Polanyi’s Vision of Free Society: Its Problems and Contemporary Relevance

As we have seen, Polanyi argues that the most efficient way to promote scientific progress is to let scientists work on their problems, by following their own, independent decisions and responding to each other’s suggestions and previous achievements rather than to external directives. For Polanyi, the demand for central planning arises from two sources: first, the denial of the non-practical, intrinsic value of scientific knowledge, and second, an essentially anti-liberal conception of the state that is hostile to spontaneous order and the self-coordination of individuals (most importantly, in science).

It is not easy to separate Polanyi’s vision of academic freedom and his conception of public liberty from his criticism of totalitarian central planning. Whereas Polanyi’s analysis of the policies of totalitarian regimes and his warnings about the dangers of central, political control of science are typically not disputed, his conception of academic freedom has some shortcomings.

In this section, 1 will summarize how Polanyi’s vision of free society depends on his overall account of academic freedom. In this reconstruction, I have three aims. First, to dissipate some misunderstandings of Polanyi’s account by contrasting his conception of public liberty with an individualistic,

The Ethos of Science and Central Planning 55 libertarian conception of freedom. Second, to highlight some weak points in Polanyi’s views, as a result of which his account of academic freedom and the relation between liberal society and the moral values of science should be modified and moderated, notwithstanding his forceful and valid criticism of totalitarianism. And finally, 1 also argue that similar to Merton’s explanation of authoritarian regimes’ hostility toward the ethos of science, Polanyi’s warnings about the political control of science continue to be relevant because the main reasons underlying state control and the central planning of science are still present today, even in seemingly well-established liberal political systems. By appealing to the core ideas of Polanyi and Merton, it becomes possible to criticize the spread of anti-intellectualism, political voluntarism, and utilitarian conceptions of scientific research.

Polanyi’s ideal of the scientific community as a free and autonomous society of individuals following transcendent values or ideals and producing spontaneous progress without a central authority is analogous to his vision of other social institutions and traditions such as free language, literature, arts, religion, British common law, or the free market (Polanyi 1941, 436-438, 448-449). Academic freedom and a free society depend on each other, and we cannot have one without the other. Therefore, as Polanyi states, “In the Liberal State the cultivation of science is [a] public concern” (Polanyi 2017b, 131). Polanyi’s definition of academic freedom might be characterized simply as “the right to choose one’s own problem of investigation, to conduct research free from any outside control, and to teach one’s subject in the light of one’s own opinions” (Polanyi 195Id, 33).

Polanyi argues that the government should recognize the value of pure science and should therefore exercise only “supervisory authority, presiding over the free individual initiatives” (Polanyi 1941, 439). He thinks that a liberal state must financially support scientific research but leave scientists to make their own decisions on research projects, appointments, and scholarship (Polanyi 1951d, 41-42). In Polanyi’s conservative-liberal vision, the state operates like a good and wise monarch who provides economic support to scientists but does not tell them what to do.28

That being said, Polanyi does not endorse libertarian, state-free scientific research. His view of academic freedom should not be understood as a commitment to an almost unconstrained, individualistic, libertarian freedom. Instead of such individualistic conceptions of freedom (i.e., the freedom to pursue one’s goals whatsoever), Polanyi defends the concept of public liberty: individual and institutional autonomy for the sake of pursuing ideals such as truth, justice, and beauty (Mullins 2013, 166-167).29 Public liberty is “freedom with a responsible purpose; a privilege combined with duties” (Polanyi 1941, 438). Each scientist exercises public liberty by working on his/her own problems and contributing to the public discourse, which then produces the prevailing public opinion.

Scientists also have a responsibility to choose areas of investigation in line with their scientific ideas, but constrained by scientific values, traditions,

and their membership of the “Society of Explorers” (Polanyi 1962, 72). Polanyi contends that such duties should not be imposed on scientists by an external authority, especially if that authority fails to respect these values. Although he does not reflect much on the problem of moral constraints of scientific research (such as morally problematic experiments on humans and animals), his conception does not exclude such constraints on academic freedom. The plausible reason for this is that for Polanyi, the overall value commitments of scientists to a free society involve fundamental moral commitments, equal freedoms, and human dignity.

