Mihály (Michael) Polányi

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Mihály (Michael) Polányi (Pollacsek)

Birthplace: Vienna, Austria
Death: Died in Northampton, UK
Immediate Family:

Son of Mihály Pollacsek and Cecilia Polányi
Husband of Magda Elizabeth Polanyi
Father of John C Polanyi, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1986 and <private> Polanyi
Brother of Laura Striker, dr.; Adolf Polányi; Károly (Karl) Polányi, dr.; Sophie Polanyi and Paul Polányi

Occupation: Professor of Chemistry
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Mihály (Michael) Polányi

Michael Polanyi, FRS (March 11, 1891 – February 22, 1976) was a Hungarian–British polymath, who made important theoretical contributions to physical chemistry, economics, and the theory of knowledge. In his philosophical writings he argued that positivism not only gives a false account of the practice of science, it also, if taken seriously, undermines our highest achievements as human beings.

Early life

Polanyi, born Polányi Mihály in Vienna, was the fourth child of Michael and Cecilia Pollacsek, secular Jews from Ungvár (then in Hungary but now in the Ukraine) and Vilnius in Lithuania, respectively. His father's family were entrepreneurs, while his mother's father was the chief rabbi of Vilnius. The family moved to Budapest and Magyarized their surname to Polányi. His father built much of the Hungarian railway system, but lost most of his fortune in 1899 when bad weather caused a railway building project to go over budget. He died in 1905. Cecilia Polanyi established a salon that was well known amongst Budapest's intellectuals, and which continued until her death in 1939. His older brother was Karl Polanyi, the political economist.


In 1909 after leaving the famous Budapest teacher-training secondary school (Mintagymnasium) he trained as a physician, obtaining a medical diploma in 1914. He was an active member of the Galileo Society. With the support of Ignác Pfeifer, professor of chemistry at the József Technical University of Budapest, he obtained a scholarship to study chemistry at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe in Germany. In the First World War, he served in the Austro-Hungarian army as a medical officer, and was sent to the Serbian front. While on sick-leave in 1916, he wrote a PhD thesis on adsorption. His research, which was encouraged by Albert Einstein, was supervised by Gusztáv Buchböck, and in 1919 the University of Budapest awarded him a doctorate.


In October 1918, Mihály Károlyi established the Hungarian Democratic Republic, and Polanyi became Secretary to the Minister of Health. In March 1919 when Communists took power, Polanyi returned to medicine. After the Hungarian Soviet Republic was overthrown, Polanyi, although he had refused to serve in the Red Army, incurred the disfavour of the new Admiral Horthy régime. In 1920 he returned to Karlsruhe, and was invited by Fritz Haber to join the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Faserstoffchemie in Berlin. In 1923 Polanyi converted to Christianity, and in a Roman Catholic ceremony married Magda Elizabeth Kemeny. In 1926 he became the professorial head of department of the Institut für Physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie. In 1929, Magda gave birth to their son John, who in later life settled in Canada, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry. Their other son, George Polanyi, became a well known British economist.

As a consequence of his experience of runaway inflation and high unemployment in Weimar Germany Polanyi began to study economics. With the coming to power in 1933 of the Nazi party, he accepted an offer of the chair in physical chemistry at the University of Manchester. Two of his pupils, Eugene Wigner and Melvin Calvin, went on to win a Nobel Prize. As a consequence of a shift in his interests the university created a new chair for him in Social Science (1948–58).

In 1944 Polanyi was elected a member of the Royal Society, and on his retirement from the University of Manchester in 1958 he was elected a Senior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford. In 1962 he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Research and writings

Physical chemistry

Polanyi's scientific interests were extremely diverse, including work in chemical kinetics, x-ray diffraction, and the adsorption of gases at solid surfaces. In 1921, he laid the mathematical foundation of fiber diffraction analysis. In 1934, Polanyi, at about the same time as G. I. Taylor and Egon Orowan, he realised that the plastic deformation of ductile materials could be explained in terms of the theory of dislocations which had been developed by Vito Volterra in 1905. The insight was critical in developing the field of solid mechanics.

Philosophy of science

In 1936, while on a visit to the USSR to give lectures for the Ministry of Heavy Industry, Polanyi was told by Bukharin that the distinction between pure and applied science was mistaken, and that in a socialist society all scientific research would be in accordance with the needs of the latest Five Year Plan. Polanyi observed what happened to the study of genetics in the Soviet Union once the doctrines of Trofim Lysenko gained the backing of the State. Demands in Britain, amongst people such as the Marxist John Desmond Bernal, for centrally planned scientific research, led Polanyi to argue that truth seeking generates communities of specialists whose conclusions ought to be the outcome of free debate not central direction. Together with John Baker, he founded the influential Society for Freedom in Science to defend this view.

In a series of articles, re-published in The Contempt of Freedom (1940) and The Logic of Liberty (1951), Polanyi argued that co-operation amongst scientists is analogous to the way in which agents co-ordinate themselves within a free market. Just as consumers in a free market determine the value of products, so, without central direction, scientists validate theories by endorsing them as true. The spontaneous order that arises within the scientific community, arises within the context of a commitment to truth. Whereas John Desmond Bernal argued that science should be directed by the State in the pursuit of practical ends, Polanyi claimed that if science is to flourish scientists should have the freedom to pursue truth as an end in itself:

   "[S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact co-operating 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."
   "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."

