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Michael Polanyi

  Michael Polanyi (born Polányi Mihály) (March 11, 1891, Budapest – February 22, 1976) was a Hungarian–British polymath whose thought and work extended across physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy of Science. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.


Early life

Michael was born into a Jewish family. His older brother Karl is known as an economist. Their father was an engineer and entrepreneur whose volatile fortunes building railways perhaps encouraged Polanyi to seek a career in medicine. He graduated in 1913, and shortly afterwards served as a physician in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, but was hospitalised. During his convalescence wrote what became a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Budapest (supervised by Gusztáv Buchböck) in 1917.

In 1920, he emigrated to Germany, eventually ending up as a research chemist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fiber Chemistry in Berlin. There, he married Magda Elizabeth in a Roman Catholic ceremony. In 1929, Magda gave birth to a son John, who went on to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. With the coming to power in 1933 of the Nazi party, Polanyi accepted the offer of a chair in in Physical Chemistry at the University of Manchester. Because his interests later shifted from chemistry to economics and philosophy, Manchester created a new chair in Social Science (1948-58) for him.

Physical chemistry

Polanyi's scientific interests were diverse, embracing chemical kinetics, x-ray diffraction, and the absorption of gases at solid surfaces.

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.

Philosophy of science

From the mid-1930s, Polanyi began to articulate his opposition to the prevailing positivist account of science, arguing that it failed to recognise the part which personal commitment and tacit knowing play in science. Polanyi stands out among philosophers of science by the extent of his scientific training, and by the amount of scientific research he carried out.

Polanyi argued that positivism encourages the belief that science ought to be directed by the State. He pointed to what happened to genetics in the Soviet Union, once the doctrines of Trofim Lysenko were deemed politically correct. Polanyi, like his friend Friedrich Hayek, supplied reasons why a free society is preferable.

Polanyi embraced the existence of objective truth (Personal Knowledge, p. 16). However, he criticised the notion that there is something called the scientific method which enables science to supply us with truths in a mechanical fashion.

Instead, he argued that all knowing is personal, and as such relies upon fallible commitments. Our skills, biases, and passions are not flaws but play an important and necessary role in discovery and validation. Observers cannot remove themselves from their observations and judgements, nor should they; it is enough that we act in accordance with the consequences imposed upon us by our beliefs. What saves this claim from relativism is his belief that our tacit awareness connects us with realities, although as our tacit awareness relies upon assumptions acquired within a local context, we cannot simply assume that they have universal validity; we must rather be open to the possibility of error while seeking to identify objective truths. Any process of articulation, however, inevitably relies upon that which we have not articulated. Indeed, reliance upon what we have not articulated is how words become meaningful, i.e. meaning is not reducible to a set of rules; it is grounded in our experience of the world - where experience is not something that can simply be reduced to collections of sense data.

Polanyi acknowledged the role played by inherited practices (tradition). The fact that we know more than we can clearly articulate contributes to the conclusion that much knowledge is passed on by non-explicit means, such as apprenticeship (observing a master, and then practicing under the master's guidance).

Polanyi's philosophical ideas are most fully expressed in the Gifford lectures he gave in 1951–52 at the University of Aberdeen, published as Personal Knowledge. These ideas later influenced the thought and work of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.


In his 1951 collection of essays, The Logic of Liberty, Polanyi applied his philosophy of science to economics. He elaborated on these ideas in a 1962 article.[1]. Polanyi extrapolated his conclusions about the structure of liberty from within the context of science.

Polanyi noted that scientists cooperate with each other, or "self coordinate," in a way similar to the way in which economic agents coordinate their activities in a free market. Even though each scientist pursues his own goals, the scientist reacts to the limited available knowledge produced by nearby, relevant actors. However, the dedicated communities of scientists are formed by a commitment to truth that transcends the market. Other examples of dedicated communities is the pursuit of justice within the legal community as an end which transcends the rewards of the market. Because ends such as truth and justice transcend our ability to wholly articulate them, a society which gives these communities the freedom to pursue these ends is desirable. Scientists, like entrepreneurs, require the freedom to pursue discoveries and react to the claims made by their peers. In The Republic of Science, Polanyi thus urged societies to allow science to be pursued for its own sake:

"...[S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact cooperating 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. Their co-ordination is guided as by an "invisible hand" towards the joint discovery of a hidden system of things. Since its end-result is unknown, this kind of co-operation can only advance stepwise, and the total performance will be the best possible if each consecutive step is decided upon by the person most competent to do so. ...
"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 cooperation."


Michael Polanyi's son, John Charles Polanyi, is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Toronto, Canada. In 1986 John Polanyi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.[2]

See also

  • Tacit knowledge
  • Knowledge management


  1. ^ Polanyi, Michael, 1962, "The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory," Minerva 1: 54-74. This article can also be viewed here.
  2. ^


  • 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
  • 1964. The Study of Man. University of Chicago Press.
  • 1967. The Tacit Dimension. Doubleday. ISBN 0-8446-5999-1 (1983 reprint)
  • 1969. Knowing and Being. Edited with an introduction by Marjorie Grene. University of Chicago Press.
  • 1975 (with Prosch, Harry). Meaning. Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-67294-8
  • 1997. Science, 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.

Further reading

  • Gelwick, Richard, 1987. The Way of Discovery: An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi. Oxford University Press.
  • ------, 2004. The Way of Discovery, An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock. ISBN 1-59244-687-6.
  • Mitchell, Mark, 2006. Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing (Library Modern Thinkers Series). Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute. ISBN 1932236902, ISBN-13 978-1932236903.
  • Scott, Drusilla, 1995. Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. ISBN 0-8028-4079-5.
  • Scott, William Taussig, and Moleski, Martin X., 2005. Michael Polanyi, Scientist and Philosopher. Oxford University Press. ISBN-13-978-0-19-517433-5, ISBN 0-19-517433-X.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Michael_Polanyi". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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