The polymath Michael Polanyi first made his mark as a physical chemist, but his interests gradually shifted to economics, politics, and philosophy, in which field he would ultimately propose a revolutionary theory of knowledge that grew out of his firsthand experience with both the scientific method and political totalitarianism. In this sixth entry in ISI Books’ Library of Modern Thinkers’ series, Mark T. Mitchell reveals how Polanyi came to recognize that the roots of the modern political and spiritual crisis lay in an errant conception of knowledge that served to foreclose any possibility of making meaningful statements about truth, goodness, or beauty. Polanyi’s theory of knowledge as ineluctably personal but also grounded in reality is not merely of historical interest, writes Mitchell, for it proposes an attractive alternative for anyone who would reject both the hubris of modern rationalism and the ultimately nihilistic implications of academic postmodernism.
About the Author
Mark T. Mitchell, who took his doctorate in political theory from Georgetown University, is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. He has written on Polanyi, Eric Voegelin, and Michael Oakeshott for various journals and is currently finishing a book on rootlessness and democracy.
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THE ART OF KNOWING
By Mark T. Mitchell
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
LIFE AND TIMES OF
By his own admission, Michael Polanyi turned to philosophy as
an afterthought to his successful career as a scientist. This transition
was officially recognized in 1948, when a Chair of Social Studies was
created for him at the University of Manchester, where he had
served as head of Physical Chemistry since 1933. With over two
hundred scientific publications to his name, he was a prominent
figure whose research focused mainly on three areas: adsorption of
gases on solids, x-ray structure analysis of the properties of solids,
and the rate of chemical reactions. Polanyi was unusual even as a
scientist in that he was active in both theoretical and experimental
work. A keen mind coupled with a rigorous and broad liberal
education provided him with the capacity to pursue interests
outside of his field of expertise; the political upheavals of twentieth-century
Europe provided the catalyst.
Polanyi was born in Budapest in 1891-the fifth child in an
extraordinary family. Michael's father, born Mihaly Pollacsek, was
a successful railroad financier. While living in Vienna, he met and
later married Cecile Wohl, the daughter of Andreas Wohl, a scholar
of some distinction from what is todayVilnius, Lithuania. Both
Mihaly and Cecile were of Jewish families, generally liberal, and
nonreligious. In Vienna, Cecile gave birth to their first four children.
One year prior to Michael's birth, the family moved to
Budapest, magyarized the family name, and entered the elite circle
of Hungarian intellectuals.
Both Mihaly and Cecile-Mama, as she was called, were intellectually
serious and sought to provide the best education possible
for their children. Private tutors were hired to teach the children
English and French in addition to the German and Hungarian
spoken at home. The children's education was regimented and Spartan:
"In the morning a cold shower, an hour of gymnastics, hot
cocoa with a roll, Schiller and Goethe, Corneille and Racine." The
intellectual climate in Budapest at the time was vibrant, and Cecile-Mama
established a salon that attracted a wide variety of artists
and writers. As Polanyi later described it, "I grew up in this circle,
dreaming of great things."
In 1900 this pleasant existence changed dramatically. Months
of steady rain washed out the rail line Mihaly had been building.
He went bankrupt, and the family was forced to move to humbler
quarters while he took work as a consultant. In 1905, when Michael
was fourteen, Mihaly died. By that time, Michael was attending
the Minta Gymnasium, a top-notch humanistic school, but the
family's new financial situation required him to tutor the sons of
wealthy families to help make ends meet. During his eight years at
the Minta Gymnasium, he studied history, literature, language,
science, and mathematics. By his own admission, physics and art
history were his favorite subjects-an early foreshadowing of the
breadth of interest that would characterize the rest of his life.
Polanyi's education continued at the University of Budapest,
where he enrolled in the medical program. In 1910, at the age of
nineteen, he published his first academic paper: "Contribution to
the Chemistry of the Hydrocephalic Liquid." From then on,
Polanyi published papers every year (excluding 1912) for over six
decades-first in science, then in economics, politics, and the
philosophy of science as his attention gradually shifted to these
areas during the 1930s and '40s. His last scientific paper was published
While at the University of Budapest, he became involved with
the Galileo Circle, a student organization committed to a scientific
understanding of social, economic, and political issues.
Michael's older brother Karl was the group's first president. Michael
himself was an active member in the circle's "Committee on Natural
Science" and occasionally gave talks on physics and chemistry.
Paul Ignotus, also a member of the circle, later noted Polanyi's
"liberality of mind, the simultaneity of personal and technical
interests, and the ability to coordinate them in behavior as well
as in philosophy." In addition to a mind capable of synthesizing
disparate concepts, Ignotus noted that Polanyi possessed a unique
character trait: "What made him differ most from those around
him was his reverence." This reverence extended both to the subject
matter at hand as well as to the people with whom he dealt.
Polanyi's love of discovery propelled him to extend his inquiries
into a wide variety of avenues, and people with whom he associated
found him congenial and polite.
