Polanyi’s Case Against Totalitarianism and the Central Planning of Science

Polanyi’s main ideas concerning the nature of scientific knowledge and free society, as well as his criticism of totalitarianism and central planning, were consistent throughout his life.12 Polanyi’s critical reflections on totalitarianism and his defense of academic freedom were a response to the socialist-Marxist conceptions of science and society developed in the 1930s and 1940s, mainly by John Desmond Bernal and Nikolai Bukharin. Socialist and Marxist authors criticized the idea of “pure science”, i.e., the view that scientific knowledge is intrinsically valuable and that its value is thus independent of the promotion of immediate economic and practical benefits. Bernal, for example, claimed that such a conception of pure science is a form of “snobbery”,13 arguing that only applied science is valuable. Polanyi referred to his conversation about pure science with the Soviet Marxist Bukharin in 1935 as a decisive episode in his intellectual life (Polanyi 2017a, 63). Bukharin claimed that the distinction between pure and applied science assumed in capitalist societies was no more than an ideological construction that “deprived scientists of the consciousness of their social functions, thus creating in them the illusion of pure science” (Polanyi 2017a, 63).

Following such Soviet tendencies of thought, the concept of planned science, where the government exerts extensive control over scientific research, and science is subordinated to the state’s declared social aims, became increasingly popular in the United Kingdom in the 1930s. In 1931, an entire volume was dedicated to the Marxist understanding of so-called planned science, and British authors published a number of popular works on science from a Marxist or semi-Marxist point of view.15 These books intensified the scholarly discussion of the social role of science in Britain (Turner 2007, 162—163). In 1938, the British Association for the Advancement of Science established a new division aimed at providing social guidance for the progress of science (Polanyi 1951b, 3 fn. 1). Additionally, the Great Depression of the 1930s provided another powerful reason for socialists to criticize both free-market capitalism and academic autonomy as understood in Western countries.

Polanyi’s main thesis is that centralized control cannot work in practice, as it is based on an erroneous notion of scientific knowledge and discovery. In opposition to the totalitarian view of science and the British science planning movement, Polanyi argues that scientific research is a creative act whose outcome is unpredictable because it is a product of autonomous cooperation among researchers. Moreover, he argues that if the state takes control and science becomes an instrument of political-ideological goals, then such central planning (as in the economy) would inevitably paralyze scientific research regardless of how intelligent or benevolent the central authorities might be. Polanyi also states that a collapse of academic freedom leads to a collapse of freedom in society at large: “Academic freedom is of course never an isolated phenomenon. It can exist only in a free society; for the principles underlying it are the same on which the most essential liberties of society as a whole are founded” (Polanyi 1951d, 45).

In sum, Polanyi argues that the ideology of totalitarian control of science relies on two main assumptions: that every scientific inquiry must have

The Ethos of Science and Central Planning 51 immediate practical economic value, and that the state is solely responsible for the welfare of citizens. These assumptions entail a rejection of the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of scientific knowledge in all domains and the control of individual scientists by central directives of the government.

Polanyi argues that totalitarianism, by rejecting academic freedom, hinders us from pursuing scientific truth, not least because it denies the intrinsic value of the latter (as science ought to serve political or economic interests instead). Sooner or later, totalitarian control of science leads to a rejection of the assumption that scientific standards are the most reliable path toward truth, or even to a refutation of the existence of objective truth itself. As Polanyi argues,

For if truth is not real and absolute, then it may seem proper that public authorities should decide what should be called the truth. ... [I]f our conceptions of truth and justice are determined by interests of some kind or another, then it is right that the public interest should overrule all personal interests in this matter. We have here a full justification of totalitarian statehood.

(Polanyi 1951d, 47)16

If totalitarianism takes this final step and eliminates the intrinsic value of scientific truth, truth eventually becomes either unimportant or is merely identified as whatever satisfies political interests. To illustrate this point, Polanyi quotes Himmler’s telling words on German pre-history:

We don’t care a hoot whether this or something else was the real truth about the pre-history of the German tribes. ... [T]here’s no earthly reason why the party should not lay down a particular hypothesis as the starting point, even if it runs counter to current scientific opinion. The one and only thing that matters to us, and the thing these people are paid for by the State, is to have ideas of history that strengthen our people in their necessary national pride.

(Quoted in Polanyi 1951a, 59)

Polanyi argues that such an anti-scientific attitude and practice is selfdestructive both from a philosophical and a practical point of view. If one believes that there is no objective truth or that truth is solely contingent on its social and political usefulness, then it must be admitted that the ruling ideology itself is not objectively true either. Identifying truth with particular interests undermines the totalitarian ideology’s claim of the falsity of its rival ideologies. If one accepts that a certain ideology is true, and yet argues that every ideology is a representation of special group interests, there is no reason to think that said ideology is an adequate description of reality (see Polanyi 1951/1952, 90-91). In practice, such a radical and ultimate form of totalitarianism will eventually collapse, because people cannot live in a prolonged state of complete intellectual schizophrenia and nihilism.1

Besides this general philosophical criticism of totalitarianism, Polanyi presents several objections against the central planning of science in particular, three of which I will reconstruct and highlight in the following.18 First, scientific progress is unpredictable and relies on the autonomous and spontaneous cooperation of individual researchers. Second, tacit knowledge is indispensable in scientific knowledge. Third, scientific expertise is mutual, and the authority of science is therefore established by mutual relations and continuous interaction among scientists.

