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Michael Polanyi

Professor of Social Studies, University of Manchester
1891 to 1976

Michael Polanyi was born in March 1891 in Budapest Hungary. His parents were Cecilia Wohl and Mihaly Polacsek whose background was in engineering and business. Raised and schooled in Budapest Polanyi remained there to attend the University of Budapest where he completed a degree in medicine in 1913 and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry four years later on the adsorption of gases on solid surfaces.

After a few years working in Budapest and Karlsruhe Polanyi took a position in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Fibre Chemistry in Berlin. There he authored many scientific papers and was involved in the development of methods involving X-rays for the study of fibrous and metallic structures. In 1923 he became the director of Fritz Haber’s Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry and was granted lifetime membership in the Max Planck Institute three years later. However as life became increasingly difficult for Jewish scholars in Germany Polanyi moved to Manchester University to take the chair of Physical Chemistry in 1933. In 1948 he relinquished this professorship to take up a chair of Social Studies still in Manchester until retiring eleven years later to Merton College at Oxford as a senior research fellow. He retired fully in 1961 although he continued to publish.

Though an active scientist Polanyi is perhaps best know for his political and philosophical writings. Having experienced the beginnings of fascism in Berlin he perceived that behind the idealism of communism that seduced so many of his contemporaries lay a totalitarianism just as dangerous as the type he had fled. After writing severely critical reviews of the Marxist writings of his contemporaries his first nonscience book The Contempt of Freedom was published in 1940. In 1945 he released a work criticising the economics of socialism entitled Full Employment and Free Trade.

His philosophical work had its greatest influence in the philosophy of science. As well as his scientific background his views on political ideology played its part in leading him to write about science rather than simply doing it. He had witnessed how under the Soviet regime geneticists refusing to adopt the false theories of Lysenko had been effectively silenced by the authorities who perceived the alternative and rather more accurate genetic science as Western. Polanyi rejected the view of science as an objective and logically analysable method that can simply be set out in textbooks. It is an activity he thought that involves a great deal of tacit knowledge and faith with inherent values all of which can only be learnt first hand through a social structure of master and apprentice. Though science remains ultimately objective it is nevertheless a mode of personal knowledge. His most influential work inspiring most notably Thomas Kuhn was titled Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy.

Polanyi was awarded a number of honorary degrees including among other Princeton (1946) Leeds (1947) Cambridge (1969) Aberdeen (1959) and Notre Dame (1965). His son John was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for work on reaction kinetics in gases following his father’s early career very closely. Polanyi married in 1921; he and his wife Magda Had two sons. Polanyi died in 1976 one year after his other son George.

Polanyi’s works include: Atomic Reactions (1932); The Contempt of Freedom (1940); Full Employment and Free Trade (1945); The Logic of Liberty (1951); Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958); The Tacit Dimension (1967); and Knowing and Being (1969). R. T. Allen edited a collection of his articles entitled Society Economic Philosophy: Selected Articles (1997) and is involved in Appraisal: The Journal of the Society for Post-Critical and Personalist Studies which is a journal dedicated to the work of Polanyi and similar thinkers.

  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen