Authors: Michael Polanyi

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Hungarian-born scientist and philosopher

Author Works


Atomic Reactions, 1932 (science)

U.S.S.R. Economics, 1936 (social criticism)

The Rights and Duties of Science, 1939 (social criticism)

Contempt of Freedom, 1940 (social criticism)

Full Employment and Free Trade, 1945 (social criticism)

Science, Faith, and Society, 1946 (philosophy)

The Logic of Liberty, 1951 (social criticism)

Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, 1958 (philosophy)

The Study of Man, 1959 (philosophy)

Beyond Nihilism, 1960 (social criticism)

The Tacit Dimension, 1966 (philosophy)

Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, 1969 (philosophy; Marjorie Grene, editor)

Scientific Thought and Social Reality: Essays by Michael Polanyi, 1974 (philosophy; Grene, editor)

Meaning, 1975 (philosophy; with Harry Prosch)

Society, Economics, and Philosophy: Selected Papers, 1997 (R. T. Allen, editor)


Michael Polanyi (PAW-lahn-yee) was a distinguished natural scientist who abandoned his successful career as a research professor of physical chemistry to explore what he considered the most critical problem facing human civilization in the twentieth century–the assumption that the only true knowledge is that based on empirically verifiable scientific methods. Polanyi was born into a middle-class Jewish family; his father, Michael Pollacsek, was a civil engineer and urged his son to study medicine at the University of Budapest. His mother was Celia Wohl. Michael Polanyi graduated in 1915 and served as a medical officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. After the war he went to Berlin, where he earned a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1919 and began a second career as a research scientist at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1923. In 1920 he married Magda Kemeny, a chemical engineer, and they had three sons. In 1932, fearing the rise to power of the National Socialist Party in Germany, Polanyi accepted the post of professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester in England, his future homeland. He published 218 scientific papers between 1910 and 1949 in his specialty, physical chemistry.{$I[AN]9810000964}{$I[A]Polanyi, Michael}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Polanyi, Michael}{$I[geo]HUNGARY;Polanyi, Michael}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Polanyi, Michael}{$I[tim]1891;Polanyi, Michael}

During the 1930’s, while still producing significant discoveries in his scientific laboratory, Polanyi turned his attention to the social and economic problems then besetting the depression-afflicted democracies. After visiting the Soviet Union he became convinced that both Communist and Fascist ideologies were enemies to liberty and scientific progress. He began to study and write about economic problems, particularly free trade and unemployment, and in the 1940’s he became a firm opponent of socialism and vigorously challenged those who proposed centralizing the planning and financing of British science and industry. In The Logic of Liberty Polanyi argues that freedom in scientific enterprise is necessary for reasons similar to those offered by classical economists in analyzing the superiority of the free market. Polanyi believed that Adam Smith’s idea of an “invisible hand” coordinating the economic decisions of all participants in the market to achieve the most economical utilization of scarce resources was analogous to the “spontaneous order” in the natural world as observed by scientists. He also saw the international scientific community as another kind of spontaneous, autonomous, self-correcting societal order in which discovery constantly challenges the accuracy of what appears to be true.

Polanyi considered freedom from both centralized decision making and monopoly over resources crucial to the process of discovery. He brilliantly used mathematical analysis to show that it becomes impossible to coordinate polycentric factors once these multiply beyond a few, because the greater the number of factors, the less precise their mathematical calculation or predictability. It was this problem that led Polanyi into the larger problem of the nature of human knowledge and the inadequacy of the standard positivist view that human knowledge is limited to what is empirically verifiable by scientific methods. The conclusion drawn from this view is that all other modes of understanding are mere opinion.

In Science, Faith, and Society Polanyi depicts modern rationalist civilization as deathly ill because it has allowed the metaphysical foundations of human knowledge to be dissolved in the face of empiricist claims about the nature of objective knowledge of reality. In 1949 he turned away from this scientific career and assumed the position of professor of social sciences at the University of Manchester and devoted the rest of his life to philosophical investigation of the nature of human knowledge.

