Mihaly (Michael) Polanyi

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(b. Budapest, Hungary, 11 March 1891; d. Northampton, England, 22 February 1976), physical chemistry, x-ray crystallography, solid-state chemistry. For the original article on Polányi see DSB, vol. 18, Supplement II.

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, many sociologists and historians of science adopted some of the key ideas of Polányi’s writings in philosophy and sociology of science, and new studies appeared on his life and his scientific work.

Influence Among the most important of Polanyi’s philosophical and sociological ideas was his emphasis on the transmission of tradition and tacit knowledge in the material and bodily practices of science. By the end of the twentieth century Polányi’s name achieved iconic status among scholars in the field of the social construction of science (as well as among economists, who emphasize the role of tacit knowledge in innovation processes) who regularly cite Polányi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy(1958) and The Tacit Dimension(1966) as pivotal writings for the analysis of science as a system of social practices rather than as a system of rational ideas. Scholars who have analyzed the impact of Thomas S. Kuhn’s work in the history and philosophy of science, especially his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions(1962), have remarked on Kuhn’s possible debts to Polányi’s early essays, their similar preoccupations with undercutting the philosophy of logical positivism, and their insistence on the dominant role of established beliefs or dogmas in scientific communities rather than of skepticism and impulses toward revolutionary change.

An important aspect of Polányi’s philosophical writings on science was his attempt to develop an epistemological position that questioned the positivist definition of science as objective knowledge, while avoiding the relativist implications of a subjectivist perspective. His answer was the notion of science as personal knowledge, which is rooted in passion rather than in detachment and which is grounded in faith that there is a reality and a truth to be known. Polányi’s notion of personal knowledge has remained a problematic one for many philosophers of science, as has the religious tone of some of his philosophical writings. What distinguishes the writings of Polányi on scientific life from those of many other philosophers is the fact that he drew upon the experiences of a long and distinguished career in physical science, mainly in the scientific center of Berlin.

Polányi’s emphasis on faith, along with his interest in biological evolution as an emergent process, partly helps explain the appropriation of Polányi’s name by William Dembski, a leader in the intelligent design movement in the United States, who established a short-lived Michael Polányi Center for Complexity, Information and Design (1999–2000) at Baylor University in Texas, although Polányi himself would not have endorsed intelligent design. Since the 1970s three societies have taken Polányi’s work as their core interest. The Michael Polányi Liberal Philosophical Association in Budapest publishes the journal Polányianna. The Polányi Society, which is headquartered in the United States, publishes the journal Tradition and Discovery and meets annually with the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. The Society for Post-Critical and Personal-ist Studies was founded in Great Britain in 2004 for the purpose of promoting interest in Polányi and publishes the journal Appraisal.

Biographical Studies The broad scope of Polányi’s political, philosophical, and scientific preoccupations throughout his life is captured in William T. Scott and Martin X. Moleski’s Michael Polányi: Scientist and Philosopher(2005), which is the only major biography of Polányi other than Eugene P. Wigner and R. A. Hodgkin’s obituary in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society(1977). Scott and Moleski give a full account of Polányi’s life, including attention to his early years in Budapest and his ongoing skepticism about political and economic changes taking place in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Michael and his brother Karl Polányi, the economic historian who wrote The Great Transformation(1944), talked and argued about economic systems from their youth. Michael Polányi devoted considerable time in the 1930s and 1940s to making a film on liberal economics and the free market, and he developed a critique of central planning of all kinds, including in scientific research and technology.

Because of the shift in Polányi’s main work away from physical chemistry by the late 1930s, the University of Manchester created a personal chair in social studies for him in 1948. He frequently visited the United States and accepted a position in social philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1951. He was unable to take up the position, however, because the U.S. State Department delayed a visa for several years on the grounds that he had spoken to a communist-controlled German refugee society in London in 1942. Polányi’s impeccable credentials as an anticommunist and the fact that his 1942 lecture had discussed the suppression of genetics in the USSR and the need for scientific freedom from state control were ignored by State Department bureaucrats.

Polányi’s older son, George Polányi, studied and published in economics, collaborating with his father in the 1950s in the work of the Committee on Science and Freedom in Oxford, which was associated with the international Congress of Cultural Freedom.

