A Problem: Polanyi Defeaters

Let’s say there are two ways to understand the world: materially and spiritually.

Material understanding thinks in real, practical, commoditized, gain-oriented, market-going, exchange-valued, utilitized, consequence-based, pragmatic, luxurious, wanting, surplus-seeking, growth-inducing, ambition-promoting, what-can-I-get-for-X terms. Generally, material understanding sees the world economically.

Spiritual understanding thinks in ideal, divine, ascetic, use-valued, subsistence-seeking, need-based, balanced, sustainable, transcendence-promoting, virtuous, appreciation-of-X-for-its-own-sake terms. Generally, spiritual understanding sees the world socially-religiously-aesthetically.

A Polanyi defeater poses an epistemological problem for those that think they can understand spiritual statements. Karl Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation that the market system has been embedded in our social relationships since the Industrial Revolution; literally, that our society is an economy, wherein we interact with one another economically and not socially. If this is true then it seems relevant to wonder if our language, the expression of our social relationships, has been similarly affected by the market system. I think it has.

In a market any statement is understood economically. We explain and understand what we mean when we speak in terms of gain and exchange. If we accept that the market system is embedded in our social relationships, and language is an expression thereof, then we must understand or explain every statement economically. Furthermore if language constitutes our thought in some essential way, then by extension our thought is economic in nature–founded in material gain and exchange.

This is a problem. If it’s true, then I can never truly understand or express, rationally or irrationally, any spiritual statement. For every spiritual explanation I can give of a statement I can produce a Polanyi defeater explaining it materially. Any statement about truth, beauty, friendship, love, virtue, or justice can be expressed in terms of material gain and exchange. I can try to understand a spiritual statement, but since understanding requires thought, and thought is economic, then any attempt to do so will fail. And since language is the expression of social relationships, then this holds for anyone that speaks the language I do.

Granted, language is an historical artifact. Another language may be safe from the Polanyi defeaters depending on its history. But given the extent of globalization from early colonial imperialism up through our own contemporary  neo-colonial cultural imperialism, the chances of finding or generating such a language are slim. Even if I do find such a language there’s little hope, if I translate it into mine–try to understand it in terms of my own–the possibility of spirituality disappears immediately. Materiality is built into the fundament of my thought. The structure of my consciousness is material and market-oriented. No matter what I do, so long as I’m thinking, I can’t be spiritual.

For example: “Lily is my friend because she enjoys my company.”

Whether or not this is true, I cannot know whether the statement refers to some deep, spiritual feeling of friendship that Lily has or if she’s is using me for some end. I have no way of knowing if this is the case.

“The sky is blue.”

Again, whether or not this is true, ‘sky’ and ‘blue’ are linguistic entities. It may be the case that the sky and blueness are transcendent properties of an actually existing, divinely or naturally created world. But these words are subject to the market system and may have been constructed and formed over time to get me to see the world in a particular way for some purpose.

“Philosophy seeks wisdom.”

This, for me, is incredibly problematic. I can produce a Polanyi defeater for it such that the only reason philosophy seeks wisdom is for some kind of material gain. Though Socrates died for the idea that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it turns out that in our cultural moment–if you’re reading this and understanding it–then we have no way of understanding what he was talking about. We can only think about it in terms of commodity and gain because our thought is economic.

The same goes for this blog post. It’s doomed. Tragically. I have no way of understanding if what I’m writing refers to something in the world or, because I’m looking to gain something from what I’m describing, I’m just using this “reality” as a resource for my own material gain.

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