An Introduction to the Wesleyan Lectures

Phil Mullins

Michael Polanyi was a Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study at Wesleyan University in the fall semester of 1965 and the spring semester of 1966.[1] Polanyi was originally to be in residence for only the fall term and was scheduled to give eight lectures but the last three lectures were cancelled due to illness. Polanyi planned to spend the spring 1966 term in residence at Harvard but that did not work out and Wesleyan convinced Polanyi to stay on for the spring term. Apparently, the last three of the originally projected lectures were never written but Polanyi gave five lectures beginning near the end of September under the general title “Man’s Place in the Universe.” Scott and Moleski, the Polanyi biographers, identify the series as “an expanded version of the Terry Lectures” (261). The Terry Lectures were a three-lecture series given at Yale in October and early November of 1962. Intervening between the Terry Lectures and the Wesleyan Lectures were the Duke Lectures, a five-lecture series, given in February and March of 1964, whose general title, “Man in Thought,” was the same as the Terry Lectures. Scott and Moleski (254) suggest that the last four of the Duke Lectures (available on the Polanyi Society site)) are closely akin to the Terry Lectures. The Terry Lectures are the basis for Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension (1966) which he put the final touches on while at Wesleyan in January 1966 (261).[2] In sum, there is a close relationship between the Terry, Duke and Wesleyan lecture series Polanyi gave from 1962-1965.

Although Polanyi gave only five of his originally projected eight Wesleyan Lectures, he did provide a brief general statement about where the full projected Wesleyan series was headed: “In these lectures I want to define the mental powers by which coherence is discovered in nature. This will establish the theoretical grounds of scientific enquiry, guided by anticipations of reality” (Wesleyan I, 20). But Polanyi then suggests that his reappraisal of mental powers will not be sufficient to restore an appreciation for coherence and the way human beings are guided toward understanding coherence by anticipations of reality. He points out that there is a deeply rooted and destructive ontology that has come to be presupposed in modernity:

The assumptions that all things are ultimately controlled by the same laws of atomic interaction, reduces all forms of existence to accidental collocations of ultimate particles. There are then no essentially higher things, and no intangible things can be real. To understand the world consists then in representing throughout all that is of greater significance in terms of its less meaningful elements and if possible, in terms of meaningless matter. Accepting this conception of truth and reality man feels himself menaced by his own lucidity and blighted by self-doubt (Wesleyan I, 20-21).

It will be necessary, Polanyi suggests, to overcome false ideas of truth and reality promoted by scientism. Modern people will have to re-learn to “acknowledge higher entities, intangible and yet more real than matter. We shall recognize a hierarchy of being in which man recovers his proper place. He may then feel at home again in the universe” (Wesleyan I, 21). Coming again to be at home in the universe we inhabit and study is the same note struck at the end of the first Duke Lecture.[4]

Polanyi himself comments on the developing course of his ideas in the 1964 "Preface to the Torchbook Edition" of Personal Knowledge (ix-xi) and in his "Introduction" to The Tacit Dimension (xvii-xix) written at Wesleyan in April 1966. [5] He says that in the eight years after the publication of Personal Knowledge he was “working out the structure of tacit knowing” (TD, x). It should be emphasized, however, that working out his ideas about tacit knowing included clarifying what Polanyi calls in The Tacit Dimension the “ontological aspect” (TD, 13) of tacit knowing. In the lecture series, in The Tacit Dimension and in several articles in the sixties, Polanyi is refining his ontology which emphasized the dual-controlled and stratified nature of most real entities and particularly the hierarchical or multi-level character of complex living comprehensive entities.

