Polanyi, Michael

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A physician and physical chemist who became a philosopher in middle age, Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 12, the youngest child in a liberal Jewish family that provided a broad humanistic education. After medical training and completing a dissertation in chemistry, Polanyi rose to be an eminent physical chemist (publishing more than 200 scientific papers in his career) in Berlin; in 1933, he fled Nazi Germany and took a position in Great Britain at Manchester University. He was elected Senior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford, in 1959. Polanyi died in Northhampton on February 22.

Science and Society

From the 1930s forward, Polanyi often wrote about the governance of science and the fragile relation between science and society. Marxist-influenced politics and philosophical discussions about the nature and justification of science challenged Polanyi to probe such issues. He found that most of the ideas about science and society put forth by Western scientists and philosophers of science were as inadequate as the Marxist ideas. In response, Polanyi early argued that freedom was a prerequisite for establishing a community of inquiry in which individuals pursued truth and openly stated their findings. He further criticized centrally planned scientific research, arguing that opportunities for individual initiative are critical and that civil liberties and a democratic society provide important foundations for science.

Polanyi's dissatisfaction with philosophical accounts of science thus led him gradually to shift his interest from scientific research to philosophy. By the mid-1940s, Polanyi began to put together his own comprehensive philosophical account in Science, Faith, and Society (1946).

Personal Knowledge

Personal Knowledge, published in 1958 and based on his 1951–1952 Gifford Lectures, is a much broader articulation of his philosophical stance. Later publications refine and extend the framework of this book. The Tacit Dimension (1966) is particularly important because it reflects the way in which Polanyi's earlier emphasis on commitment was recast and enriched by working out an account of the structure of tacit knowing.

In Polanyi's sometimes dense texts, his constructive philosophy is bound up with searching criticisms of much modern philosophy. In his early formulations in the syllabus for his 1951 Gifford Lectures, Polanyi summarized his constructive philosophical project as setting forth a "fiduciary philosophy" that overcame the "restrictions of objectivism" and rehabilitated "overt belief" (Papers of Michael Polanyi, Box 33, Folder 1, University of Chicago Library). All knowledge is based in belief, but this does not mean knowledge claims are necessarily without warrant. For Polanyi, a fully impersonal, objective knowledge is a false and destructive ideal embraced by modern western philosophy and science. In Personal Knowledge, he argues that doubt, celebrated since Descartes, is not heuristic and, in fact, is parasitical on belief. Knowledge must be understood in terms of the activity of a skillful and committed knower immersed in a community with a living tradition. Polanyi is a fallibilist and a metaphysical realist who argues for what he terms "personal knowledge," which is subject-grounded but not merely subjective. Truth claims are set forth with universal intent.

Polanyi's early interest in the administration of science led him to work out an epistemology of science that focuses on the person and discovery. His epistemology recasts ideas of Gestalt psychology in order to emphasize the active shaping of comprehension and the commitment of the knower. After Personal Knowledge, Polanyi came to better understand what he early called the "fiduciary" element in knowledge as he continued to explore the importance of the inarticulate. His later theory of tacit knowing claims all knowing involves an integration of subsidiarily or skillfully known elements to produce a focal comprehension. Thus, knowing has a from-to structure: It moves from subsidiaries or tacitly known particulars to a focus. Thought dwells, Polanyi argues, in its subsidiaries, and those subsidiaries function like parts of one's body that a person dwells in and skillfully coordinates in order to achieve certain objectives.

Some of Polanyi's ideas about science, and more generally about human knowing and the problems of modern society, parallel ideas developed by other thinkers in the mid-twentieth century. Several mid-century philosophers of science, such as Polanyi, backed away from narrow empirical approaches and took new interest in the practices of scientists and the history of science; philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) wrote about the body and perception in ways that complement Polanyi's views.


Polanyi's major constructive philosophical contribution is his theory of tacit knowing, which holds that all knowledge is grounded in tacitly held elements; a knower always relies on such unspecifiable elements to achieve focal awareness. This claim is a major break with the theory of knowledge developed in the modern philosophical tradition. Many of Polanyi's broader philosophical ideas about persons, communities, and the human project of exploring the universe are novel views that grow out of his new approach to the problem of knowledge. Taken as a whole, Polanyi offers a comprehensive philosophical vision that weaves together an epistemology, a philosophy of life, and an evolutionary cosmology.

Polanyi was deeply disturbed by what he regarded as the nihilistic tenor of modern culture; he aimed to restore confidence in the human capacity to discover meaning. His philosophical ideas are also sometimes linked with what is now called postmodern thought. But while he sharply criticized some elements of the Enlightenment tradition, Polanyi also affirmed Enlightenment values such as truth-seeking as necessary and worthy ideals. Polanyi was committed to the reliability of natural science, although he did not contend that only scientific knowledge was possible and important.


SEE ALSO Liberalism; Participation.


Gelwick, Richard. (1977). The Way of Discovery: An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. A clear basic introduction to Polanyi's philosophical ideas.

Grene, Marjorie. (1977). "Tacit Knowing: Grounds for a Revolution in Philosophy." Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 8(3): 164–171. A brief account of the development and importance Polanyi's philosophical ideas by one of his major collaborators.

Polanyi, Michael. (1959). The Study of Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Extends the account of Personal Knowledge to treat questions about historical knowledge.

Polanyi, Michael. (1964). Science, Faith and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. First published in 1946, this is Polanyi's best early discussion of science, and includes a 1963 introduction by Polanyi that links early and later ideas.

Polanyi, Michael. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. The clearest statement of Polanyi's theory of tacit knowing.

Polanyi, Michael. (1969). Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A collection edited and introduced by Marjorie Grene of fourteen Polanyi essays from the 1960s.

Polanyi, Michael. (1974). Personal Knowledge Towards a Post Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. First published in 1958, this is Polanyi's most comprehensive philosophical statement, which grew out of his 1951 and 1952 Gifford Lectures.

Polanyi, Michael, and Harry Prosch. (1975). Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A late book, written with a collaborator, that attempts to extends Polanyi's epistemological framework to treat meaning in art, myth, and religion.

Polanyi, Michael. (1997). Science, Economics and Philosophy: Selected Papers of Michael Polanyi, ed. and introduced by R. T. Allen. New Brunswick and London: Transaction. Includes twenty-five Polanyi essays written from 1917 to 1972 as well as an annotated bibliography of Polanyi's publications on society, economics, and philosophy.

Polanyi, Michael. (1998). The Logic of Liberty Reflections and Rejoinders. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. Essays on science and politics, originally published in 1951.

Prosch, Harry. (1986). Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition. Albany: SUNY Press. An interpretation of Polanyi's philosophical work by one of his collaborators.


Polanyi Society. Available from http://www.mwsc.edu/orgs/polanyi/. Selected short essays by Michael Polanyi and other information.