Polanyi, Michael, 1891-1976

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1891-03-12
Death 1976-02-22
Britons
English, Hungarian

Biographical notes:

British chemist and philosopher. Born, Budapest, Hungary, 1891. M.D., University of Budapest, 1913; Ph. D., 1917. Worked at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Fibre Chemistry, Berlin, 1920-23, and the Institute of Physical and Electro-Chemistry, Berlin, 1923-33. Chair, physical chemistry, 1933-48, and professor of social studies, 1948-58, University of Manchester. Senior research fellow, Merton College, Oxford, 1958-76. Died, 1976.

From the description of Papers, 1900-1975 (inclusive). (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52250117

English philosopher.

From the description of Papers, 1951-1969. (Duke University Library). WorldCat record id: 32520410

Michael Polanyi was born in Budapest in 1891, and though his career as a scientist and philosopher led him far from his native Hungary, the intellectual milieu of his childhood remained a life-long influence on his work. His father was an engineer and businessman and his Russian mother, Cecile, wrote a fashion column for the German-language newspaper in Budapest. Throughout the early years of Polanyi's childhood, the family was financially successful, but most of their resources were lost before the first World War, leaving the children largely dependent on Polanyi's brother Karl for support. Despite this poor financial situation, Cecile Polanyi maintained a salon for Hungarian literary figures.

Polanyi grew up in a literate, political world. With his brother Karl and friend Oscar Jászi, a young Polanyi helped to found the Galilei Circle, a Hungarian nationalist group which promoted Hungarian cultural traditions and worked for an independent Hungarian state. Polanyi became a Doctor of Medicine at Budapest University in 1913 and served as a medical officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. His earliest scientific paper, "Chemistry of Hydrocephalic Liquid," was published at age 19. Throughout the war, he worked on the application of quantum theory to the third law of thermodynamics and on the thermodynamics of adsorption. In 1916, he published his work on adsorption, one of the first of over two hundred scientific papers he was to publish before his move into philosophy in 1948. His theory of adsorption was accepted by the chemistry faculty of Budapest University which awarded him a Ph.D. in 1917.

Following the war, in the autumn of 1920, Polanyi received an appointment to the new Institute of Fibre Chemistry in Berlin, part of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. His early years in Berlin are recounted in the 1962 essay, My Time with X-Rays and Crystals. Fritz Haber, the Director of the prestigious Institute of Physical Chemistry, sent Polanyi off to expand his laboratory skills in order to achieve full acceptance by the German scientific community. He succeeded in this with a study of x-ray diffraction of cellulose fibers, and in 1923 he was appointed to the Institute of Physical Chemistry to work under Haber. During the following ten years in Berlin, Polanyi established himself as one of Germany's leading physical chemists. He worked with some of the most prominent scientists of the age, including Eugene Wigner with whom he was to share a life-long friendship.

For Polanyi, who was a Jew, the coming to power of Hitler and the National Socialist Party marked the end of his career in Germany. In 1933, prompted by repeated attacks on Jewish intellectuals, Polanyi accepted a chair in physical chemistry created for him at the University of Manchester. He continued with the chemical studies begun in Berlin, and his laboratory at Manchester attracted students and established scientists from all over the world. His contacts with non-refugee German scientists decreased, but from 1933 to 1948 (the year Polanyi accepted the chair of Social Studies at Manchester), his contacts with British scientists increased, and eventually included William H. Bragg and his son William L. Bragg, Arthur Allmand, Patrick Blackett, Christopher Ingold, Cyril Hinshelwood, and Eric Rideal. There are a number of exchanges from this period with Max Born and Erwin Schrödinger, but perhaps his most important associate during this period was Japanese chemist Juro Horiuchi.

During these first years in England, Polanyi turned his interest to the philosophical attack presented free societies by the totalitarian governments of Germany and Russia. In 1935, he published his first non-scientific work, "U.S.S.R. Economics-Fundamental Data System and Spirit." This was accompanied by a film which criticized the system of Soviet economics as an attack on liberty. While devoting most of his time to scientific pursuits, Polanyi spent part of the next five years in work on The Contempt of Freedom (1940), his large-scale critique of totalitarian government. In the early 1930s, Polanyi had visited the Soviet Union and had become friends with two Soviet chemists, Alexander Frumkin and Nicolai Semenoff. Both were to write him asking that he stop his attacks on Soviet economic policies.

