Lesson No. 72

RELECTURE 7: Michael Polanyi – Advocate of Scientific and Social Freedom

by Manfred Hoefle



Following Relecture 6 which featured Karl Polanyi, this essay looks at the works of his brother, Michael Polanyi, who made important contributions to the theory of physical chemistry but also economics and philosophy.

Michael (Miháel) Polanyi (1891-1976) was a Hungarian-British scientist, philosopher and distinguished polymath. He had an enormous influence both as a chemical physicist, social scientist and as a "philosopher of knowledge". Polanyi was properly considered a modern-day Aristoteles.

After emigrating to England, Michael Polanyi continued his comprehensive research into physical chemistry at the University of Manchester. He already made significant contributions to chemical science when, after 15 years, he took the Chair at the new School of Social Science specially created for him. He had long been interested in economic issues such as full employment, free trade, monetary policy and the role of central banks. Throughout his career he retained an abiding interest in the theory of knowledge.

The Market as a Mode of Organization and Innovation (also for Scientific Research)

Michael Polanyi understood the market to be a mode of discovery, but unlike von Hayek and Mises he was convinced that free-market economies need regulating. The central bank, for example, should have a mandate over monetary policy to compensate for the foreseeable economic cycles of boom and bust.

Tacit Knowledge – the Hidden World of Knowledge

Michael Polanyi introduced the idea of "tacit knowledge" or implicit understanding as opposed to explicit understanding. Put simply this means "We can know more than we can say." Tacit knowledge is "know-how" rather than "know-what."

Polanyi developed an integrative theory of knowledge – an alternative to mainstream theories. Polanyi was the first to identify personal implicit knowledge. The basic idea is that "We believe more than we can prove, and know more than we can tell." Essential elements of integrated knowledge, according to Polanyi, are: experience, memories, beliefs, value systems, intuition and imagination. Rationality alone does not do justice to the complexity of our thinking.

The Polanyi Paradox

This paradox, named after Michael Polanyi, proposes that because most knowledge is not explicit but implicit, when we acquire knowledge from others, this knowledge too is not necessarily "explicitly objective" but also personal. Therefore, we are placing our trust and confidence in their capabilities, experiences, insights, creativity and judgment – and in our own ability to be their judge.

Knowledge management is one of the tasks of corporate management. Therefore, business managers should collect and communicate tacit knowledge as well as explicit knowledge. Knowledge based on logic and reason alone is not enough. At Manchester University, Polanyi contradicted his colleague and friend Alan Turing, whose ideas prepared the way for the first modern computer, by rejecting Turing's view that minds are reducible to collections of rules. And because that is so, Polanyi argued, thinking by individuals must be embedded in a moral ethos, to avoid a descent into nihilism.

Personal Knowing as Opposed to Rationalism

Michael Polanyi's dictum was that "All knowing is personal." Knowledge, even if classified as objective knowledge, is always associated with personal judgments. Polanyi pleaded for confidence-building and post-critical thinking by individuals who are still grounded in values and morals. Logic and reason alone are never enough.

His magnum opus was Personal Knowledge –Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958) which greatly influenced such science theorists/historians as Kuhn and Feyerabend. Overall, this book is a fundamental critique of reductionism or scientism, which he considered as pathological forms of thought.

Michael Polanyi held visiting professorships at 14 universities from Chicago to Yale, was a Senior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society of England, and an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts.

Key aspects of Michael Polanyi's thinking are: freedom as a prerequisite for human development, the market as framework and opportunity for open discovery (also in the natural sciences), tacit knowledge (the hidden world of knowledge), and personal knowledge as opposed to rationalism. The central pillar of Polanyi's thinking is human freedom allied to the direct responsibility of the individual.

Manfred Hoefle (this English summary by D.J. Brocklehurst)