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Michael Polanyi

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), a medical doctor, physical chemist, social thinker, and philosopher, made his most important contribution in the area of humanizing scientific inquiry. He proposed a new theory of knowledge based on an appreciation of the role of the individual and the individual's and society's values in the seeking and finding of truth.

Michael Polanyi was born on March 11, 1891, in Budapest, Hungary, the fifth child of Michael Pollacsek and Cecilia Wohl. His family life was marked by a rich and stimulating intellectual world that combined theoretical and practical concerns and artistic, literary, and social issues. His father was a civil engineer, and his mother was the center of a circle of poets, painters, and scholars. His two brothers and two sisters were all in their own ways distinguished. In his lifetime Michael Polanyi had four careers—medical doctor, physical chemist, social thinker, and philosopher. Leaving medicine early for the attraction of scientific research, he achieved international recognition in his other fields. His talent and breadth of knowledge made him a polymath and prepared him for the philosophical creativity that crowned his life with a vision and proposal for a new theory of knowledge—a theory intended to save advanced scientific culture from its own self-destruction by its dehumanized notion of objective detachment.

From the time of his entrance to the University of Budapest in 1908 until his death on February 22, 1976, Polanyi's life was devoted to the pursuit of scientific knowledge and to its meaning for the life of humanity. In the first part of his professional life, the advancement of scientific knowledge was his livelihood and the understanding of the implications of science for society was his avocation. In the later part of his life, the understanding of science's intellectual impact on society became his profession for the purpose of maintaining the basis of creative scientific research and for the liberation of humanity from the tyrannies based on scientism.

At the University of Budapest he was a founder in 1908 of the Galilei Circle, a progressive-minded student society devoted to discussions of science, politics, and religion. Barely 19 years old, he published his first scientific paper in 1910 and graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1913. His scientific interests led him to further study in chemistry at the Technische Hochschule, Karlsruhe, Germany. During this time he published several papers on the second law of thermodynamics, but the outbreak of World War I involved him as a medical officer and his scientific research was curbed until he contracted diptheria. During his convalescence he wrote a Ph.D. thesis on the adsorption of gases by solids, which not only earned him his doctorate in 1917 but also the attention of Einstein and of Fritz Haber, head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry in Berlin. In 1920 he was appointed a member of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fiber Chemistry, where he developed new methods of X-ray analysis pertinent to fibrous structures, metals, and crystals. His success led to his appointment in 1923 to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry, where he made contributions not only in crystallography but also in reaction kinetics.

Never a one sided person, Polanyi maintained his interest in social and intellectual issues and in 1928 formed a study group on Soviet affairs with Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and John Von Neumann (all became distinguished scientists). In 1933, in protest against Hitler's dismissal of Jewish professors, he resigned his position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Within a few months he was invited to take the chair of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester in England, and he moved there with his wife and two sons that autumn. He had married Magda Kemeny in 1921, herself an able chemist and author of a dictionary on textile chemistry. Their two sons, George and John, became respectively an economist and a physical chemist.

During the years in Manchester he continued to be productive in research in chemical reaction rates and in transition state theory, but Polanyi's inherent concern for the relations of science and society led him into basic questions about scientific reality and the importance of human freedom. He believed from his experience in science that there was a necessary connection between the premises of a free society and the discovery of scientific truths. Around him, in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany, and even among some leaders in Great Britain, Polanyi saw science changing toward control by the state and losing its creative independence and search for truth.

In 1938 he joined with J. R. Baker and others in forming the Society for the Freedom of Science. Between 1935 and 1946 he visited the Soviet Union and published critiques of planned economy, did a film on economics and unemployment, and advocated reform of the patent law. These political and economic concerns were about the way a dehumanized understanding of science was supporting totalitarianism and centralized government control of science in democratic societies. Everywhere Polanyi saw a mistaken view of science as impersonal and strict detachment denying the importance of personal and shared values. In 1946 he published Science, Faith and Society, which set forth a new philosophy to refute scientific objectivism and to restore belief in commitment to the independence of thought guided by the principles of liberty. This paramount problem and Polanyi's grasp of it led his university in 1948 to offer him a chair in social thought in exchange for his chair in physical chemistry.

In 1951 and 1952 Polanyi gave the Gifford Lectures that became his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958). In a comprehensive treatment of human knowing he proposed overturning the last three centuries' habit of thinking that our most genuine knowledge is found by a method that separates the observer from the subject of study and proceeds by neutrally collecting data and drawing conclusions from it. Instead, Polanyi showed from the practice of science that discovery of scientific reality is guided by a passionate dedication nurtured by a conscientious community of inquirers. He upheld objective knowledge as "personal knowledge" because it involved human participation in strategic and significant ways. Polanyi's view meant that the most exact facts could not be separated from the values of the knower and the traditions that guided them. The foundations of a free society that saw the truth of reality as independent of people yet found by individuals seeking the truth, stating their findings, and establishing agreement by open discussion are fundamental to the pursuit of science and knowledge generally. Many modern ideologies had produced totalitarianism and nihilism by a belief in naked truth separated from moral convictions that called for respect for persons and ideals.

Polanyi's proposal gained international attention, and he lectured at many universities throughout the world. His theory meant that the truths of science, religion, and art shared a common ground. In 1958 he became senior research fellow at Merton College, Oxford University. Despite the wide recognition he attained in the intellectual world, academic philosophers sometimes ignored Polanyi as too comprehensive and not specialized enough. Polanyi refined his view into a theory called "tacit knowing" that showed more specifically the personal component with its faith-like structure and its decisive role in the nature of all knowing. In the United States and Great Britain societies pursuing Polanyi's thought have developed on a multi-field basis.

Further Reading

Besides the books mentioned in the article, other major works of Michael Polanyi are: The Logic of Liberty (1951), The Study of Man (1959), The Tacit Dimension (1966), and, with Harry Prosch, Meaning (1975). Works about Polanyi are: Richard Gelwick, The Way of Discovery: An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi; Paul Ignotus et. al, The Logic of Personal Knowledge; Thomas A. Langford and William Poteat, editors, Intellect and Hope (1968), and Harry Prosch, "Michael Polanyi, " The International Encyclopedia of the Special Sciences, vol. 18, David L. Sills, editor (1979). □

Michael Polanyi

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