One interesting point Polanyi mentions in his April 1966 "Introduction" to The Tacit Dimension is that in his 1962 Terry Lectures he first addressed the problem of the Meno. But until 1965 he says he lacked confidence in what he had proposed as a solution to the problem.[6] In early 1965, Polanyi began work on “The Creative Imagination” which comes back to the problem of the Meno and explores the role of imagination in tacit knowing. This lecture Polanyi delivered on August 23, 1965 as the opening address at the first Bowdoin College conference of the Study Group on the Foundations of Cultural Unity. The Study Group on the Foundations of Cultural Unity that Polanyi chaired was a scholarly group focused on studying the methodological and ontological oversimplifications prevailing in contemporary science and culture. Later in the fall, “The Creative Imagination” became the third of the five Wesleyan Lectures.[7]

The titles of the five individual Wesleyan Lectures are listed below. The pdf file for each lecture, made from what apparently is Polanyi's original typescript, is approximately twenty pages long. The Polanyi Society thanks John Polanyi for permission to post the Wesleyan Lectures.


[1] William Tausig Scott and Martin X. Moleski, SJ, in Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher (Oxford: OUP, 2005): 261-264, discuss Polanyi’s time at Wesleyan. The discussion here draws from this section of the biography.

[2] Scott and Moleski (261-262) and Polanyi himself in the introductory material in The Tacit Dimension (x-xi) suggest that only the third chapter of his book, “A Society of Explorers,” is substantially different than the original lectures at Yale. Although the pagination of the main text of the 1967 Anchor Book edition (copy cited here) and the 2009 University of Chicago edition of The Tacit Dimension (hereafter TD) are identical, the pagination of material before the main text is different.

[3] Polanyi makes the same point in his 1965 article “On the Modern Mind” in Encounter ( vol. 24 [May 1965]: 12-20): in the twentieth century, “the demand that all things must be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry became more insistent and more disturbing. A sharpening of skepticism to the point of questioning the very existence of intangible things led to absurd conclusions” (13).

[4] In the mid-sixties, coming again to be at home in the universe seems to have been a motif Polanyi used to summarize his post-critical philosophical objectives; in particular, Polanyi seems to have believed that post-critical religious sensibility might help restore balance to the modern mind. In an August 16, 1964 letter to his friend Joseph Oldham, Polanyi wrote about his hope for the healing power that might be released through his work in philosophy: “Our scientific culture is getting under fire for falsifying the nature of things. The beliefs which we shall thus re-capture will eventually culminate in religious faith. Nothing short of that would make us at home in the universe again (Polanyi to Oldham, August 16, 1964, Box 15, Folder 5. Michael Polanyi Papers, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library).

[5] Marjorie Grene also gives an account of Polanyi’s philosophical development in the time between Personal Knowledge (1958) and Knowing and Being (1969); she suggests that Polanyi in this decade is articulating his mature theory of tacit knowing. See Marjorie Grene “Tacit Knowing: Grounds for a Revolution in Philosophy,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 8:39 (October 1977): 164-177 as well as her “Introduction” to Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969): ix-xviii.

6] See Polanyi’s comments in the "Introduction" to TD (ix-x). The problem of the Meno (how do we start an inquiry and pursue it when we don’t know what we are looking for?) is, for Polanyi, the problem of understanding scientific discovery which is the heart of science.

[7] With some variations, this lecture was delivered and published several times over the next several years; see Scott and Moleski, 259-261 and 348. The version in the 1969 monograph edited by Marjorie Grene (Toward a Unity of Knowledge, Psychological Issues, VI:2, Monograph 22: 53-70) purports to be material from the first Bowdoin conference (August, 1965), although there is a footnote indicating that this essay was in Chemical and Engineering News (44: 17 [April 25]:85-93) in 1966, i.e., after the Bowdoin conference but before the publication of Grene’s monograph. The Grene monograph includes an additional twenty pages (71-91) of discussion of the paper by Polanyi and conference participants. Interestingly, some parts of the discussion (i.e., Polanyi’s responses to questions and comments) reappear as parts of the Wesleyan Lectures given later in the fall of 1965.

Wesleyan Lectures of Michael Polanyi

Lecture 1: “Science and Reality” (September 29,1965)

Lecture 2: “The Structure of Tacit Knowing” (October 14, 1965)

Lecture 3: “The Creative Imagination” (October 21, 1965)

Lecture 4: “The Growth of Science in Society” (October 28, 1965)

Lecture 5: “Levels of Reality” (November 11, 1965)