Michael Polanyi

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Michael Polanyi (born Polányi Mihály) (March 11, 1891 – February 22, 1976) was a Hungarian–British polymath who made original contributions to physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy. He was both a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.

Early life

Michael was born into a secular Jewish family in Budapest. His older brother Karl became a famous economist. Their father was an engineer and railway entrepreneur whose bankruptcy motivated Polanyi to seek financial stability through a career in medicine. He graduated in 1913, and served in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, but was hospitalised, and during his convalescence wrote what became a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Budapest (with Gusztáv Buchböck) in 1917.

In 1920, he emigrated to Germany and ended up working as a research chemist, and in 1926 a professor, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fiber Chemistry in Berlin. There, he married Magda Elizabeth in a Roman Catholic ceremony. In 1929, Magda gave birth to a son John, who went on to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. With the coming to power in 1933 of the Nazi party Polanyi took up a position as Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Manchester in England. As a consequence of a shift in his interests from chemistry to economics and philosophy Manchester created a chair in Social Science (1948-58) for him.

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, at the same time as 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.

Philosophy of science

From the mid-1930s, Polanyi began to articulate his opposition to the prevailing positivist account of science, arguing that it failed to recognise the the role which commitment and tacit knowing play in science.

Polanyi argued that positivism encouraged the assumption that scientific research ought to be directed by the State. Polanyi, like his friend Friedrich Hayek, notes the role which spontaneous order plays in the formation of social orders, and unlike Hayek he also draws attention to the role which commitments play in the formation and maintenance of communities.

Polanyi rejected the assumption that truth is a mechanical product of method, because all methods rely upon commitments made by interpretors, which in turn rely upon their tacit awareness. The fact that we know more than we can articulate endorses the assumption that knowledge can be passed on by non-explicit means, via apprenticeship. Our tacit awareness is not wholly grounded by interpretative practices however, it is how we encounter realities, and is the ground upon which we rely when giving words meaning.

Polanyi argued that all knowing is personal. Our skills and passions play a necessary part in knowing. Our comprehension of our experience is influenced by our assumptions, but it does not follow that knowledge claims have no objective validity. They may be subjective, but only when they are false.

His epistemological ideas are most fully expressed in the Gifford lectures he gave in 1951–52 at the University of Aberdeen which resulted in the book Personal Knowledge. and he influenced, amongst others, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerbend and Imre Lakatos.

In his later work he reflected upon the structure of what he called the "tacit integration" i.e. the way in which conscious agents generate a focus of attention by relying upon their (largely tacit) subsidiary awareness. He explored the implications of this structure for 1) Perception 2) Tool Use 3) Semantics and 4) Ontology. He characterised the universe as consisting of emergent levels, each constrained both by the lower level properties which render it possible, and higher level boundary conditions.


His 1951 book, The Logic of Liberty, is a collection of essays which link the practice of science with the practices which sustain a free society. He noted that central planning within modern economies is impossible, because central planners cannot make all the adjustments that render it possible. As a consequence of the fact that it is polycentric, a free market however can generate a spontaneous order which is able to co-ordinate the various demands. Polanyi argued that scientists respond to each other in ways that are similar to the way in which individuals coordinate with each other in the free market. Scientists operate however within the constraints supplied by the commitments which generate and sustain their various communities of specialists. He summarised the connections in a 1962 article, "The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory" in Minerva.[1][2]

Scientists, like entrepreneurs, require freedom to pursue their ends. In The Republic of Science, Polanyi emphasises the importance of scientists having the freedom to pursue truth as an end in itself i.e. independent of any social objectives:

"...[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."

He opposed government direction of scientific inquiry, on the grounds that central planning is inferior to a system in which inquirers operate freely within the constraints supplied by the commitments which accompany membership of the scientific community. He implied that this also applies to other dedicated communities e.g. the legal community.

His Family

Michael Polanyi's son, John Charles Polanyi, is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Toronto, Canada. In 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.[3]