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Michael Polanyi

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Michael Polanyi (born Polányi Mihály) (March 11, 1891 – February 22, 1976) was a Hungarian–British polymath whose thought and work had an important influence in the philosophy of science physical chemistry, and economics.

Early life

Michael was born into a Jewish family in Budapest. His older brother Karl became a famous economist. Their father was an engineer and entrepreneur whose volatile fortunes in railway speculation motivated Polanyi to seek financial stability through 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, and during his convalescence wrote what became a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Budapest in 1917.

In 1920, he emigrated to Germany to work as a 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 took up a position as Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Manchester. As a consequence of his shift of interest from chemistry to economics to philosophy Manchester created a 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, roughly contemporarily with 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 modern science 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 played by tacit knowing and the creative role played by the imagination. Tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge were held coefficient, coexistent and indivisible.

Polanyi viewed positivism as encouraging some to believe that scientific research ought to be directed by the State. He drew attention to what happened to genetics in the Soviet Union, once the doctrines of Trofim Lysenko gained political approval. Polanyi, like Friedrich Hayek, supplied reasons why it is desirable to live within a free society.

Polanyi embraced the existence of objective truth (Personal Knowledge, p. 16). However, he criticised a common misunderstanding of the scientific method, namely, the notion that the scientific method is itself an objective discovery process or somehow leads to objective knowledge.

Instead, he argued that knowing is personal. A scientist's personal skills, biases, and passions play an important and necessary role in the discovery process. Moreover, all observation of the universe is personal, and is influenced by individual biases, human error, and the limits of the observer's knowledge. No human observer can remove humanity from the observation (and to formulate theories as though this were possible leads to conclusions that are absurd because they overlook the existence and influence of humanity and the scientist's biases).

The scientific method is valuable in that it provides a systematic means of verification. But the fact that many hypotheses once thought proven, such as Newton's Laws, are later shown to be limited or even incorrect, is by itself proof that the scientific method can only yield insight into objective truth, and not the final objective truth, itself.

Polanyi's personal knowledge is characterized by, among other things:

  • the individual scientist's ability to perceive opportunities for valuable discovery -- partly a learned skill, and partly a personal aptitude ("It is of the essence of the scientific method to select for verification hypotheses having a high chance of being true. To select good questions for investigation is the mark of scientific talent...." Personal Knowledge, p. 30);
  • the scientist's belief that the hypothesis is correct and will shed light on some aspect of "rationality in nature" -- importantly, the scientist holds this belief before validating the hypothesis, making this belief in some sense like faith, and strong enough to lead the scientist to commit to the hypothesis;
  • the scientist's personal commitment to investigating his or her hypothesis, which he or she demonstrates by investing valuable time and resources in the investigation, and by staking his or her reputation on the claimed result;
  • the notion that we know more than we can articulate; and make our commitment towards knowledge confirmation in an indeterminate future.

Polanyi acknowledged the importance of 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 which resulted in the book Personal Knowledge. These ideas would influence the thought and work of Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s.


Polanyi applied his philosophy of science to the field of economics in his 1951 book, The Logic of Liberty, a collection of essays most of which had been published in the 1940s. He elaborated on the connections in a 1962 article, "The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory" in Minerva.[1][2] 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 that in which individuals coordinate in the free market. Even though each scientist pursues his own goals, the scientist reacts to the limited available knowledge produced by nearby, relevant actors. This tends to reduce redundant activity and channel resources to the newest and most valuable discoveries, and away from dead-end research.

He believed that a structure of liberty most readily propels both economic and scientific advancement. Both his belief that scientists personally commit to their own beliefs (hypotheses) and his belief that individual scientists self-coordinate led to this conclusion. Scientists, like entrepreneurs, require the freedom to pursue discoveries of their own volition, and for their own reasons. Moreover, they must be free to react to the claims and knowledge put forth by their peers. In The Republic of Science, Polanyi thus urged societies to allow the freedom to pursue science 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."

Indeed, much of his writing criticized government planning of scientific inquiry as stifling, because it tends to punish scientists for pursuing their own hunches as opposed to the agenda of the state.

Professional honours

Polanyi was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.


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 for chemistry.[3]

See also



Further reading

  • Richard Gelwick, The Way of Discovery, An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2004, 181, pp. ISBN 1-59244-687-6 (English).
  • Drusilla Scott, Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995, 216 pp. ISBN 0-8028-4079-5.
  • William Taussig Scott and Martin X. Moleski, Michael Polanyi, Scientist and Philosopher. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005, 364 pp. ISBN-13-978-0-19-517433-5, ISBN 0-19-517433-X

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