Polanyi Biographies

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Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was a Hungarian from a non-observant Jewish family; his mother was called "Aunt of the Hungarian Revolution." He was baptized as a Roman Catholic in 1919, but apparently only as a matter of convenience--he wanted to live and work in Germany, and it was better to have a Christian identity on one's passport rather than Jewish. Later in life, he identified himself most closely with the Protestant point of view, although he never took Communion with any Christian denomination. In his professional career, he began as a medical doctor, because that was the only scientific degree he could take in Budapest, but shortly switched to studying physical chemistry. He specialized in the adsorption of gases, X-ray crystallography, and reaction kinetics.

In 1948, Polanyi gave up his scientific research and was granted a chair in the in the Faculty of Economics and Social Studies. He concerned himself mainly with the philosophy of science, economics, and sociology. In 1986, his son, John, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for carrying on the kind of work his father had begun in reaction kinetics.

In 1958, Polanyi published Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. In it he outlined the structure of an epistemology based upon tacit knowledge--those things we know that cannot be completely communicated by words. He claims that "all knowledge is tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge." If faith is a way of knowing, and if what Polanyi says is true, then faith must be "tacit or rooted in tacit knoweldge."

Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher

William T. Scott and Martin X. Moleski, SJ
Oxford University Press, 2005.
019517433X, hardback, 368 pages.

This biography was begun by Bill Scott in 1977. He worked on the research and writing for seventeen years with his wife, Ann, and his assistant, Monika Tobin. By 1994, he had a complete manuscript in 26 chapters that ran to 293,000 words and filled roughly 1200 pages in typescript.

Several members of the Polanyi Society read this manuscript and returned comments, but Scott, due to the onset of Parkinson's Disease, was unable to revise what he had written. Late in 1996, Ann Scott agreed to allow Moleski to act as co-author and make the necessary revisions in the biography. In 1997, Moleski produced a final polished edition of Scott's work; it is available from Scott's archives at the University of Nevada at Reno.

Moleski produced several drafts from 1998 until 2001, when Oxford agreed to review the manuscript. The final cuts requested by the Oxford editors brought the length down to 157,000 words.

Michael Polanyi and His Generation

Mary Jo Nye
Sub-title: Origins of the Social Construction of Science.
University of Chicago Press, 2011
Available in cloth, paperback, e-book.
428 pages | 17 halftones, 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2011
In Michael Polanyi and His Generation, Mary Jo Nye investigates the role that Michael Polanyi and several of his contemporaries played in the emergence of the social turn in the philosophy of science. This turn involved seeing science as a socially based enterprise that does not rely on empiricism and reason alone but on social communities, behavioral norms, and personal commitments. Nye argues that the roots of the social turn are to be found in the scientific culture and political events of Europe in the 1930s, when scientific intellectuals struggled to defend the universal status of scientific knowledge and to justify public support for science in an era of economic catastrophe, Stalinism and Fascism, and increased demands for applications of science to industry and social welfare.
At the center of this struggle was Polanyi, who Nye contends was one of the first advocates of this new conception of science. Nye reconstructs Polanyi’s scientific and political milieus in Budapest, Berlin, and Manchester from the 1910s to the 1950s and explains how he and other natural scientists and social scientists of his generation—including J. D. Bernal, Ludwik Fleck, Karl Mannheim, and Robert K. Merton—and the next, such as Thomas Kuhn, forged a politically charged philosophy of science, one that newly emphasized the social construction of science.

Mid-Century Authors

Polanyi wrote a short autobiography for Mid-Century Authors that is preserved in the Regenstein (Box 38, Folder 8).

This was published in World Authors, 1950-1970: A Companion Volume to Twentieth Century Authors (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1975) 1151-1153.

Wigner and Hodgkin

Eugene P. Wigner and Robin A. Hodgkin wrote a superb obituary for the Royal Society: "Michael Polanyi 1891-1976," Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 23 (1977) 413-448.