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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Discovery and Passion

Heuristic research is a method that was developed by Moustakas (1990) which describes how personal experience is used as a valid research method:


The root meaning of heuristic comes from the Greek word heuriskein, meaning to discover or to find. It refers to a process of internal search through which one discovers the nature and meaning of experience and develops methods and procedures for further investigation and analysis. The self of the researcher is present throughout the process and, while understanding the phenomenon with increasing depth, the researcher also experiences growing self-awareness and self-knowledge. Heuristic processes incorporate creative self-processes and self-discoveries. (Moustakas, 1990, p. 9)

For Moustakas (1990), heuristic research is a demanding, painstaking, lengthy process. One must be willing to “commit endless hours of sustained immersion and focused concentration on a central question, to risk the opening of wounds and passionate concerns, and to undergo the personal transformation that exists as a possibility in every heuristic journey” (p. 14). The journey begins with the passionate search for the illumination of a puzzlement, where wonder, intensity, intrigue, and engagement carry one along. This journey “must take its own course and . . . will not be satisfied until a natural closing and a sense of wonder has fulfilled its intent and purpose” (p. 55).


Discovery is at the heart of heuristic research. Polanyi (1969) maintains that all research begins with collecting clues that are intriguing, but are not immediately obvious in themselves; a good problem, something puzzling and promising, is half of discovery. One must be able to see a problem and sense a direction towards a solution where others see none, and eventually arrive at a solution that is surprising to all. Discovery is creative and requires originality. Polanyi (1960) explicates:


Originality entails a distinctively personal initiative and is invariably impassioned, sometimes to the point of obsessiveness. From the first intimation of a hidden problem and throughout its pursuit to the point of solution, the process of discovery is guided by personal vision and sustained by personal conviction. (p. 301)

In Polanyi’s allusion to obsession, we can see shades of Romanyshyn’s (1991) “complex knowing.” In describing his work, Jung (1961/1989) reflects:


All my writings may be considered tasks imposed from within; their source was a fateful compulsion. What I wrote were things that assailed me from within myself. I permitted the spirit that moved me to speak out. I have never counted upon any strong response, any powerful resonance to my writings. They represent a compensation for our times, and I have been impelled to say what no one wants to hear. (p. 222)

Heuristic or intellectual passion is the craving for understanding, which Polanyi (1963) feels is a proper motive of comprehension. He notes “the exhilaration shown by apes and babies when solving a problem prefigures the intellectual joys of science” (Polanyi, 1960, p. 194). “Heuristic passion is also the mainspring of originality—the force which impels us to abandon an accepted framework of interpretation and commit ourselves, by the crossing of a logical gap, to the use of a new framework” (p. 159). Although Polanyi also warns that intellectual passions may be misdirected, we need intellectual passion to cross this logical gap between the problem and its solution. As we cross this gap, we must undergo a change in our intellectual personality. “Like all ventures in which we comprehensively dispose of our selves, such an intentional change of our personality requires a passionate motive to accomplish it. Originality must be passionate” (p. 143). Polanyi then further summarizes:


Creative scientists spend their lives in trying to guess right. They are sustained and guided therein by their heuristic passion. They call their work creative because it changes the world as we see it, by deepening our understanding of it. The change is irrevocable. A problem that I have once solved can no longer puzzle me; I cannot guess what I already know. Having made a discovery, I shall never see the world again as before. My eyes have become different; I have made myself into a person seeing and thinking differently. I have crossed a gap, the heuristic gap, which lies between problem and discovery. (p. 143)

Moustakas (1990) discusses the different stages of heuristic research, its phases: initial engagement, immersion, incubation, illumination, explication, and creative synthesis. He also describes the qualities and processes necessary to the process: tacit knowing, intuition, focusing, indwelling, and an internal frame of reference.

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