I: Academic Freedom and Other Values in Science and Society

Michael Polanyi’s Post-Critical Philosophical Vision of Science and Society

Phil Mullins



Michael Polanyi is often called a “philosopher of science” or an “epistemolo-gist” and these shorthand tags, used especially by philosophers, seem generally on target. However, what Polanyi called his “post-critical philosophy” is much richer than these tags suggest.1 In this historically oriented discussion of Polanyi’s thought, I show that there is much in Polanyi about social, political, and cultural matters and their relation to science and modern society. Polanyi’s interdisciplinary writing articulated, on one hand, a critical account of the development of modernity, leading to what he called the “perilous state of the modern mind” (Polanyi 1965, 13). This critical account included his carefully developed perspective outlining how science and human knowing was misrepresented in the development of modern ideas, and how this misrepresentation has led to nihilism, violence, and totalitarianism in the twentieth century. But Polanyi also outlined a constructive alternative to this narrative. His “post-critical” perspective recasts much modern thought about scientific knowledge and knowing in general.2 In Polanyi’s thought, the critical and the constructive elements are woven tightly together, and this makes Michael Polanyi a difficult thinker, one whose significance has often been underestimated. Following a brief review of Michael Polanyi’s life and work, 1 discuss a selection of provocative Polanyi comments about science and modern society that together outline the contours of both Polanyi’s criticisms of modernity and what Polanyi called his “post-critical philosophy”.

Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: A Brief Overview of Polanyi’s Life and Thought

In 1891, Michael Polanyi was born the fifth of six children in a prosperous, secular Jewish family in Budapest.’ He received a superb early education in the humanities as well as in science. His family’s prosperity declined after his father’s bankruptcy in 1900 and death in 1905. Polanyi began the study of medicine at the University of Budapest in 1908. While he was still training to be a physician, he became deeply interested in physical chemistry and, in the summer of 1912 and then again in parts of 1913 and 1914, Polanyi studied physical chemistry at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, Germany. One of his early chemistry research papers was sent by a professor to Einstein, who approved it, and it was quickly published. As Polanyi (1975, 1151) later humorously described this early experience: “Bang, I was created a scientist”. Polanyi finished his medical degree in April 1913, but he continued his research in chemistry while he practiced medicine in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War 1. His health was delicate, and he was hospitalized for a period during the war and he had light duty at other times, and thus was able to pursue chemistry research projects, and to publish a few papers. One of these he eventually turned into a PhD thesis in chemistry and his degree was granted in July 1919. After the war, Polanyi was very briefly an official in the Hungarian Ministry of Health, but after the fall of the Liberal government, he resigned and left Hungary in late 1919 and returned to Karlsruhe and his work in physical chemistry.

Polanyi’s impressive early research earned for him a position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes near Berlin, which were among the world’s best scientific research facilities in this period, and Polanyi there became a bright, rising star. In his 13 years in Germany, Polanyi produced outstanding scientific research and interacted with some of Europe’s best scientists. In many ways, Polanyi’s later philosophical ideas about the scientific enterprise were formed in these years (Nye 2011, 85—112). But even as a research scientist Polanyi was somewhat atypical since he worked in several different areas of chemistry.

In 1933, with the rise of the Third Reich, Polanyi took a position at the University of Manchester where he continued doing chemistry research for 15 years. In 1948, he exchanged his chair in chemistry for one in social studies in order to work in economics and philosophy and prepare for his upcoming Gifford Lectures. Even before he left Berlin, and certainly after his move to Manchester, Polanyi was already focusing on interests outside the natural sciences. He was deeply troubled by the changed world that World War 1 brought, and his writing in the thirties and forties reflects that Polanyi was struggling to understand where modern culture and politics, deeply influenced by science, had gone wrong. The first steps toward a new career outside chemistry came in the thirties and early forties when he produced an economics education film (Biro 2020, 36-104) as well as notes, lectures, essays, and books that treated politics, economics, and particularly questions about “planned” science.

Especially after Polanyi exchanged his chemistry chair for a chair in social studies, he was very active as a public intellectual, scholar, and lecturer in the UK and the US. He later described his career in philosophy as something of an “afterthought” (Polanyi 1966, 3; see also Mullins 1997, 5-6 and Polanyi 1946/1964, 7—19, addition in 1964 reprint [hereafter SFS]), but by the middle of the last century Polanyi had turned from his earlier interests in economics and reforming liberal political ideas to probing broader philosophical

Michael Polanyi’s Vision of Science and Society 17 questions about human knowing and scientific knowledge, the evolution of modern ideas, and the role of science in shaping modernity. Polanyi’s broader inquiry grew out of his earlier interests, but also reflects that he came to see the problems of contemporary society as reaching beyond matters that economics and political discussions often probed.

However, Polanyi was never preoccupied with topics of current interest to most modern philosophers, and his writing was often ignored or attacked by them. He was not a guild member, but he articulated sharp criticisms of the modern philosophical tradition, focusing particularly on what he regarded as the obsession with objectivity; he attacked impersonal accounts of science that ignored the centrality of discovery. More generally, Polanyi criticized the narrowness of modern understandings of knowledge that overlooked the social and personal roots of knowing. Polanyi was steadfastly anti-Cartesian in his orientation and, as suggested above, wove with his sharp criticisms of modern ideas his alternative constructive “post-critical” account that reconceived the nature of knowledge and the activity of human knowing, showing the importance of tacit elements.

In 1951 and 1952, Polanyi gave his Gifford Lectures, two series of ten lectures, titled “Commitment, In Quest of a Post-Critical Philosophy”, in which he begins to work out more fully his constructive philosophical perspective focusing on personal knowing. From these lectures, he produced, six years later, his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy. 4 In the sixties and early seventies, in many articles and several books, Polanyi refined his epistemological ideas and discussed problems of meaning in modernity. During the last 20 years of his life, Polanyi was involved in a staggering number of projects as a scholar and public intellectual.5 He was in residence and gave public lectures at a number of European and North American universities. Over his career, Polanyi published about 200 technical scientific papers, but his diverse publications on economics, the history and philosophy of science, and society and culture are about as numerous.

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