Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Philosophy Index: Aesthetics · Epistemology · Ethics · Logic · Metaphysics · Consciousness · Philosophy of Language · Philosophy of Mind · Philosophy of Science · Social and Political philosophy · Philosophies · Philosophers · List of lists

Michael Polanyi (born Polányi Mihály) (March 11, 1891 – February 22, 1976) was a Hungarian–British polymath whose thought and work had an important influence in the philosophy of science physical chemistry, and economics.

Early life[]

Michael Polanyi, FRS[1] (11 March 1891 – 22 February 1976) was a Hungarian polymath, who made important theoretical contributions to physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy. He argues that positivism supplies a false account of knowing, which if taken seriously undermines our highest achievements as human beings.

His wide-ranging research in physical science included chemical kinetics, x-ray diffraction, and adsorption of gases. He pioneered the theory of fiber diffraction analysis in 1921, and the dislocation theory of plastic deformation of ductile metals and other materials in 1934.

He emigrated to Germany, in 1926 becoming a chemistry professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, and then in 1933 to England, becoming first a chemistry professor, and then a social sciences professor of at the University of Manchester. Two of his chemistry pupils won Nobel Prizes. He was elected to the Royal Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His contributions to the social sciences, for example his application of the concept of a polycentric spontaneous order, were developed in the context of his opposition to central planning.


Early life[]

Polanyi, born Polányi Mihály (Template:IPA-hu) in Budapest, was the fifth child of Mihály and Cecília Pollacsek, secular Jews from Ungvár (then in Hungary but now in the Ukraine) and Vilnius in Lithuania, respectively. His father's family were entrepreneurs, while his mother's father was the chief rabbi of Vilnius. The family moved to Budapest and Magyarized their surname to Polányi. His father built much of the Hungarian railway system, but lost most of his fortune in 1899 when bad weather caused a railway building project to go over budget. He died in 1905. Cecília Polanyi established a salon that was well known among Budapest's intellectuals, and which continued until her death in 1939. His older brother was Karl Polanyi, the political economist and anthropologist, and his niece was Eva Zeisel, a world-renowned ceramist.[2]


In 1909, after leaving the famous Budapest teacher-training secondary school (Mintagymnasium), he trained as a physician, obtaining a medical diploma in 1914. He was an active member of the Galileo Society. With the support of Ignác Pfeifer, professor of chemistry at the József Technical University of Budapest, he obtained a scholarship to study chemistry at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe in Germany. In the First World War, he served in the Austro-Hungarian army as a medical officer, and was sent to the Serbian front. While on sick-leave in 1916, he wrote a PhD thesis on adsorption. His research, which was encouraged by Albert Einstein, was supervised by Gusztáv Buchböck, and in 1919 the University of Budapest awarded him a doctorate.


In October 1918, Mihály Károlyi established the Hungarian Democratic Republic, and Polanyi became Secretary to the Minister of Health. When Communists seized power in March 1919 he refused to serve in the Red Army and returned to medicine. When the Hungarian Soviet Republic was overthrown, Polanyi emigrated to Karlsruhe, and was invited by Fritz Haber to join the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Faserstoffchemie in Berlin. In 1923 Polanyi converted to Christianity, and in a Roman Catholic ceremony married Magda Elizabeth Kemeny. In 1926 he became the professorial head of department of the Institut für Physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie. In 1929, Magda gave birth to their son John, who when he reached adulthood settled in Canada, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1986. Their other son, George Polanyi, became a well-known British economist.

His experience of runaway inflation and high unemployment in Weimar Germany led Polanyi to become interested in economics. With the coming to power in 1933 of the Nazi party, he accepted a chair in physical chemistry at the University of Manchester. Two of his pupils, Eugene Wigner and Melvin Calvin went on to win a Nobel Prize. Because of his increasing interest in the social sciences, Manchester University created a new chair in Social Science (1948–58) for him.

In 1944 Polanyi was elected a member of the Royal Society,[1] and on his retirement from the University of Manchester in 1958 he was elected a Senior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford. In 1962 he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[3]


Physical chemistry[]

Polanyi's scientific interests were diverse, embracing chemical kinetics, x-ray diffraction and the absorption of gases at solid surfaces.

In 1934, Polanyi, roughly contemporarily with G. I. Taylor and Egon Orowan realised that the plastic deformation of ductile materials could be explained in terms of the theory of dislocations developed by Vito Volterra in 1905. The insight was critical in developing the modern science of solid mechanics.

