Michael Polanyi

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The native form of this personal name is Polányi Mihály. This article uses Western name order when mentioning individuals.
Michael Polanyi
Michael Polanyi.png
In England, 1933
Born Polányi Mihály
(1891-03-11)11 March 1891
Budapest, Austria-Hungary
Died 22 February 1976(1976-02-22) (aged 84)
Northampton, England
Education Graduated in medicine, 1913; PhD in physical chemistry, 1919
Alma mater Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest
Technische Hochschule, Karlsruhe
University of Budapest
Occupation Professor of physical chemistry, professor of social studies
Employer Kaiser Wilhelm Institute
University of Manchester
Merton College, Oxford
Known for Contributions to the theory of knowledge and philosophy of science (identification of the "structure of tacit knowing"), contributions to physical science (potential adsorption theory)
Spouse(s) Magda Elizabeth Kemeny
Children John Charles Polanyi, George Polanyi
Parent(s) Michael and Cecilia Pollacsek
Relatives Karl Polanyi (brother); Kari Polanyi-Levitt (niece)

Michael Polanyi, FRS[1] (11 March 1891 – 22 February 1976) was a Hungarian-British polymath, who made important theoretical contributions to physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy. He argued that positivism supplies a false account of knowing,[citation needed] 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 fibre 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 at the University of Manchester. Two of his pupils and his son won Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. In 1944 Polanyi was elected to the Royal Society.

The contributions which Polanyi made to the social sciences, for example his application of the concept of a polycentric spontaneous order to intellectual inquiry, were developed in the context of his opposition to central planning.


Early life[edit]

Polanyi, born Pollacsek Mihály in Budapest, was the fifth child of Mihály and Cecília Pollacsek (née Cecília Wohl), secular Jews from Ungvár (then in Hungary but now in Ukraine) and Wilno, then Russian Empire, respectively. His father's family were entrepreneurs, while his mother's father was the chief rabbi of Wilno (now 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 Polányi 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 his teacher-training secondary school (Mintagymnasium), Polanyi studied to be a physician, obtaining his medical diploma in 1914. He was an active member of the Galilei 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, 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 returned to medicine. When the Hungarian Soviet Republic was overthrown, Polanyi emigrated to Karlsruhe in Germany, and was invited by Fritz Haber to join the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Faserstoffchemie in Berlin. In 1923 he 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 was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1986. Their other son, George Polanyi, who predeceased him, became a well-known 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[edit]

Polanyi's scientific interests were extremely diverse, including work in chemical kinetics, x-ray diffraction, and the adsorption of gases at solid surfaces. He is also well known for his potential adsorption theory, which was disputed for quite some time. In 1921, he laid the mathematical foundation of fibre diffraction analysis. In 1934, Polanyi, at about 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 field of solid mechanics.

Freedom and community[edit]

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 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 Friederich 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 undermined 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 that 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 must be combined with acceptance that all knowing is fallible.

In Full Employment and Free Trade (1948) Polanyi analyses the way money circulates around an economy, and in a monetarist analysis that, 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[edit]

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 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 that derive 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 that underlie critical philosophy are not only false, they undermine the commitments that 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 that motivate discovery and validation. According to Polanyi, a great scientist not only identifies patterns, but also chooses significant questions likely to lead to a successful resolution. Innovators risk their reputation by committing to a hypothesis. Polanyi cites 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] His writings on the practice of science influenced Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

Polanyi rejected the claim by British Empiricists that experience can be reduced into sense data, but he also rejects the notion that "indwelling" within (sometimes incompatible) interpretative frameworks traps us within them. Our tacit awareness connects us, albeit 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 Victoria 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 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[edit]

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 criticises 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 of 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 on but distinct from the lower level from which they emerge. An example of a higher-level reality functioning as a downward causal force is consciousness – intentionality – generating meanings – intensionality.

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 transforms our understanding of the world. The reductionistic attempt to reduce higher-level realities into lower-level realities generates what Polanyi calls 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; although it is relatively harmless in the formal sciences, that pathology generates nihilism in the humanities. Polanyi considered Marxism an example of moral inversion. The State, on the grounds of an appeal to the logic of history, uses its coercive powers in ways that disregard any appeals to morality.[8]


  • 1932. Atomic Reactions. Williams and Norgate, London.
  • 1946. Science, Faith, and Society. Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0-226-67290-5. Reprinted by the University of Chicago Press, 1964.
  • 1951. The Logic of Liberty. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-67296-4
  • 1958. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-67288-3
  • 1959. The Study of Man. University of Chicago Press.
  • 1966. The Tacit Dimension. London, Routledge. (University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-67298-4. 2009 reprint)
  • 1969. Knowing and Being. Edited with an introduction by Marjorie Grene. University of Chicago Press and (UK) Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • 1975 (with Prosch, Harry). Meaning. Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-67294-8
  • 1997. Society, Economics and Philosophy: Selected Papers of Michael Polanyi. Edited with an introduction by R.T. Allen. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers. Includes an annotated bibliography of Polanyi's publications.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Wigner, E. P.; Hodgkin, R. A. (1977). "Michael Polanyi. 12 March 1891 -- 22 February 1976". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 23: 413. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1977.0016. 
  2. ^ http://www.government-online.net/eva-zeisel-obituary/
  3. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter P" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 19 April 2011. 
  4. ^ Personal Knowledge, p. 18
  5. ^ Personal Knowledge p. 3
  6. ^ Michael Polanyi (June 1968). "Life's Irreducible Structure" (PDF). Science. 160 (3834): 1308–1312. doi:10.1126/science.160.3834.1308. PMID 5651890. 
  7. ^ Michael Polanyi (1970). "Transcendence and Self-transcendence". Soundings. 53 (1): 88–94. Retrieved 2 June 2009. 
  8. ^ Personal Knowledge, Ch. 7, section 11

Further reading[edit]

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