Michael Polanyi and the best ever goal.

"There is no real substitute for a ball struck squarely and firmly". So says Billy Bragg in the song A Lover Sings, and anyone who has played football (soccer, if you must) knows what he means. You know what it's like to make the perfect connection with the ball. You just know. But what is it that enables us to 'just know'? That's what this blog post is about.

Think about the last time you hit the perfect strike and sent the ball screaming into the back of the net. (Okay, point taken. Just imagine it.) What did it look like? How did it feel? Did it sound like a thud, or was it some other kind of sound? Were you aware of your surroundings? The opposition? Teammates?

It's kind of hard to say, isn't it? We need some way of thinking this through, so let's start with an example, to which we can refer. Here is a short video clip of the best goal ever. (You heard me.)

More than we can tell

I wonder what the goalscorer Zinedine Zidane would say about this moment. I wonder if he could outline the bio-mechanics of the coordinated movements of each muscle which enabled him to strike the ball with such precision. I wonder if he could explain, with the meagre tools of language, the sensations of which he was aware as he contorted his body. The sound, the smell, the sight, the proprioceptive feedback from his limbs. Could he explain what the ball would feel like on his laces, or how the turf beneath his right boot might respond to a twisting motion. Could he explain how he calculated the trajectory and flight of both the incoming pass and his subsequent shot - one already extant and the other about to be created ex nihilo. It's unlikely. Yet he was able to send a thunderous volley past the flailing goalkeeper because, in some way, he knew all of these things.

He knew, even before the ball was struck, what it would be like to score this goal. Just as you or I know, if we have any experience of the game, something of how it might feel. Without this knowing, he could not have created this new thing.

In that moment, Zidane knew more than he could ever tell. All of us know more than we can tell. All of the time. We live moment by moment in the midst of that knowledge, and it ebbs and flows around us. The study of knowing (not just what we know but how we know) is called epistemology. It is to a particular epistemology we now turn in order to make sense of the knowing which enabled the greatest ever goal.

Subsidiary-Focal Integration

Michael Polanyi
Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), a brilliant Hungarian-British scientist and philosopher, was a remarkable individual whose work I have recently begun considering. One of his most salient contributions was in the field of epistemology and it is to him we owe the phrase 'we know more than we can tell'.

Polanyi argued that our longstanding assumptions about human knowing, which underpin scientific research and lately have given rise to scientism, are predicated upon fundamental epistemological flaws. Scientism is the belief (a word I use deliberately) that, given time, science would be able to tell us everything about every myriad detail of the universe that could be known. And not only this, but also that there is nothing that is more than the sum of its parts.

Michael Polanyi suggested that knowledge incorporates what he called a tacit dimension. That is, there is a dimension within all knowledge, that part constitutes that knowledge, which is neither explicable nor easily identifiable, yet entirely necessary. It is tacit and remains so. Let me try to explain using a Polanyian example, from his book The Tacit Dimension. [1]

When you look at a flower, what do you see? You see a flower, of course. But you also see petals. And you see stalk and sepal, stamen and anther. And if you move closer you might see the striated cellular structure of the petals, but then suddenly you're aware that you're no longer looking at a flower. The flower has gone, and has been replaced by the particulars of a flower. The flower exists at another level of knowing than do its particulars. You could argue that the particulars serve as 'clues' to this other (higher?) level of knowing. You might even be persuaded that this other level of knowing is the realm of 'meaning'. Through integrating the subsidiaries, you approach a discovery: the meaning of the flower.

Here is another example, this time one of my own. The other day, I tried to teach my wife how to run. She can run already but she has been complaining about pain in her hips, so - being a Sport lecturer - I showed her how to correct her running technique. We corrected her foot strike, her eye-line, her stride length. She practised relaxing her shoulders, and she tried again. Whatever it was that we'd created, it wasn't any kind of running! (Genuinely hilarious though.)

The thing itself, whether a flower or a running technique, is lost as we focus intently on the particulars.

We all know this feeling, when you overthink something and forget how to do it. Like pronouncing a particular word over and over again until it loses its meaning. Or a physiotherapist focusing so intently on the particulars (skeleton, muscles, etc.) of the lower back that the human body, and the person himself, is emptied of meaning. This is the essence of Polanyi's gripe with science. Science, in focusing on particulars, is in the business not of creating but of destroying meaning. Provocative.

But - don't misunderstand me - the particulars are still important. Polanyi says that in order to focally attend to the flower as a 'comprehensive entity' you must attend from a whole set of particulars which make up subsidiary knowledge, which must remain subsidiary or tacit. The subsidiary and the focal must be integrated, hence his term subsidiary-focal integration. Polanyi writes: "To go back to the antecedents of our tacit inference has not deepened our grasp of its result, but rather has made us lose sight of it" [2]

Upon integration (or re-integration) of the subsidiary and the focal, a new entity emerges, which is more than the sum of its parts. It might be the meaning of the thing. Or its beauty, for example. Or the majesty of the best ever goal.

Relax and hit it

Put yourself in Zidane's boots. You're ambling into the final third of the pitch, Roberto Carlos is cantering down the left wing after a lofted pass. You can tell he's likely to swing the ball across, so you pause your run at the edge of the penalty box and wait to see what comes next. You don't really have time to think about what you're going to do as the ball loops towards you. You don't have the capacity to consciously process every detail in all of its detail. But, partly thanks to years of training and partly thanks to your embodied senses in the moment, you have access to a host of movement experiences (i.e. subsidiary particulars), which on integration can produce something new, something creative. So, you relax, and hit it.

When I say 'relax and hit it', I mean it in the same way a sports coach might suggest to a struggling striker, or batter, or kicker. I mean 'don't over-complicate things, don't worry about the minutiae, and trust what you've learned in training'. In Polanyian terms I mean 'rely on your capacity for (re)integration of the subsidiaries: attend from that subsidiary awareness, and attend to the focal object, the comprehensive entity, the whole integrated movement'.

That is how you know how to strike a ball squarely and firmly. That is how you know how to score the greatest ever goal. A goal that is greater than the sum of its parts.


[1] Polanyi, M. (1966) The Tacit Dimension

[2] Polanyi, M. (1968) The Body-Mind Relation

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