Freedom and Community[]

In 1936, as a consequence of an invitation to give lectures for the Ministry of Heavy Industry in the USSR, Polanyi met Bukharin, who told him that in socialist societies all scientific research is directed to accord with the needs of the latest Five Year Plan. Polanyi noted what had happened to the study of genetics in the Soviet Union once the doctrines of Trofim Lysenko had gained the backing of the State. Demands in Britain, for example by the Marxist John Desmond Bernal, for centrally planned scientific research led Polanyi to defend the claim that science requires free debate. Together with John Baker, he founded the influential Society for Freedom in Science.

In a series of articles, re-published in The Contempt of Freedom (1940) and The Logic of Liberty (1951), Polanyi claimed that co-operation amongst scientists is analogous to the way in which agents co-ordinate themselves within a free market. Just as consumers in a free market determine the value of products, science is a spontaneous order that arises as a consequence of open debate amongst specialists. Science (contrary to the claims of Bukharin) flourishes when scientists have the liberty to pursue truth as an end in itself:

"[S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact co-operating as members of a closely knit organization."

"Such self-co-ordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about."

"Any attempt to organize the group ... under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives, and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their co-operation."

He derived the phrase spontaneous order from Gestalt psychology, and it was adopted by the classical liberal economist Frederick Hayek, although the concept can be traced back to at least Adam Smith. Polanyi (unlike Hayek) argued that there are higher and lower forms of spontaneous order, and he asserted that defending scientific inquiry on utilitarian or sceptical grounds undermines the practice of science. He extends this into a general claim about free societies. Polanyi defends a free society not on the negative grounds that we ought to respect "private liberties", but on the positive grounds that "public liberties" facilitate our pursuit of objective ideals.

According to Polanyi a free society which strives to be value neutral undermines its own justification. But it is not enough for the members of a free society to believe that ideals such as truth, justice, and beauty, are objective, they also have to accept that they transcend our ability to wholly capture them. The objectivity of values has to be combined with acceptance that all knowing is fallible.

In Full Employment and Free Trade (1948) Polanyi analyses the way in which money circulates around an economy, and in a monetarist analysis which according to Paul Craig Roberts was thirty years ahead of its time, he argues that a free market economy should not be left to be wholly self-adjusting, a central bank should attempt to moderate economic booms/busts via a strict/loose monetary policy.

All Knowing is Personal[]

In his book Science, Faith and Society (1946), Polanyi set out his opposition to a positivist account of science, noting that it ignores the role which personal commitments play in the practice of science. Polanyi was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1951-2 at Aberdeen. A revised version of his lectures were later published as Personal Knowledge (1958). In this book Polanyi claims that all knowledge claims (including those which are derived from rules) rely on personal judgements.[4] He denies that a scientific method can yield truth mechanically. All knowing, no matter how formalised, relies upon commitments. Polanyi argued that the assumptions which underlie critical philosophy are not only false, they undermine the commitments which motivate our highest achievements. He advocates a fiduciary post-critical approach, in which we recognise that we believe more than we can prove, and know more than we can say.

A knower does not stand apart from the universe, but participates personally within it. Our intellectual skills are driven by passionate commitments which motivate discovery and validation. His writings on the practice of science influenced Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. According to Polanyi a great scientist not only identifies patterns, they choose significant questions which are likely to lead to a successful resolution. Innovators risk their reputation by committing to a hypothesis. He gives the example of Copernicus, who declared that the Earth revolves around the Sun. He claims that Copernicus arrived at the Earth's true relation to the Sun not as a consequence of following a method, but via "the greater intellectual satisfaction he derived from the celestial panorama as seen from the Sun instead of the Earth."[5]

Polanyi rejected the claim by British Empiricists that experience can be reduced into sense data, and rejects the notion that "indwelling" within (sometimes incompatible) interpretative frameworks traps us within them. Our tacit awareness connects us, albeit it fallibly, with reality. It supplies us with the context within which our articulations have meaning. Contrary to the views of his colleague and friend Alan Turing, whose work at The University of Manchester prepared the way for the first modern computer, he denied that minds are reducible to collections of rules. His work influenced the critique by Hubert Dreyfus of "First Generation" Artificial Intelligence.

It was while writing Personal Knowledge that he identified what he calls the "structure of tacit knowing". He viewed it as his most important discovery. He claimed that we experience the world by integrating our subsidiary awareness into a focal awareness. In his later work, for example his Terry Lectures, later published as "The Tacit Dimension" (1966) he distinguishes between the phenomenological, instrumental, semantic, and ontological aspects of tacit knowing, as discussed (but not necessarily identified as such) in his previous writing.

