Michael Polanyi Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Michael Polanyi (PAW-lahn-yee) was a distinguished natural scientist who abandoned his successful career as a research professor of physical chemistry to explore what he considered the most critical problem facing human civilization in the twentieth century—the assumption that the only true knowledge is that based on empirically verifiable scientific methods. Polanyi was born into a middle-class Jewish family; his father, Michael Pollacsek, was a civil engineer and urged his son to study medicine at the University of Budapest. His mother was Celia Wohl. Michael Polanyi graduated in 1915 and served as a medical officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. After the war he went to Berlin, where he earned a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1919 and began a second career as a research scientist at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1923. In 1920 he married Magda Kemeny, a chemical engineer, and they had three sons. In 1932, fearing the rise to power of the National Socialist Party in Germany, Polanyi accepted the post of professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester in England, his future homeland. He published 218 scientific papers between 1910 and 1949 in his specialty, physical chemistry.

During the 1930’s, while still producing significant discoveries in his scientific laboratory, Polanyi turned his attention to the social and economic problems then besetting the depression-afflicted democracies. After visiting the Soviet Union he became convinced that both Communist and Fascist ideologies were enemies to liberty and scientific progress. He began to study and write about economic problems, particularly free trade and unemployment, and in the 1940’s he became a firm opponent of socialism and vigorously challenged those who proposed centralizing the planning and financing of British science and industry. In The Logic of Liberty Polanyi argues that freedom in scientific enterprise is necessary for reasons similar to those offered by classical economists in analyzing the superiority of the free market. Polanyi believed that Adam Smith’s idea of an “invisible hand” coordinating the economic decisions of all participants in the market to achieve the most economical utilization of scarce resources was analogous to the “spontaneous order” in the natural world as observed by scientists. He also saw the international scientific community as another kind of spontaneous, autonomous, self-correcting societal order in which discovery constantly challenges the accuracy of what appears to be true.

Polanyi considered freedom from both...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Allen, Richard. Polanyi. London: Claridge Press, 1990. A biographical and critical overview.

Gelwick, Richard. The Way of Discovery: An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Offers a sympathetic, somewhat simplified guide to Polanyi’s intellectual struggle to articulate a new model of human understanding and its influence on contemporary scholarship.

Gill, Jerry H. The Tacit Mode: Michael Polanyi’s Postmodern Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Explores the central insights in Polanyi’s major works. Focuses on his epistemological insights concerning tacit knowing and explores their ramifications for philosophy, science, art, language, political theory, and religion.

Kane, Jeffrey. Beyond Empiricism: Michael Polanyi Reconsidered. New York: P. Lang, 1984. Study of Polanyi’s views on the metaphysical foundation of scientific knowledge.

Poteat, William. Polanyian Meditations: In Search of a Post-Critical Logic. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985. Sympathetic study of Polanyi’s views and works.

Prosch, Harry. Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986. The author was a close protégé of Polanyi during his last years. A systematic description of Polanyi’s philosophic diagnosis of what ails the modern mind and how he thought it could be cured. Includes a detailed bibliography of Polanyi’s 218 scientific papers as well as his publications in philosophy and the social sciences.