A devoted Keynesian, Polanyi's writings on economic subjects are divided between attacks on the Soviet system and lucid commentaries on the work of Lord Keynes. Between 1935 and c1950, Polanyi corresponded with a number of important economists including Friedrich A. Hayek, David Caradog Jones, Wolfe Mays, and John Maynard Keynes. His position as a scientist and a social thinker led him to become involved with a group of intellectuals in England concerned with social problems. This group, the Moot, was convened by Joseph H. Oldham, editor of the Christian Newsletter.

The war was passed in divided intellectual pursuits. Polanyi continued his scientific studies and tried to obtain military projects through Sir William Lawrence Bragg. At the same time he wrote on economic subjects. It was during these years that he helped to found, with John R. Baker, the Society for Freedom in Science which he used as a forum for developing his ideas on scientific liberty.

The philosophic ideas of Michael Polanyi first took characteristic shape during the war years. His opposition of planning in science led to an epistemology of science grounded in a belief in an individual nature of discovery, unhindered by official or dogmatic interference. In 1945, Polanyi published Science, Faith and Society, his first large-scale philosophic work and the foundation for his theory of knowledge. The evolution of Polanyi's thought is traceable in the Papers through a number of manuscripts, beginning with his 1936 On Truth, On Reason and Science and Liberty and continuing with his studies of scientific planning throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. By 1950, the date of the first of his University of Chicago lecture series, The Logic of Liberty, his interest in philosophy dominated all other intellectual concerns.

In 1951, Polanyi was offered a position at the University of Chicago on the Committee on Social Thought and was awarded a large grant by the Rockefeller Foundation. The State Department, however, held up his immigrant visa under the McCarran Act until Polanyi withdrew it, consequently remaining in Manchester. He was suspected of past involvement in a subversive organization, the Galilei Circle of his Hungarian youth. Ironically, he was involved with the most significant intellectual anti-Communist force in post-war Europe, the Congress for Cultural Freedom. When Princeton University made Polanyi an honorary Doctor of Science during its 1949 bicentennial celebration, he was cited as "a veteran campaigner against those who would take from science the freedom she requires for the pursuit of truth." His book, The Logic of Liberty, 1950, would continue his attack on Soviet infringement of personal liberty begun nearly twenty years before.

Following this debacle, Polanyi became a regular visitor to the United States and the University of Chicago. Two of his lecture series here were ultimately published as The Logic of Liberty (1950) and Meaning (1936). Between 1951 and 1958, when he retired from Manchester to accept a position of senior research fellow at Merton College, Oxford, Polanyi wrote his central philosophical work, Personal Knowledge. Personal Knowledge grew out of Polanyi's 1951 Gifford lectures.

Another aspect of Michael Polanyi's life, political involvement, can be traced throughout the collection. Prominence as a scientist and anti-Communist social thinker led Polanyi to recognition as an important commentator on current affairs. Throughout World War II, his letters, articles, and reviews appeared in various British journals, particularly the Manchester Guardian.

Polanyi was a major figure in the debate over intellectual liberty and most particularly the issue of planning in science. He was co-founder with John R. Baker of the Society for Freedom in Science in 1941. In the post-war period, Polanyi was an active participant in the organization of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its English affiliate, the Committee on Science and Freedom. His close involvement with these organizations is best illustrated in the correspondence through exchanges with such figures as Raymond Aron, Konstantin A. Jelenski, Shepard Stone, and Michael Josselson.

By 1972, age and infirmity had slowed Professor Polanyi's work. His final years were spent at home in Oxford and in a Northampton nursing home. During this period, Polanyi's wife of fifty-six years, Magda Kemeney Polanyi, managed his affairs. She supervised the translation of Personal Knowledge into German and was responsible for decisions concerning the disposition of Professor Polanyi's papers and library. Michael Polanyi died in the hospital at Northampton on February 22, 1976. He was eighty-four.

From the guide to the Polanyi, Michael. Papers, 1900-1975, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

Loading...

Loading Relationships

Information

Permalink:
http://n2t.net/ark:/99166/w6bz6dd6
Ark ID:
w6bz6dd6
SNAC ID:
70865573

Subjects:

  • Science--Philosophy
  • Philosophy
  • Tradition (Philosophy)
  • Philosophers
  • Knowledge, Theory of

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • Great Britain (as recorded)