Critique of Reductionism[]

In "Life's irreducible structure" (1968),[6] Polanyi argues that the information contained in the DNA molecule is not reducible to the laws of physics and chemistry. Although a DNA molecule cannot exist without physical properties, these properties are constrained by higher level ordering principles. In "Transcendence and Self-transcendence" (1970),[7] Polanyi criticizes the mechanistic world view that modern science inherited from Galileo.

Polanyi advocates emergence i.e. the claim that there are several levels of reality, and causality. He relies on the assumption that boundary conditions supply degrees of freedom that instead of being random are determined by higher level realities, whose properties are dependent but distinct from the lower level from which they emerge. A consciousness - intentionality - generating meanings - intensionality - is an example of a higher level reality functioning as a downward causal force.

Mind is a higher level expression of the capacity of living organisms for discrimination. Our pursuit of self-set ideals such as truth and justice enriches our awareness of the world. The reductionistic attempt to reduce higher level realities into lower level realities generates what Polanyi describes as a moral inversion, in which the higher is rejected with moral passion. Polanyi identifies it as a pathology of the modern mind, and traces its origins to a false conception of knowledge; which although it is relatively harmless in the formal sciences, generates nihilism in the humanities. Polanyi considered Marxism to be an example of moral inversion. In Marxism, the coercive powers the State, ostensibly acting in accordance with the logic of history, is obliged to ignore any appeals to morality.[8]


Polanyi applied his philosophy of science to the field of economics in his 1951 book, The Logic of Liberty, a collection of essays most of which had been published in the 1940s. He elaborated on the connections in a 1962 article, "The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory" in Minerva.[9][10] Polanyi extrapolated his conclusions about the structure of liberty from within the context of science.

Polanyi noted that scientists cooperate with each other, or "self coordinate," in a way similar to that in which individuals coordinate in the free market. Even though each scientist pursues his own goals, the scientist reacts to the limited available knowledge produced by nearby, relevant actors. This tends to reduce redundant activity and channel resources to the newest and most valuable discoveries, and away from dead-end research.

He believed that a structure of liberty most readily propels both economic and scientific advancement. Both his belief that scientists personally commit to their own beliefs (hypotheses) and his belief that individual scientists self-coordinate led to this conclusion. Scientists, like entrepreneurs, require the freedom to pursue discoveries of their own volition, and for their own reasons. Moreover, they must be free to react to the claims and knowledge put forth by their peers. In The Republic of Science, Polanyi thus urged societies to allow the freedom to pursue science for its own sake:

"...[S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact cooperating as members of a closely knit organization. ...

"Such self-co-ordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about. Their co-ordination is guided as by an "invisible hand" towards the joint discovery of a hidden system of things. Since its end-result is unknown, this kind of co-operation can only advance stepwise, and the total performance will be the best possible if each consecutive step is decided upon by the person most competent to do so. ...

"Any attempt to organize the group ... under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their cooperation."

Indeed, much of his writing criticized government planning of scientific inquiry as stifling, because it tends to punish scientists for pursuing their own hunches as opposed to the agenda of the state.

Professional honours[]

Polanyi was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.


Michael Polanyi's son, John Charles Polanyi, is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Toronto, Canada. In 1986 John Polanyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry.[11]

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 DOI:10.1098/rsbm.1977.0016
    This citation will be automatically completed in the next few minutes. You can jump the queue or expand by hand
  3. Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter P. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. URL accessed on 19 April 2011.
  4. Personal Knowledge, p. 18
  5. Personal Knowledge p. 3
  6. Michael Polanyi (June 1968). Life's Irreducible Structure. Science 160 (3834): 1308–1312.
  7. Michael Polanyi (1970). Transcendence and Self-transcendence. Soundings 53 (1): 88–94.
  8. Personal Knowledge, Ch. 7, section 11
  9. in Minerva Volume 1: 1962 pp54-74.
  10. The article can also be viewed here.


Further reading[]

  • Richard Gelwick, The Way of Discovery, An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2004, 181, pp. ISBN 1-59244-687-6 (English).
  • Drusilla Scott, Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995, 216 pp. ISBN 0-8028-4079-5.
  • William Taussig Scott and Martin X. Moleski, Michael Polanyi, Scientist and Philosopher. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005, 364 pp. ISBN-13-978-0-19-517433-5, ISBN 0-19-517433-X

External links[]

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).