Polanyi’s Comprehensive Vision of Science and Society

In his constructive post-critical philosophy, Polanyi articulated a comprehensive vision of science and society. He outlined the way in which the

Michael Polanyi’s Vision of Science and Society 31 scientific enterprise might become leaven in modern societies. Insofar as science looks toward the unknown, it can stimulate other social endeavors and help broadly contour modern societies and cultures, orienting them toward change and pursuit of transcendent ideals. Science is an interesting, growing “organism of ideas” (Polanyi 1940/1975, 4) constantly reaching into the future. Scientists dwell in the current scientific tradition in order to break out, to move beyond the present boundaries of scientific thought. It is this focus on the growth of thought through ongoing inquiry that Polanyi sought to recover as central in modernity:

Scientific tradition derives its capacity for self-renewal from its belief in the presence of a hidden reality, of which current science is one aspect, while other aspects of it are to be revealed by future discoveries. Any tradition fostering the progress of thought must have this intention: to teach its current ideas as stages leading on to unknown truths which, when discovered, might dissent from the very teaching which engendered them. Such a tradition assures the independence of its followers by transmitting the conviction that thought has intrinsic powers, to be evoked in men’s minds by intimations of hidden truths.

(Polanyi 1966, 82)

Polanyi argued that scientists make contact with reality, but reality remains always partially hidden. Current scientific discoveries have indeterminate future manifestations and thus current discoveries appeal to future discoveries as that which will reveal more richly what scientists now only vaguely recognize. Tradition is taught for the purpose of inspiring novices to reform the scientific tradition as they see more deeply into the nature of reality. It is this curious dynamic of self-renewal, produced by relying on respect for tradition and the believed-in immense richness of reality, that Polanyi thought it most important for those in scientific professions as well as modern politicians and ordinary citizens to appreciate. Without embarrassment, Polanyi affirmed the importance of thought and envisioned a “Society of Explorers”:

It is the image of humanity immersed in potential thought that I find revealing for the problems of our day. It rids us of the absurdity of absolute self-determination, yet offers each of us the chance of creative originality, within the fragmentary area which circumscribes our calling. It provides us with the metaphysical grounds and the organizing principles of a Society of Explorers.

(Polanyi 1966, 91)

Clearly, Polanyi sought to extend the ideal of a “Society of Explorers” beyond the scientific community to all areas of modern society. He argued that “the whole purpose of society lies in enabling its members to pursuetheir transcendent obligations”. Achieving material well-being is “not the real purpose of society” but a “secondary task” that provides “an opportunity to fulfil ... true aims in the spiritual field” (SFS, 83). As Polanyi later put matters, human beings “need a purpose which bears on eternity. Truth does that; our ideals do it” (Polanyi 1966, 92). Polanyi thus characterized the required broad purpose in a “Society of Explorers” in terms of a return to the open acceptance of human ideals like truth, justice, and charity that were more directly embraced in early modern society. Polanyi is not, however, a naive optimist about modern society. He firmly believed that modern human beings must seriously work to develop a deeper understanding of science, one that will eliminate the scientism so prevalent in modern society. But he makes it clear that a return to earlier ideals can sustain a “Society of Explorers” only if modern people can also learn to “be satisfied with our manifest moral shortcomings and with a society which has such shortcomings fatally involved in its workings” (Polanyi 1966, 92). At the heart of Polanyi’s thought about science and modern society, there is both optimism and a blunt sobriety learned from recent history:

We must somehow learn to understand and so to tolerate — not destroy - the free society. It is the only political engine yet devised that frees us to move in the direction of continually richer and fuller meanings, i.e., to expand limitlessly the firmament of values under which we dwell and which alone makes the brief span of our mortal existence truly meaningful for us through our pursuit of all those things that bear upon eternity.

(Polanyi and Prosch 1975, 216)

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