Copernicus is said to have taught human beings to see how little they are in the great heliocentric universe. He woke us from our anthropocentric Ptolemaic dreams. He taught us to look at the world objectively.

Not so, writes Michael Polanyi in the opening pages of his classic Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy : “As human beings, we must inevitably see the universe from a centre lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of a human language shaped by the exigencies of human intercourse. Any attempt rigorously to eliminate our human perspective from our picture of the world must lead to absurdity” (3).

What Copernicus achieved was instead satisfaction of “a different human affection.” Instead of satisfying the evidence of senses, “Copernicus gave preference to man’s delight in abstract theory,” which acts like a “screen” between our senses and the things we might immediately access through our senses. Copernican theory is only more “objective” if we accept “this very shift in the nature of intellectual satisfaction as the criterion of greater objectivity” (3-4).

Polanyi thinks that this criterion is in fact valid, and that “theoretical knowledge [is] more objective than immediate experience” (4). He offers three reasons:

First, a theory is “other than myself,” and thus “it is not I, but the theory, which is proved right or wrong when I use such knowledge.” Second, a theory “cannot be led astray by my personal illusions,” and is “unaffected by any fluctuations occurring within myself” (dimming sight, for instance, or indigestion). Finally, theories don’t regard normal experience, and thus are valid on a much larger scale: “Since its picture of the solar system disregards our terrestrial location, it equally commends itself to inhabitants of Earth, Mars, Venus, or Neptune, provided they share our intellectual values” (4).

This sort of objectivity is not an abandonment of anthropocentricity. It instead replaces the “cruder anthropocentrism of our senses - but only in favour of a more ambitious anthropocentrism of our reason” (4-5). Genuine objectivity in science has precisely this quality: “It does not require that we see ourselves as a mere grain of sand in a million Saharas. It inspires us, on the contrary, with the hope of overcoming the appalling disabilities of our bodily existence, even to the point of conceiving a rational idea of the universe which can authoritatively speak for itself. It is not a counsel of self-effacement, but the very reverse - a call to the Pygmalion in the mind of man” (5).

Polanyi is no opponent of scientific objectivity; he only wants us to grasp what it really is. It is “the apprehension of a rationality which commands our respect and arouses our contemplative admiration; that such discovery, while using the experience of our senses as clues, transcends this experience by embracing the vision of a reality beyond the impressions of our senses, a vision which speaks for itself in guiding us to an ever deeper understanding of reality” (5-6). Objectivity consists in the intuition of a rationality inherent in nature.

This is not, he argues, how objectivity is understood. Assuming a mechanistic conception of the world, this sort of objectivity assumes, against the Pythagoreanism of earlier science, that “numbers and geometric forms are . . . inherent as such in Nature. Theory no longer reveals perfection; it no longer contemplates the harmonies of Creation.” Instead, geometry becomes a “science of empty space,” and it, with analysis, withdraws “into the region beyond experience.” Thus “scientific theory is denied all persuasive power that is intrinsic to itself, as theory,” and it is constantly tested by experience and cannot go beyond it. This is, he claims, the “inevitably consequence of separating . . . mathematical knowledge from empirical knowledge” (8-9).

He quotes an ecstatic passage from Kepler, indicating that “his outburst conveys a true idea of the scientific method and of the nature of science; and idea which has since been disfigured by the sustained attempt to remodel it in the likeness of a mistaken ideal of objectivity” (7).