Scientific Work Scott and Moleski describe at some length Polányi’s work in physical chemistry, x-ray crystallography, and solid-state chemistry, as do other authors in new studies of Polányi’s scientific work. A consistent focus in Polányi’s research was the dynamics of simple chemical reactions involving three-atom and four-atom systems such as H + Br2 → HBr + Br (schematized as Y + XZ → YX + Z). Like some other chemists and physicists in the 1920s and 1930s, Polányi favored the hypothesis of a transition state in order to explain simple gas reactions as a step-by-step process.

When the young American chemist Henry Eyring arrived to work with Polányi in Berlin in 1929, Polányi encouraged Eyring to assist him in applying Fritz London’s current work extending the use of quantum mechanics from the static 2-atom hydrogen molecule to the treatment of chemical combination in 2-, 3-, and 4-atom systems. London had suggested that it should be possible to construct a potential-energy surface giving variation of potential energy for all possible interatomic distances in a 3-atom system.

As noted by Jeffry Ramsey, Eyring and Polányi arrived at a unique procedure for mixing theoretical results and experimental results in order to arrive at a value for energy of formation of a transition complex by what they called a semiempirical method (halbempirisches Verfahren). After he left Berlin and had moved to Princeton, Eyring developed his theory of absolute reaction rates and activated complexes, while Polányi, working with Meredith G. Evans in Manchester, characterized the approach as the transition-state method. As discussed in recent scholarship, both Eyring and Polányi’s methods were met with strong criticism for the next thirty years by chemists and physicists who disparaged the approximative character of the semiempirical approach and doubted the existence of transition-state structures. In contrast Polányi stressed the reality of the transition state and the value of a theory that could give a reasonable picture of the mechanism of chemical reaction. By the late 1950s computers made calculations of potential energy surfaces easy and by the 1960s new experimental methods using molecular beams and other methods corroborated the soundness of the principles of Eyring and Polányi. Polányi’s younger son John, a student of Meredith Evans and Ernest Warhurst, was among those who confirmed the existence of the transition state.

In 1986 John Polányi, Dudley R. Herschbach, and Yuan T. Lee shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their individual contributions to chemical dynamics in a fitting tribute to the work of Michael Polányi himself.



The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After. London: Watts, 1940; report, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Society, Economics and Philosophy: Selected Papers. Edited by R. T. Allen. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997.


Holton, Gerald. “Michael Polányi and the History of Science.” Tradition and Discovery 19, no. 1 (1992–1993): 16–30. Republished in his Einstein, History and Other Passions. Woodbury, NY: American Institute of Physics Press, 1995.

Jacobs, Struan, and R. T. Allen, eds. Emotion, Reason and Tradition: Essays on the Social, Political and Economic Thought of Michael Polányi. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2005.

Jha, Stefania Ruzsits. Reconsidering Michael Polányi’s Philosophy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.

Nye, Mary Jo. “Laboratory Practice and the Physical Chemistry of Michael Polányi.” In Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry, edited by Frederic L. Holmes and Trevor H. Levere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

———. “Michael Polányi (1891–1976).” Hyle: International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 8, no. 2 (2002): 123–127.

———. “Working Tools for Theoretical Chemistry: Polányi, Eyring, and Debates over the ‘Semi-Empirical Method,’” Journal of Computational Chemistry 28 (2007), 98 Polányi, Mihály (Michael) 108.

Palló, Gábor. “Michael Polányi’s Early Years in Science.” Bulletin for the History of Chemistry 21 (1998): 39–43.

Polányi, John C. “Michael Polányi, the Scientist.” Chemical Heritage 23 (Spring 2005): 10–13.

Ramsey, Jeffry L. “Between the Fundamental and the Phenomenological: The Challenge of ‘Semi-Empirical’ Methods.” Philosophy of Science 64 (1997): 627–653.

Scott, William Taussig, and Martin X. Moleski. Michael Polányi: Scientist and Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Thorpe, Charles. “Science against Modernism: The Relevance of the Social Theory of Michael Polányi.” British Journal of Sociology 52, no. 1 (2001): 19–35.

Mary Jo Nye

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(b. Budapest, Hungary, 12 March 1891; d. Northampton, England, 22 February 1976)

chemistry, philosophy, sociology.

Polányi came from a middle-class family. His father, Mihály, was a civil engineer and businessman who planned and developed railroads. His mother, Cecilia Wohl, regularly held literary gatherings that attracted the leftist intelligentsia, some of them Marxists. The children of the family—Laura, Charles, and Michael—joined left-wing youth movements at an early age.

