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Palágyi, Menyhert (1859–1924)


Menyhert (or Melchior) Palágyi, a scientist, literary critic, and philosopher, was born in Paks in west central Hungary. He studied science at Budapest, but his main activity there was as a literary critic. After 1900 he spent much time in Germany, studying informally with philosophers in many places. For a time he held a readership in physics and mathematics in Kolozsvár, Hungary (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania). He had little contact with Hungarian philosophers, however, and eventually returned to Germany, where he died in Darmstadt.

Throughout Palágyi's philosophical works, psychological doctrines and speculations on theoretical physics are mingled with his main interest in epistemology. He interpreted and criticized the then new theory of relativity from the point of view of epistemology, and epistemology from the point of view of his psychological theory. As he expressed his views in response to the new developments in these fields, he became somewhat lost in their transitional stages, and the fact that he criticized them from his own particular standpoint hindered his understanding of them. The central dominating idea throughout his works is a broadly Hegelian principle of polarity. It asserts an interdependence of opposites, a sort of cooperative unity, and it was applied by Palágyi with no apparent consistency and even more liberally than Hegelian dialectics would be. Palágyi was a monist who held a curious version of the denial of the distinction between the a priori and a posteriori.

His most purely philosophical work is Der Streit der Psychologisten und Formalisten in der modernen Logik (Leipzig, 1902). In it, among other things, he criticized Edmund Husserl for "tearing" logic away from psychology and "submerging" it in mathematics, and for his "ideal meaning" and his distinction between real and ideal laws. (Husserl himself reviewed this book in Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physik des Sinnesorgane 31 [1903].) In the same year Palágyi wrote his Die Logik auf dem Scheidewege ("Logic at the Crossroads," Berlin and Leipzig, 1903). In these works Palágyi's main concern was not, despite his criticisms of Husserl, a return to psychologism but his principle of polarity. In his psychology, in fact, he tried to rescue from psychologism that which he termed "mental" (even though he only obscurely described the term). The source of all error is to mistake what is mental for what is merely vital (and, in the spirit of "polarity," what is vital for what is merely mental). He distinguished between mechanical and vital processes and consciousness. The mechanical is publicly observable, and the vital indirectly observable, but consciousness escapes observation by the methods applicable to the other processes: consciousness "punctuates" the vital process and is discontinuous. (He nevertheless explicitly affirmed the unity of the self, although it is doubtful how he could maintain this.) Our knowledge depends on the speed of these punctuations. God is the limiting case who grasps the whole time process instantaneously; for him all punctuations are one. This led Palágyi to such metaphysical claims as that our knowledge catches eternity in the fleeting moment, which is both temporal and eternal.

At the base of this theory of perception was his notion of imagined movement. Touch being the basic sense, all perception depends on our ability to trace the object in the imagination. He mistakenly supported this view by reference to the Kantian role of imagination in perception. His theoretical physics, in which his main interest was our perception of space-time (space-time being a unity in polarity), can best be understood if approached through this theory of perception.

See also A Priori and A Posteriori; Epistemology; Hegelianism; Husserl, Edmund; Imagination; Philosophy of Physics; Psychologism; Relativity Theory; Touch.


Ausgewahlte Werke, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 19241925), contains Palágyi's most important works.

Works on Palágyi are Werner Deubel, "Die Philosophie und Weltmechanik von Melchior Palágyi," in Preussische Jahrbuch 203 (1926): 329356, with complete bibliography; W. R. Boyce Gibson, "The Philosophy of Melchior Palágyi," in Journal of Philosophical Studies 3 (1928): 1528, 158172; L. W. Schneider, Der erste Periode in philosophischen Schaffen M. Palágyis (Würzburg, 1942); and A. Wurmb, Darstellung und Kritik der logische Grundbegriffe der Naturphilosophie Melchior Palágyis (Leipzig, 1931).

Julius Kovesi (1967)

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