In Personal Knowledge chapter 11 Polanyi elaborates his critique of the "physico-chemical investigations of a machine" by carefully dividing reasons and causes as types of explanations:
Since rules of rightness cannot account for failures, and reasons for doing something can only be given within the context of rules of rightness, it follows that there can be no reasons (int this sense) for a context and to describe the origins of failures invariably as their causes. We can say then that physico-chemical investigations of a machine, carried out with a bearing on its operational principles, can elucidate both the conditions for their success and the causes of their failure. It would be wrong to speak of establishing the physical and chemical 'causes' of success, for the success of a machine is defined by its operational principles, which are not specifiable in physico-chemical terms. If a stratagem succeeds, it does so in accordance with its own premeditated internal reasons; if it fails, this is due to unforeseen external causes.
(Personal Knowledge, 1962, p.349; emphasize mine)
This is preceded by:
We have a solid tangible inanimate object before us... Then let a team of physicists and chemists inspect the object... They will describe the clock precisely in every particular, and in addition, will predict all its possible future configurations. Yet they will never be able to tell us that it is a clock... no physical or chemical observations of clocks will be of any use to a clockmaker, unless such observations are related to the operational principles of a clock, as conditions for their success or causes of their breakdown... Some physical and chemical characteristics of a machine... will be of interest in themselves on certain occasions... But this is about as much as the scientific study of a machine can achieve when pursued in itself, without reference to the principles by which the machine performs its purpose.
(Personal Knowledge, 1962, p.347-348; again emphasize mine)
So basically the gist of Polanyi's criticism is, by invoking the 'rules of rightness', that physical and chemical inquiry cannot account for the 'rightness' (success or failure) of the operation of the machine, but only to the rightness of its intrinsic functions.
But if we, sticking to his clock example, take all the rules of the intrinsic functions of the clock, can we not deduce that if the large hand moves every minute, that function shows us the passing of minutes? Perhaps we won't call this machinery "clock", but simply describe it by its functions "that which tells us the passing of time" (or even simpler "the passing of minutes and hours"). How, then, can we say that the physical investigation cannot account for the operation of the machine? Does Polanyi (if so then bizarrely) disregard the use of logic (even as simple as inference) in these investigations?
Or did I misunderstood Polanyi's reasoning?