Polényi studied medicine at the University of Budapest, graduating in 1913. At the age of nineteen, before receiving his medical degree, he published a paper entitled “Adatok a hydrocephalus polyadek kemiajahoz” (Chemistry of the hydrocephalic liquid, 1910) and in 1911 reported on his investigations concerning the chemical and physical changes in blood serum during starvation. From 1914 to 1917 Polányi served as a medical officer in the army. In 1917, besides qualifying as a physician, he earned the Ph.D. from the University of Budapest with a dissertation on the thermodynamics of adsorption of gases. Three years later he expounded this theory—at the invitation of Fritz Haber—in a public discussion at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry in Berlin at which Einstein was another participant. Although his theory was rejected at the time, his views began to gain acceptance in the 1930’s.

During the Hungarian Republic (1919–1920) Polányi was under secretary of health. In 1920 he married Magda Kemény, a chemist; they had two sons. Polányi and his wife then immigrated to Germany, where he became Privatdozent at the Technical University of Karlsruhe and did physical-chemical research that produced important results. Later in 1920 Polányi was hired by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fiber Chemistry in Berlin. He worked in a novel field, research on vegetable fibers, and was the first to apply and interpret X-ray diffraction in structure investigations of fibers. With K. Weissenberg he improved the rotating crystal method of X-ray analysis developed by M. de Broglie, which proved to be of eminent importance in crystallography. In 1923 Polányi became a researcher at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry, working on the plasticity of solids. While there he established his well-known dislocation theory. His work with Eugene Wigner concerned the uncertainty principle for angular momentum and the absolute rate of unimolecular dissociation.

Polányi left Berlin when Hitler seized power in 1933; he immigrated to England, where he became professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester. His main work there was in reaction kinetics; major achievements were the theory of bimolecular activation energy (with Henry Eyring), the generalized theory of absolute rates of reaction (with Meredith Evans), and studies on ionic reactions in solution, on bond dissociation energies, and on the mechanism of polymerization.

In the meantime, Polányi’s interest in the social sciences was reawakened. He started to publish on such subjects and soon became better known for these writings than for his accomplishments, by no means insignificant, in physical chemistry. In 1948 he gave up his professorship in physical chemistry for a personal chair in social studies at the University of Manchester. He retired in 1958 but continued work in sociology and philosophy of science as senior research fellow of Merton College, Oxford.

Polányi’s philosophical-sociological activities spanned a very broad field. His views won him many adherents, particularly in the United States, but also gave rise to sharp criticism, rejection, and even disparagement. The historical analysis of the paths of scientific discoveries led him to make conclusions regarding the general values of human society. He attacked positivistic and postpositivistic scientific views, since they result in scientific detachment. The basis of modern science is objective knowledge, dismissing everything that cannot be proved directly. Polányi considered this a distorted ideal, in contradiction to human nature, which has personal notions and concepts always surpassing the provable scientific facts of a given period. He was opposed to reductionism, to the concept that all things can be understood only in terms of the laws of inanimate nature. Many of his critics declared Polányi’s views metaphysical.

In the mid 1930’s Polányi visited the Soviet Union. After his return he wrote several articles and a book criticizing Soviet economic notions, and on planning and guidance of scientific research; fundamental research, in his opinion, was being pushed into the background in favor of short-term applied research. He was a supporter of complete freedom in scientific research, not only concerning its content but also in choice of the subject. He sharply disapproved of any centralized measures in the United Kingdom that interfered with scientific research or attempted to plan research, even if such measures meant financial support. He fought for his concepts in his writings and started a movement in the interest of their success; he was a founding member of the Society for the Freedom of Science.

Polányi received invitations to several universities in the United States but accepted none. He was a member of many scientific organization, including the Royal Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft (now the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft).


I. Original Works. Books by Polányi are Atomic Reactions (London, 1932); USSR Economics (Manchester, 1936); Full Employment and Free Trade (Cambridge, 1945); Science, Faith and Society (Chicago and London, 1946); The Logic of Liberty (Chicago, 1951); Personal Knowledge ; Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, 1958; repr. 1962); The Study of Man (Chicago, 1959); Beyond Nihilism (Cambridge, 1960); The Tacit Dimension (Garden City, N.Y., 1966); and Scientific Thought and Social Reality (New York, 1974).

II. Secondary Literature. A good summary of Polányi’s life and views is given by Richard Gelwick in The Way of Discovery : An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polányi (New York, 1977), See also E.P. Wigner and R.A. Hodgkin, “Michael Polányi”, in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 23 (1977), 413–448.

Ferenc SzabadvÁary

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