Polanyi’s first argument against central planning relies on the core notion of spontaneous or dynamic orders. As Mullins (2013, 169) notes, Polanyi promotes a vision of “liberal society as largely a network of dynamic orders”. Polanyi contrasts this dynamic order with corporate (hierarchical) order (Polanyi 1951e, 112, 114-115). He also refers to dynamic order as spontaneous and sometimes as polycentric order (Polanyi 1951f, 170-171).19 Accordingly, Polanyi distinguishes between two kinds of coordination: selfcoordination (self-adjustment) and coordination by a central authority (Polanyi 1951f, 170-171, 175—176). Self-coordination is a mutual adjustment of independent agents where every individual pays attention and adjusts to the operations of others within the same system (Polanyi 1941, 432-433, 441-443). Every agent acts freely, following his or her initiative, but in the sight of others and while responding to others’ operations. Every single modification of the system takes into account all other modifications.20 Similar to Hayek’s criticism of the collectivist-socialist planning of the economy, Polanyi’s criticism about the unpredictability of scientific research is based on his epistemological criticism of the collectivist view of knowledge production.21 Moreover, Polanyi links his ideas to Adam Smith’s theory of the economy and, by using a mathematical model, argues that many social tasks can be performed only by spontaneous coordination of free individuals.22 In such systems, coordination should be polycentric rather than centralized.

There are simple and uniform tasks on which every individual works in the same manner. Polanyi’s example is the task of shelling peas (Polanyi 1951d, 34). In such cases, individuals work separately and isolated from one another. However, scientific problem-solving is a different kind of task: complete isolation of the individuals would eliminate progress and prevent the solution of the problem. By contrast, Polanyi’s example of a self-coordinating task is the solution of jigsaw puzzles (Polanyi 1951d, 35—36). Polanyi argues that even if a legion of puzzle-solvers were all working separately on different pieces of the puzzle, they would hardly be able to solve it effectively. And if they were subordinated into a hierarchic body, where a central authority directed their actions, the spontaneous cooperation between them would be paralyzed. Puzzle-solving and scientific inquiry are forms of coordination by self-adjustment: every time a piece is placed correctly, the other participants will consider the next step in light of the recent achievement. Solving a scientific problem is also a series of decisions where nobody knows or determines what

The Ethos of Science and Central Planning 53 the final outcome will be. Puzzle-solvers and scientists can only make incremental progress, and each consecutive step must be decided locally by competent individuals who keep a constant eye on the decisions of others (Polanyi 195Id, 34-35).

Polanyi also argues that the direction of scientific progress is unpredictable even for scientists themselves, because in a sufficiently large system, the number of possible actions an individual may take is enormous, so that a central authority is unable to control everything (Polanyi 1951f, 171-177). It is practically impossible, Polanyi contends, to give that many commands and to check whether the subordinated individuals are following them (Polanyi 1951e, 114-122). Goodman (2001, 11-12) reconstructs Polanyi’s main idea as follows: the number of decisions needed for efficient coordination exceeds the cognitive capacity of any central planner to deal with them. In Goodman’s reconstruction, Polanyi’s other basic problem with central planning is that it requires too many decisions by a central authority, making it practically impossible to achieve efficient coordination.2’ Therefore, scientific problems cannot be solved in a hierarchical order coordinated by a central authority, but only if scientists are allowed to work on problems in a free, autonomous, and cooperative manner. Constraint by a centralized and hierarchical order would quickly paralyze the progress of scientific research (Polanyi 1951e, 119).

The second argument against central planning rests on Polanyi’s conception of tacit knowledge (Tebble 2016, 7-8). In Polanyi’s epistemology, tacit knowledge covers all non-propositional elements of knowledge. Such non-propositional knowledge cannot be explicitly articulated using explicit statements and cannot be explained by abstract logical or mathematical formulas. Skills and knowing-how are clear examples of tacit knowledge. Polanyi also includes intuitions, customs, creative acts, conjectures, hunches, and unspoken value commitments as important tacit elements that are indispensable for scientific discovery, the justification of scientific claims, and the evaluation of scientific merit (Polanyi 2005, 51-68, 142-158). These tacit elements of knowledge are necessarily connected to what Polanyi calls “intellectual passions”, which motivate human beings to pursue scientific questions and engage in other intellectual activities (Polanyi 2005, 141-142). Polanyi argues that since scientific problem-solving tasks cannot be strictly formalized, even scientists themselves are at times unaware of the tacit elements of their knowledge. The progress of science depends on personal, tacit, and unpredictable judgments, making effective central planning practically impossible.24

The third argument against central planning can be summarized as follows: to control and govern scientific research efficiently, central authorities need to know the prospects of scientific inquiry in each discipline. However, no single individual, or even a small group of individuals, could possess the required skills and information because there are many overlapping research areas and the advancement of science is always piecemeal. Gonsequently,

there is no general goal of scientific research taken as a whole (Polanyi 2017b, 132-133). Polanyi argues that the authority of science as an institution is established by individual experts in overlapping areas: every scientist is an expert only on a small fraction of scientific knowledge, with some secondary competence in certain proximate areas.25

Even assuming that there are competent members in central planning committees, they cannot possibly possess the information and skills needed for successful central coordination of scientific research, since it is practically impossible for the committee to have sufficient knowledge and understanding of all areas and topics of academic research.26 This brings us to Polanyi’s conception of the tacit elements of scientific discovery: “the methods of scientific inquiry cannot be explicitly formulated and hence can be transmitted only in the same way as an art, by the affiliation of apprentices to a master. The authority of science is essentially traditional” (Polanyi 1962, 69) .2 It is important to note that Polanyi’s objection to central planning is not only that politicians are not qualified enough to evaluate scientific claims and are thus unable to effectively determine future research. His point is rather the following: central planning of scientific research cannot work because no single individual ever possesses the necessary relevant information, which is therefore never available to the planners, however intelligent they might be. Consequently, scientific progress will be paralyzed if scientists are guided by a central authority rather than freely sharing information and interacting with each other in solving scientific problems.

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