Re: [asa] More Michael Polanyi

From: Janice Matchett <>
Date: Sun Jan 20 2008 - 15:33:45 EST

At 03:35 PM 1/20/2008, James Mahaffy wrote:
>I am updating an annotated bibliography that
>deals with science and Christianity. I shared
>the bibliography with the Christian geologists
>and biologists but not with the ASA list [I did
>not want the url to be publically archived]. In
>any case, someone was nice enough to suggest I
>should add Michael Planyi to the list. I have
>not read him but I seem to think he is
>important. In any case, can someone help with my annotation (given below).
>I am interested in knowing if this is a book
>that college science majors should be aware of
>and what was the major contribution of
>Plany. Was he a Christian? Just a few
>sentences would help. I would like to hand out
>the updated bibliography Monday morning so a
>quick response from someone would be appreciated.
>I will cc this to the Christian biology list.
> Michael Polanyi 1967 (1983 reprint) The
> Tacit Dimension. Doubley.* I gather that
> Polanyi made some very important contributions
> on how science works. This is one of the better
> books to get a feel for his thought. JFM

@ "Polanyi, like his friend
Hayek, supplied reasons why a free society is preferable. .."

That's all you really need to know. :) But if
you'd like to know more you can read the links
(which quote him) on some of my past posts. .. or
you can read the excerpt below. ~ Janice ...
(who has been working out of town a lot and just
now trying to catch up on email and posts)

Michael Polanyi (born Polányi Mihály)

was a
whose thought and work extended across
He was a
of the Royal Society and a Fellow of
College, Oxford.

Early life

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

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

Physical chemistry

Polanyi's scientific interests were diverse,
diffraction, and the absorption of
<>gases at

In <>1934,
Polanyi, at about the same time as
I. Taylor and
Orowan, realised that the
deformation of
materials could be explained in terms of the
theory of
developed by
Volterra in
The insight was critical in developing the field
of <>solid mechanics.

Philosophy of science

 From the
Polanyi began to articulate his opposition to the
account of science, arguing that it failed to
recognise the part which personal
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
encourages the belief that science ought to be
directed by the State. He pointed to what
happened to genetics in the
Union, once the doctrines of
Lysenko were deemed politically correct. Polanyi,
like his friend
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
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
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
(observing a master, and then practicing under the master's guidance).

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

In his 1951 collection of essays, The Logic of
Liberty, Polanyi applied his philosophy of
science to
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
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
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
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,
Charles Polanyi, is a Professor of Chemistry at
of Toronto, Canada. In 1986 John Polanyi was
awarded the
Prize in Chemistry.[2]


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Received on Sun Jan 20 15:35:13 2008

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