In the Gifford Lectures given at the University of Aberdeen in 1951-1952, Polanyi offered his new paradigm for understanding how human beings achieve knowledge, an effort to replace the restrictive Cartesian epistemology that had dominated Western thought since the seventeenth century. The detailed exposition of his new epistemology was offered in 1958 in his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Using the insights of Gestalt psychology, Polanyi here argues that people always know more than they can tell, that they are subsidiarily aware of things other than what they are focusing upon directly, and that this subsidiary (or tacit) knowledge (clues, skills, or tools) is the base from which people proceed to know that upon which they are explicitly focusing. Scientific detachment, or objectivity, is a myth; all knowledge involves the knower and the knower’s existing contextual, tacit knowledge, skills, and beliefs. All knowledge is personal, though not subjective, because it involves tacit, or implicit, knowledge as well as explicit objective knowledge. In The Study of Man Polanyi recapitulates his theory of “personal knowledge” and discusses the relationships between the natural sciences and humanities, which he believes have a common epistemological foundation. In his 1966 The Tacit Dimension Polanyi elaborates on the central role of tacit knowledge in the process of scientific discovery and how his new paradigm of human knowledge is incompatible with positivism, Marxism, and existentialism. In 1969 Polanyi published Knowing and Being, edited by the philosopher Marjorie Grene, a collection of his essays written during the 1960’s elaborating on his earlier theories on the nature of science and tacit knowing and the structure of consciousness. In 1975 his work Meaning, which was actually written by Harry Prosch under the supervision of the aged and ailing Polanyi, enlarged the scope of his earlier ideas.

Upon retirement from the University of Manchester in 1958, Polanyi accepted a two-year appointment as senior research fellow at Merton College, Oxford, where he maintained his residence until his death. Polanyi’s new paradigm for the nature of human understanding attracted sympathetic critics from a broad range of scholarly disciplines, mostly outside the circle of academic philosophers. Polanyi’s conversion to Anglican Christianity and the implication of his concept of the fiduciary component of tacit knowledge influenced the Christian theologians Thomas F. Torrance, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Bernard Lonergan. Philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Leonard K. Nash acknowledge the influence of Polanyi on their work. Others have noticed significant parallels between Polanyi’s and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s views on language and the nature of the mind. Libertarian social philosophers and free-market economists of both the Austrian and Chicago schools have been influenced by his analysis of spontaneous order in societal entities. Humanistic psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers welcomed Polanyi’s new epistemology for rejecting the mechanistic view of the human person still dominant within the behavioral sciences. In the United States a formal organization, The Polanyi Society, was formed to promote the study and interdisciplinary application of Polanyi’s teachings.

BibliographyAllen, Richard. Polanyi. London: Claridge Press, 1990. A biographical and critical overview.Gelwick, Richard. The Way of Discovery: An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Offers a sympathetic, somewhat simplified guide to Polanyi’s intellectual struggle to articulate a new model of human understanding and its influence on contemporary scholarship.Gill, Jerry H. The Tacit Mode: Michael Polanyi’s Postmodern Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Explores the central insights in Polanyi’s major works. Focuses on his epistemological insights concerning tacit knowing and explores their ramifications for philosophy, science, art, language, political theory, and religion.Kane, Jeffrey. Beyond Empiricism: Michael Polanyi Reconsidered. New York: P. Lang, 1984. Study of Polanyi’s views on the metaphysical foundation of scientific knowledge.Poteat, William. Polanyian Meditations: In Search of a Post-Critical Logic. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985. Sympathetic study of Polanyi’s views and works.Prosch, Harry. Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986. The author was a close protégé of Polanyi during his last years. A systematic description of Polanyi’s philosophic diagnosis of what ails the modern mind and how he thought it could be cured. Includes a detailed bibliography of Polanyi’s 218 scientific papers as well as his publications in philosophy and the social sciences.
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