Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633

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In Personal Knowledge Michael Polanyi criticized important modern ideas and attitudes, and these criticisms called for responses from many philosophers, who, unfortunately, never made them. From the time of the book’s appearance until Polanyi’s death in 1976, he worked in the University of Oxford, but even there his philosophical writings were either neglected or received with suspicion. Polanyi had spent a significant portion of his life as a physical chemist, and it was natural for philosophers to look upon him as an outsider. Indeed, his relative ignorance of the field is a good example of his own thesis that any discipline contains much that is acquired tacitly, through acculturation. Despite this realization, Polanyi thought, toward the end of his life, that his work had been a failure. His purpose had been to convince intellectuals that the modern mind was in trouble and that he had a solution in his new epistemology. To be sure, he won some converts, but most Western intellectuals either ignored or failed to be persuaded by his work.

Polanyi should not have been surprised by this. England, during his time there, was dominated by analytic philosophy, and these philosophers, both logical positivists and language analysts, were unable to take him seriously. Logical positivists, who wanted to maintain the distinction between science and nonscience, saw his action of putting them on the same continuum as muddying the waters of science. Furthermore, Polanyi’s treatment of personal knowledge put him, according to analytic philosophers, among the philosophes, isolated from the true philosophers.

Personal Knowledge presents many new positions on a host of thorny philosophical problems and so it is to be expected that even his followers found things to criticize. For example, Marjorie Grene, who was his assistant while he was writing the book, has criticized his notion of hierarchies—that is, his doctrine of the levels of reality. Polanyi argued that living things, within which one finds a hierarchy of organizing principles, transcend the laws of physics and chemistry. Similarly, he proposed that the brain and the mind are separate realities. For Grene, Polanyi’s position constitutes a defense of dualism. Polanyi’s views on life and mind are instances of his general position that beings are organized into a stratified universe in which higher types of being emerge from the lower types. Grene’s studies of evolutionary theory have made her skeptical about cosmologies of emergence. Yet Polanyi has his defenders. Harry Prosch, for example, thinks that Grene is wrong in assuming that Polanyi introduced Cartesian dualism into his system. The mind and brain are certainly different for Polanyi, but he also holds that there are no unincarnate minds. Grene is correct in her view that he believed in a stratified universe, but such a belief would be unsound only if higher beings had powers that were simply the summation of the powers of their subsidiary parts.

Despite these criticisms of Polanyi’s supposed subjectivism, dualism, and hierarchism, he continued to maintain that his philosophy would provide a fruitful intellectual basis for supporting a free society. At the center of his thought is the intellectual passion that impels human beings to make ever more meaningful contact with reality. He maintained that a free society could not exist unless there were basic ideals held in common by all members of the community. He himself had a profound experience of the scientific community, but he also experienced the demoralizing gap between theory and practice in the scientific life of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. He saw the need for science to become more human and for the sciences and humanities to come closer together. In this way loyalty to mankind would increase among scientists, and scientific truths would turn from something static and detached into dynamic and creative human truth.