Brett Williams's Reviews > Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing

Michael Polanyi by Mark T. Mitchell
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it was amazing

Deserving recognition for a mostly unknown giant

This book serves as a first-rate overview of Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), a Hungarian physical chemist (would-have-been Nobel Laureate) turned philosopher of science, economics and societies. Generally unknown, Polanyi shouldn't be, and having been adopted by some on the Right, he might not remain anonymous for long. ISI publishers - who promote Conservative thought (but for their occasional Creationist forays, usually reasonably so, sometimes brilliantly) - have made Polanyi a member of their Library Of Modern Thinkers series (including Bertrand de Jouvenel, Eric Voegelin, Ludwig von Mises, Robert Nisbet, Wilhelm Röpke). Polanyi was a man of ideas, neither radical, nor absolutist, most concerned with Western modernity's general dismissal of tradition and faith, grown out of an over-exuberant sense of empiricism's applicability in the human realm, leading to a brand of nihilistic skepticism, and worse - Postmodernism. Where "beliefs" are dismissed as not empirically verifiable, robbing humans of things they can know but can't prove (admittedly slippery terrain), and at least contributing to a denial of an I-Thou perspective as discussed by Joseph Campbell. To put tradition and faith on a more equal footing, Polanyi returns to the source of this superior attitude concerning science, to argue it's just as dependent on tradition, authority and (calm down, Postmodernists) a level of subjectivity - which, however, he finds a way to attach to concrete reality in nature (sorry, Postmodernists).

Our author provides a fine survey of Polanyi's life and its rather historic irony. Polanyi's economic analysis, favoring rationally regulated free markets preceded economist and Nobel Laureate, Friedrich Hayek's work, for which Hayek gave Polanyi credit. In 1944 Hayek's capitalist manifesto was published, "The Road To Serfdom" (a stimulant to Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan). In that same year a staunch supporter of socialism published his own manifesto, "The Great Transformation." Its author none other than Karl Polanyi (Michael's older brother) who happened to encounter Hayek and von Mises (see above) in Vienna when Keynesian economics was king (the first time), before Kaynes read "Serfdom" taming his own theory. Unlike myopic pleas for socialism today, Karl's book is not so trifling. While Michael shelved science for philosophy loosing his shot at the Nobel, his son John (University Of Toronto) won it for chemistry ten years after his father Michael was dead. For Michael, his years in science were essential preparation, "An experience in science is by far the most important basic ground for developing philosophic ideas," he wrote. Sadly, Michael's survey of his life may not have been so grand as it should have been, "Today at seventy five my voice has not carried far; I shall die an old man as an infant prodigy." And a year later he did. It's interesting to note that brother Karl (and Marx) thought Enlightenment's capitalistic machinery was the dehumanizing force to blame for our woes, while Michael saw it as Enlightenment's hyper-rationalism overextended. Marxism's remaining anti-Western fragment - mutated in the form of Postmodernism - instead sees our problems as a failure of reason, desirous of eliminating it as Western bigotry. While Enlightenment appears to have initiated things. Postmoderns carried the flag in their usual self-contradictory manner through smug impersonations of rational dismissal, all the while opposing Western reason and rejecting Enlightenment.

Polanyi argues that knowledge is acquired by two kinds of awareness - focal and subsidiary (secondary), with our focus on the object of our attention while dwelling on secondary things in the background. For example, language: when reading we look through words to their meaning but tend to words and letters secondarily. A poorly written piece arrests our attention as we switch to focus on the words, struggling for their meaning, which suddenly become rather opaque. Acquired knowledge thus demands personal participation employing this focal/subsidiary method. This personal aspect makes knowledge particular (ignoring Carl Jung's universals due to common wiring in the brain) and subjective, making objective detachment impossible in actual practice. Satisfaction in knowing comes from ever deepening coherence with reality and promises indeterminate future manifestations. Hence, allowance for revelations emergent from sound scientific theories often not recognized for decades, developments of morality, or religion. Paralysis of subjectivity is removed because there is an external reality universal to all, which we approach with ever-greater coherence accepted by others, if the insights deepen understanding. All knowledge, including science, depends on a tradition (which, Polanyi submits, need not be static, encouraging a degree of decent in the interest of truth) and authority (everybody learns from somebody). This reader can’t help but suspect an apparent shortcoming equating the foundations of knowing science and religion in this way. While science provides testable agreement between observers (Polanyi is, after all, trying to loosen the empirical leash), could different religions really agree on religious universals? Doesn’t “indeterminate future manifestations” split the flock, not providing greater coherence but leading if not to new denominations then a new religion altogether? Campbell's demonstration that at root all religions are the same, clothed in local dress, seems likely to hold limited appeal.

Polanyi proposes integration of a dual perception, where a machine (or entity) - exemplified by a watch (or society) - is governed by two levels, those of physics and chemistry, and those by which they were put to use. Smash the watch and while principles of physics and chemistry persist, the comprehensive reality of the thing disappears with loss of that higher principle to which it was put to use (to tell time). While Polanyi does not make this comparison, strip away a common set of norms by which a people defines itself, subservient to a radical superiority of plurality or freedom from judgment and the comprehensive reality of communities composed of individuals is exchanged for atomized individuals with no community, governed only by rights, not responsibilities, bound by contracts rather than common sentiment.

While as opposed to planning of science as he was to the economy (because both are far too vast and complex for a centralized entity ever to hope to grasp) and as a defender of science, Polanyi nonetheless submits that when a rigorous fidelity to science is coupled with a reductionist-materialist concept of reality then implications extend far beyond the realm of science, jeopardizing moral and political structures. If morality is but a convention, tradition mere inertia, God just a psychological necessity, then society risks nihilistic listlessness in Polanyi’s mind. As liberty is the exercise of free will in the face of constraints, physical and moral, liberty is then also threatened. By eliminating the fact and value divide, Polanyi seeks to provide allowance for ideals we may commit to as truth, beauty, and justice - what he calls intangible reality, more real to humans via their meaning and implications than tangible realities of science. i.e. so the charge on an electron is 1.60218e-19 coulombs?
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