Michael Polanyi's interest in pure science, especially chemistry,
was always stronger than his interest in medicine. In 1913-14,
he spent a year in Karlsruhe, Germany, studying physical chemistry.
During that time, he focused on thermodynamics. After
Polanyi wrote a paper describing his findings, his mentor, Professor
Georg Bredig, sent it off to Albert Einstein-the most competent
person to judge Polanyi's findings. Einstein was impressed: "The
papers of your M. Polanyi please me a lot. I have checked over
the essentials in them and found them fundamentally correct."
As Polanyi later described it, "Bang! I was created a scientist."
Polanyi exchanged several letters with Einstein at that time and
their correspondence, though irregular, continued for twenty
years. Such attention provided powerful encouragement to the
young Polanyi. And it further convinced him that his true calling
was in fact chemistry, not medicine.
Shortly after Michael returned to Budapest in the summer of
1914, the World War began. Although his medical training had not
included the internship that would have qualified him to practice,
field doctors were needed. He volunteered for service and became
a military physician assigned to a field hospital. He soon contracted
diphtheria and was forced to spend several months convalescing.
He returned to his duties only to become ill again, and for the
remainder of the war he was given light duty, During his time in
military hospitals, he managed to write and revise several scientific
papers. One, "Adsorption of Gases by a Solid Non-Volatile
Absorbent," was published in the Proceedings of the German Physical
Society in 1916. Polanyi then translated the paper into Hungarian
and submitted it as a PhD dissertation to Dr. Gustav
Buchböck, a chemist at the University of Budapest. Years later,
Polanyi would describe an exchange that anticipated a central insight
in his understanding of the process of discovery:
The Professor of mathematical physics, to whom my paper was
assigned [to verify, the mathematics], had never heard of my
subject matter. He studied my work bit by bit and then asked
me to explain a curious point; my result scorned correct, but its
derivation faulty. Admitting my mistake I said that surely one
first draws one's conclusions and then puts their derivations right.
The professor just stared at me.
Polanyi had already secured a teaching position at the University
of Budapest when he was officially awarded his degree-an unusual
process, to be sure. His academic training had been no more
orthodox. Formally trained in medicine, he had practiced only under
the duress of war. And his degree in chemistry had been granted
on the basis of a paper that had already been published. His later
essays in economics, philosophy of science, political theory, and epistemology
were all written from the vantage point of an outsider.
This is doubtless one reason why Polanyi's nonscientific work has
not received the attention it deserves. This is not to say that professionals
in these various fields jealously protected their turf from an
upstart outsider (though this might at times have been the case);
rather, because he was an outsider, his methods and vocabulary were
often unconventional. He did not always situate himself within current
debates or the history of the particular discipline he was addressing.
As a result, it was difficult for more conventional practitioners
to categorize his thought or respond to it adequately.
Polanyi recognized this apparent defect in his education as an
asset. He was, in a sense, immune to the commitments and distractions
of his contemporaries, who generally approached their
subjects in more traditional fashion. This was true of his work in
chemistry and doubly true for his later work in philosophy. As
Polanyi describes it,
I believe that I came into my true vocation in 1946 when I set
out on the pursuit of a new philosophy to meet the need of our
age. My way at starting with little or no schooling was wholly
beneficial here. For a sound knowledge of philosophy makes
the necessary radical advances extremely difficult; one must shoot
here first and ask questions afterwards, as 1 have always done-for
better or worse.
There was a downside to his unconventional education. In
1921, for example, Polanyi was invited by Fritz Haber, a Nobel
Laureate chemist, to present his theory of adsorption to the Kaiser
Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry. Einstein was specially
invited to attend. Both Einstein and Haber severely attacked the
theory, accusing Polanyi of displaying "a total disregard for the
scientifically established structure of matter." As Polanyi put it later,
"professionally, I survived by the skin of my teeth" KB, 89). However,
he still believed his theory was correct. A decade later, physicist
Fritz London's groundbreaking work on cohesive forces suggested a
breakthrough. Polanyi contacted him, London carried out the necessary
computations, and in 1930 they jointly published a paper
vindicating Polanyi's theory of adsorption. Although some years
were required for it to be accepted, the theory is now recognized as
an integral part of the discipline. In a 1963 essay, Polanyi reflected
on the lessons he had learned from this experience:
I would never have conceived my theory, let alone have made a
great effort to verify it, if I had been more familiar with major
developments in physics that were taking place. Moreover, my
initial ignorance of the powerful false objections that were raised
against my ideas protected those ideas from being nipped in the
bud. Later, by undertaking the labor necessary to verify my theory,
I became immune to these objections, but I remained powerless
to refute them. My verification could make no impression on
minds convinced that it was bound to be specious (KB, 91).
Yet even though Polanyi was right and some of the greatest minds
of the time turned out to be mistaken, he did not believe that his
critics had deviated from proper scientific procedure:
Could this miscarriage of the scientific method have been
avoided? I do not think so. There must be at all times a predominantly
accepted scientific view of the nature of things, in
the light of which research is jointly conducted by members of
the community of scientists. A strong presumption that any
evidence which contradicts this view is invalid must prevail.
