Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Michael Polanyi’s magnum opus, recapitulated in many ways his own intellectual odyssey. Throughout his early years in Hungary, he demonstrated the versatility that would characterize his later work. For example, while majoring in medicine at Budapest University, he was already publishing papers in chemistry and physics. By 1920, when he joined the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, he was one of Europe’s most distinguished physical chemists. Although his main interest was in the rates of chemical reactions, he also did research in X-ray crystallography, physical adsorption, and thermodynamics. In 1933 he resigned from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in protest against the Nazi treatment of Jewish scientists. He then went to England, where he became professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester. Yet he could not ignore his experience of the political forces that were tearing Europe apart, and he tried to integrate these experiences into the objective approach to the world that had characterized his science. He began to spend so much time on humanistic issues that he became, for the last ten years at Manchester, a professor of social studies. Upon his retirement in 1958, Personal Knowledge was published.

The book’s appearance at the end of Polanyi’s formal academic life was no accident, and its provenance owed much to his experiences as a doctor, chemist, and professor of social studies. While a scientist, Polanyi had become critical of the positivistic view of science, the doctrine that only sense perceptions can lead to genuine knowledge and that events can be understood only in terms of physical laws. He thought that this view made a mockery of such things as human responsibility and moral ideals. His experiences in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s convinced him of the intellectual connection between positivism and the ruthless political movements of the Left and Right. He witnessed how the Nazis used a distorted Darwinism in their racist theories, and on a 1935 visit to Moscow he saw how T.D. Lysenko, a Communist ideologue, persecuted N.I. Vavilov, Russia’s most distinguished geneticist. To counter these tyrannies, Polanyi saw the importance of believing passionately in certain ideals essential to a free society. He held that a complete rethinking of scientific knowledge was necessary to dispel these threats to freedom and to science itself. If moral ideals were simply matters of emotional preference, then they lacked the intellectual muscle to oppose powerful Fascist and Communist ideologies.

To resolve what he saw as a great crisis, Polanyi...

(The entire section is 1096 words.)