Polanyi notes that utilitarian and sceptical arguments in defence of free scientific inquiry undercut what they are invoked to defend. His general defence of a free society is not a negative appeal to the importance of "private liberties", but a positive appeal to the role which "public liberties" play in facilitating our pursuit of transcendent ideals. According to Polanyi ends such as truth, goodness, and beauty, transcend our ability to wholly articulate them; and therefore communities of specialists require the freedom to pursue them. His concept of spontaneous order, a term he derived from Gestalt psychology, although its origins can be traced back to at least Adam Smith, influenced the classical liberal economist Frederick Hayek. Unlike Hayek however Polanyi argued that there are higher and lower forms of spontaneous order. In Full Employment and Free Trade (1948) Polanyi analysed the way in which money circulates around an economy, and argued (unlike Hayek) that a strict/loose monetary policy is an economically neutral way for a central bank to moderate the booms/busts of a free market.

Theory of knowledge

In his book Science, Faith and Society (1946), Polanyi set out his opposition to a positivist account of science, noting that it fails to recognise the role which personal commitments play in the practice of science. While teaching at Manchester, Polanyi was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1951-2 at Aberdeen. A revised version of his lectures were later published as Personal Knowledge (1958). In this book Polanyi claims that absolute objectivity (objectivism) is a false ideal, because all knowledge claims (including those which are derived from rules) rely on personal judgements. He denies that a scientific method can yield truth mechanically. All knowing, no matter how formalised, relies upon commitments. Polanyi argued that the assumptions which motivate critical philosophy are not only false, they serve to undermine the commitments which motivate our highest achievements. He advocates a fiduciary post-critical approach, in which we recognise that we believe more than we can prove, and know more than we can say.

A knower does not stand apart from the universe, they participate personally within it. Our intellectual skills are driven by passionate commitments which motivate discovery and validation. Polanyi suggests that great scientists not only identify patterns, they identify the significant questions which are likely to lead to a successful resolution. An innovator risks their reputation by committing to a hypothesis. He gives the example of Copernicus, who declared that, contrary to our experience, the Earth revolves around the Sun. He claims that Copernicus arrived at the Earth's true relation to the Sun not as a consequence of following a method, but via "the greater intellectual satisfaction he derived from the celestial panorama as seen from the Sun instead of the Earth." What saves this approach from the charge of relativism is his conviction that our tacit awareness connects us with objective realities.

Polanyi rejected the claim by British Empiricists that experience can be reduced into sense data. Our experience is interpreted, and our interpretations often rely upon acquired practices. Knowing more than we can say explains how apprentices acquire non-explicit knowledge i.e. pupils improve their skills by observing a master. His writings about science influenced Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, although he denies that "indwelling" within (sometimes incompatible) interpretative frameworks traps us within them. Our shared tacit awareness connects us with objective realities. All articulation becomes meaningful by evoking our tacit awareness. Contrary to the views of his colleague and friend Alan Turing, whose work at The University of Manchester prepared the way for the first modern computer, he denied that minds are reducible to collections of rules. His work influenced the critique by Hubert Dreyfus of "First Generation" Artificial Intelligence.

It was while writing Personal Knowledge that he identified what he calls the "structure of tacit knowing". He viewed it as his most important discovery. He claimed that we experience the world by integrating our subsidiary awareness into a focal awareness. In his later work, for example his Terry Lectures, later published as "The Tacit Dimension" (1966) he seeks to distinguish between the phenomenological, instrumental, semantic, and ontological aspects of tacit knowing, as discussed (but not necessarily identified as such) in his previous writing.

Critique of reductionism

In "Life's irreducible structure" (1968), Polanyi argues that the information contained in the DNA molecule is irreducible to physics and chemistry. Although a DNA molecule cannot exist without physical properties, these properties are constrained by higher level ordering principles. In "Transcendence and Self-transcendence" (1970), Polanyi criticizes the mechanistic world view that modern science has inherited from Galileo.

Polanyi advocates emergence i.e. the claim that there are several levels of reality, and causality. His argument relies on the assumption that boundary conditions supply degrees of freedom that instead of being random are determined by higher level realities whose properties are dependent, but distinct, from the lower level from which they emerge. The process by which meanings are generated shows us that intentions are downward causal forces.

Mind is a higher level expression of our capacity for discrimination. Our pursuit of self-set ideals such as truth and justice enriches our awareness of the world. The reductionistic attempt to reduce higher level realities into lower level realities generates what Polanyi describes as a moral inversion, in which the higher is rejected in favour of the lower. This inversion is pursued with moral passion. Polanyi identifies it as a pathology of the modern mind, and traces its origins to a false conception of knowledge; which although relatively harmless in the formal sciences, generates nihilism in the humanities.

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Mihály (Michael) Polányi's Timeline

March 11, 1891
Vienna, Austria
Age 31
Berlin, Germany
Age 31
January 23, 1929
Age 37
Berlin, Deutschland
February 22, 1976
Age 84
Northampton, UK