Nevertheless, one problem still remains with Polanyi’s theory. He presumes that scientists should be committed to liberal values for epistemic reasons. Without liberal values, there is no freedom of inquiry, and without freedom of inquiry, science cannot progress. However, the connection between the epistemic success of science and the underlying conservativeliberal values is looser than Polanyi thinks. For instance, a scientist who performs morally questionable medical experiments on humans could, in theory, produce novel, epistemically valuable scientific discoveries. Embryological or stem-cell research are other obvious examples of why we need to reflect on the moral constraints of scientific investigations, even in cases where they have great potential utility both epistemically and technologically. Polanyi’s defense of academic freedom was a response to totalitarianism and he thus takes general liberal values for granted. Nonetheless, his account of academic freedom lacks a serious consideration of ethical problems, and he was perhaps too hasty in supposing that scientists are inevitably committed to liberal values as the only means to efficiently produce scientific knowledge.30 Even if one agrees that totalitarian central planning of science should be rejected, one might argue that Polanyi’s ideals were too idealistic even in his own time. Scholars frequently note that Polanyi’s ideal of the scientific community (typically referred to as the “republic of science”) was inspired by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute where he served as a research fellow for many years (for historical details, see Nye 2011, 37-85). Polanyi depicts scientific institutions as a sort of spiritual community of individuals in which, like medieval monks, researchers dedicate themselves exclusively to the quest for truth while almost lacking any ulterior motivations (such as appreciation, fame, or money). However, scientific research (even in “pure science”) is clearly motivated by scientists’ desire and hope that their discoveries will someday be used for some practical purposes.

Another weak point in Polanyi’s conception is the lack of historical support for his strict distinction between pure and applied science, and his denial that scientific discoveries are to some extent determined or influenced by social factors. Polanyi wrongly assumes a connection between two theses that are not necessarily connected. There is no strong link between the view that “science is a response to social needs” and the claim that “the validity of science ought to be judged by the degree of its serviceability to the ends of society” (Polanyi 1951-1952, 88). It does not logically follow that scientific

The Ethos of Science and Central Planning 57 claims cannot be justified on objective epistemic grounds because scientific research is influenced or motivated by the practical needs of society.

It is also worth noting that Polanyi’s strict distinction between pure and applied science seems to be superfluous for his dialectical purposes. A successful criticism of central planning needs to take as a given that pure science is not primarily motivated by practical and economic needs and that practical utility in the fields of pure inquiry is usually accidental and cannot be clearly specified. To establish a more plausible account of the social role of science, we need to distinguish between direct, voluntary state intervention and indirect, collateral influence by the state. While Polanyi rightfully criticizes the former, the latter is inevitable and typically does not pose a danger to scientific freedom. Concerning this point, Merton’s analysis of direct and indirect influence on science is more plausible, as well as being supported by sociological and historical evidence.

Nevertheless, despite the shortcomings of Polanyi’s position, his objections to the anti-liberal tendencies of state control of science should remind us that authoritarianism can also be a product of an appeal to the will of a “democratic” majority. The same argument for state control of science and the subordination of scientific research to political goals may be raised in countries where leaders are democratically elected.51

The problem is that democratically elected government officials may interpret the principles of academic autonomy as a subversion of the so-called will of the people.32 After all, the view that the state is (solely) responsible for the welfare of society and that state-funded scientific research must therefore follow government directives can be stated perhaps even more persuasively in democratic societies where leaders are elected by universal suffrage. It seems tempting to declare that the people’s interests are best represented by a government elected by the majority of the people, and that state-funded scientific institutions should therefore be controlled and directed by the state, rather than by unelected researchers representing only their own interests. Here, it is worth recalling Polanyi’s reconstruction of the main argument for the necessity of state control of science:

If science is to serve the practical needs of society it must be properly organized for this purpose. You cannot expect individual scientists, each pursuing his particular interests, to develop science effectively towards the satisfaction of existing practical needs. You must see to it therefore that scientists are placed under the guidance of authorities who know the needs of society and are generally responsible for safe-guarding the public interest.

(Polanyi 1951c, 69)

Various labels can be used for such political goals, such as “social progress”, “the interest of the nation”, or even “democracy”. To avoid problems of totalitarian control in democracies, we should be able to distinguish betweenacceptable (or even desirable) and inadmissible cases of so-called “democratic control” of science. For example, it is widely accepted that academic appointments and scholarships should not be determined by popular referendum or by (elected) government officials.

It is worth recalling Polanyi’s warning that a liberal society is a society that is already committed to the beliefs that are necessary for freedom, including the commitment to academic freedom. In other words, a liberal society should not be value-neutral on such fundamental matters (see Roberts 1969, 237). These ideas, Polanyi argues, should be considered as being “transcendental” to society. Whereas Polanyi is not against universal suffrage, he insists that democracy needs principles that can never be overruled even by a decision of the majority (Polanyi 2017a, 67-68). As Polanyi warns us, totalitarian and autocratic leaders typically promise that “the central planning of science, and of other cultural and economic activities, would not be oppressive, since it would be based on democratic elections with a wide franchise” (Polanyi 1941, 443). By contrast, Polanyi contends that the principle of democracy is not merely about elections, but “must be based on the proper division of the social order between the corporate and dynamic forms of organisation” (Polanyi 1941, 443).

In sum, Polanyi, similarly to Merton, observes that any regime (whether democratically elected or not) might declare that it is either practically or morally necessary (or at least admissible) to directly control scientific research and researchers. This serves as a reminder that even democratically elected leaders may have a political interest in attacking scientific authority and might therefore attempt to dispossess the authority of science, much like the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century did before them.

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