Such evidence has to be disregarded, even if it cannot be accounted
for, in the hope that it will eventually turn out to be
false or irrelevant.... Discipline must remain severe and is in
fact severe (KB, 92, 93).
The idea that discipline is a necessary component for the development
and success of science is often ignored or even denied. Polanyi
quotes Bertrand Russell, who argues-naïvely, in Polanyi's view-that
science obviates the need for authority. According to Russell,
the triumphs of science are due to the substitution of observation
and inference for authority. Every attempt to revive authority in
intellectual matters is a retrograde step. And it is part of the scientific
attitude that the pronouncements of science do not claim to
be certain, but only the most probable on the basis of present
evidence. One of the great benefits that science confers upon those
who understand its spirit is that it enables them to live without
the delusive support of subjective authority (KB, 94).
In Polanyi's view, Russell could not be more wrong. "Such statements
obscure the fact that the authority of current scientific
opinion is indispensable to the discipline of scientific institutions;
that its functions are invaluable, even though its dangers are an
unceasing menace to scientific progress" (KB, 94).
During the war, Polanyi's interests began to expand. His first
political writing was published in 19I7, as the war still raged. Polanyi
later described the piece titled "To the Peacemakers: Views on the
Prerequisites of War and Peace in Europe" as "an attack on the
materialist conception of history." He argued that a lasting peace
could not be forged unless ancient hatreds and prejudices were
first removed. If that could occur, Polanyi saw the possibility of a
united and prosperous Europe-a Europe that could build on the
freedom of movement and intellectual vibrancy enjoyed in the prewar
years: "We must love a united Europe, the re-creation of our
truncated life. People leading the world should release themselves
from mutual fear and from dams built against each other. They
should seek to exploit the forces of nature and the riches of the
earth, and henceforth, a new age of riches and welfare, never seen
before, will open up before us" (SEP, 24). But this could not happen
as long as individual states were capable of threatening each
other. Polanyi argued that the state must be transcended.
Since, as long as States can, however little, feel threatened by
each other, no agreement will hinder them from taking preventative
measures, and war will then break out within the shortest
time from the increase of preventative measures.... Thus, as
long as the State itself remains the supreme executive within the
State, no agreement can prevent the State from developing itself
to the fullest extent.... There is only one solution: to place the
supreme power above the nations, to set up a permanent European
army which would guarantee, along with the United States,
the rule of our civilisation on the earth (SEP, 27).
Of special interest in this otherwise somewhat naïve piece are
two sentences that presage the theory of tacit knowledge that Polanyi
fully developed decades later: "Despite the fact that our age has
denied 'all prejudices,' it has not freed itself from prejudices at all.
For they are rooted in tacit presuppositions which determine our
thoughts without our being aware of them" (SEP, 22).
An essay titled "New Skepticism" was published in I919 in the
Galileo Circle's journal Szabadgondola. Sounding a very different
note here than in his first foray into political writing, Polanyi expresses
his skepticism about the aspirations of politics. Speaking
on behalf of scientists and artists, who Polanyi believes had been
too easily co-opted by the political forces of the day, he argues that
"[o]n account of the devastations brought by wars and revolutions
we need to awake to the fact that popular belief in politics disintegrates
our societies and sweeps everything away" (SEP, 29-30).
Anticipating his later argument that economic and social factors
are too complex to make the planning of economic systems possible,
Polanyi notes that "society is so complicated that even science
cannot calculate the future effects either of any institution or
of any measure, and people involved in politics, with their rough
minds and passionate fancies, are a thousand times less able to
foresee whether the institutions they demand will meet their interests
in the last analysis" (SEP, 30). Given this incapacity to calculate
future effects, Polanyi argues for a new skepticism, one that mistrusts
the claims of politicians and is not taken in by the irrational
fears and hopes peddled by political leaders. In the wake of the
devastation of the Great War, Polanyi saw an acute need for serious
and rational people to reflect upon the causes of political excesses.
"Our job is exploring the truth; dissecting the confused images of
politics and analyzing the belief in political concepts; finding the
originating conditions of political illusions and what animates the
imagination to fix illusions to certain objects" (SEP, 31). Only after
the underlying causes are identified and treated can politics achieve
more than the mere legitimation of the abuse of power. Much of
Polanyi's later work, coming during and after a second great war,
was dedicated to this very project.
In the same year that "New Skepticism" was published (1919),
Polanyi was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Dostoyevsky's
Grand Inquisitor and Tolstoy's confessions of faith had led
Polanyi toward Christianity. Given the political wreckage that was
the Europe of 1919 and the wariness of politics expressed in the
"New Skepticism" piece, it is perhaps not surprising that the young
Polanyi was drawn toward an institution that could provide the
resources for comprehending the moral and spiritual vacuum of
Excerpted from MICHAEL POLANYI
by Mark T. Mitchell
Copyright © 2006 by ISI Books.
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