existential phenomenology" or just Phenomenology. Poteat recognized in Merleau-Ponty’s practice of existential phenomenology a means of appropriating existentially Edmund Husserl’s shift from what Husserl called “the Natural Standpoint” (a third-person abstractive account of the supposedly objective world of material objects, our body supposedly being one of them) to a confident embracing of the concrete, prereflective “Lifeworld” that we know only from within our lived body. Existential phenomenology, for Merleau-Ponty, is the way that the wonders of the Lifeworld can be adequately described and understood as more fundamental than any abstract conceptions deriving from the Natural Standpoint. This is the fundamental theme running throughout his Phenomenology of Perception. (There are two English translations of this classic text: one translated by Colin Smith, 2nd edition [New York: Routledge, 2002], and a more recent, more accurate translation by Donald Landes [New York: Routledge, 2013].)

 

Poteat recognized in this shift or transition in Merleau-Ponty via the practice of existential phenomenology as another instance of the shift from the Critical to the Post-Critical. Rather than pursuing this methodology systematically, as some phenomenologists have attempted to do, in Poteat’s teaching and writing he describes and brings to our notice normally tacit aspects of our mindbodily being in the world of which we are usually not reflectively aware or able to articulate. It is the very abstractedness of our usual patterns of thinking and our habituated modern fixation upon only what can be made explicit that keep us unaware of such aspects of experience, without which reality as a whole cannot be apprehended nor experience be comprehended. Poteat seeks to have us awaken to those tacit aspects and then appropriate them as extensions of ourselves, grounding us reflectively in our own mindbodily being in the world. (Examples of Poteat’s own practice of existential phenomenological descriptions may be found throughout his Polanyian Meditations (e.g., pp. 11-26 and 53-56), A Philosophical Daybook: Post-Critical Investigations (Columbia, MO: U of Missouri Press, 1990), and Recovering the Ground: Critical Exercises in Recollection (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994). He often uses the word “phenomenology” by itself to refer to what he is doing in Polanyian Meditations, but clearly what he means by it is less akin to phenomenology as Husserl practiced it than to Merleau-Ponty’s practice.)

 

Others among Poteat's principal ideas include:

 

  • The dialectic of self- absence and self-presence: “Faith and Existence” and “The Absence of God” in The Primacy of Persons, pp. 117-124 and 131-141; ”Myth, Story, History, Eschatology, and Action: Some Polanyian Meditations,” also in Primacy of Persons, pp. 43-73; and “The Banality of Evil,” an unpublished paper and audio lecture in the Poteat Archive of Unpublished Papers .

  • The recovery of, and responsibly owning up to, oneself as incarnate person among persons (linking profoundly with key emphases in Christian and Jewish existentialism and their roots in the traditions of spirituality at their source). Recovering the Ground, pp. 128-136, 179-180; “The Incarnate Word and the Language of Culture” and “Faith and Existence,” in Primacy of Persons, pp. 92-114 and 117-124; and “The Banality of Evil”.

  • The fact that human beings are not merely animals with a gift for language (first of all and primarily speech), but that as persons we come into being and realize ourselves through language (as speech). Polanyian Meditations, pp. 93-96, 126-129, and 279-292; and Recovering the Ground, pp. 23, 38-40, 128-136.

  • The resources of reflexive self-reference in language, particularly the first-person singular nominative pronoun "I" and other reflexive pronouns that are the paradigmatic means of identiifying and owning up to the tacit personal presence and center of responsibility that we are.”Birth, Suicide, and the Doctrine of Creation: An Explanation of Analogies,” “God and the ‘Private-I’,” and “’I Will Die’: An Analysis,” in Primacy of Persons, pp. 155-168, 169-177, and 178-192; and Recovering the Ground, pp. 34-45, 76-77.</ref>

  • The "metaphorical intentionalities" of the words and gestures of our culture which extend our mindbodily powers to make reflective sense of our experience yet simultaneously render us captive to specific ways they construe the world and ourselves within it—captivating us within a “picture,” as in Wittgenstein’s phrase: “a picture held us captive.” Polanyian Meditations, pp. 147-157 (here he defines the phrase), 293 n.2, 14-15, 18-19, and 106; and Recovering the Ground, pp. 108-115, 191, and 219-221.

  • Concrete places and the "here" of one's mindbody, experienced prereflectively, versus modernity’s abstract, homogenized space and spatial location. “Persons and Places,” in Primacy of Persons pp. 23-42; Polanyian Meditations, pp. 268-278, and 291f; and Recovering the Ground, pp. 77-80.</ref>

  • Concrete temporality (with the manifold particular "pretensions" and "retrotensions" of one’s temporal being) and the shifting present moment of one’s mindbody, experienced prereflectively, versus modernity’s abstract, homogenized clock-time. Polanyian Meditations, pp. 65-69, 70-92; 147-149; A Philosophical Daybook, pp. 106-107; and Recovering the Ground, pp. 94-97.

  • The increasing dominance in our culture of the visual sensorium (versus, specifically, the auditory sensorium) with its tendency to objectify and exteriorize our sensibility, prevailing since the advent of Renaissance art and the culture of print and literacy. ”Persons and Places,” in Primacy of Persons, pp. 27-29; Polanyian Meditations, pp. 57-62, 103, 104-114, and 251-278; Philosophical Daybook, pp. 48-51 and 101-102; and ''Recovering the Ground'', pp. xviff, 9-10, 47, 149.

  • Western culture being ever in unstable yet creative tension between key metaphors from Hellenic (ancient Greek) culture on the one hand and from ancient Hebrew culture on the other. “The Incarnate Word and the Language of Culture” and “Foreknowledge and Foreordination: A Critique of Models of Knowledge,” Primacy of Persons, pp. 92-114 and 142-154; Polanyian Meditations, pp. 52-53, 104-146; see also the many references in the index to “Greek” and “Hebrew” in this latter book.

At the end of almost every morning's writing I have succeeded in producing another installment of that critique of dualism that has engaged me now for more than forty years ...

 

overcoming the disorder that is the work of this culture's grossest incoherences.