Michael Polanyi

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Michael Polanyi (March 11, 1891February 22, 1976), born Polányi Mihály, was a Hungarian–British polymath whose thought and work extended across physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.


The Logic of Liberty (1951)[edit]

  • When order is achieved among human beings by allowing them to interact with each other on their own initiative — subject only to the laws which uniformly apply to all of them — we have a system of spontaneous order in society.

Personal Knowledge (1958)[edit]

  • Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowing is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality; a contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge. Personal knowledge is an intellectual commitment, and as such inherently hazardous. Only affirmations that could be false can be said to convey objective knowledge of this kind. (vii-viii)
  • Ever since [Copernicus], writers eager to drive the lesson home have urged us [...] to abandon all sentimental egoism, and to see ourselves objectively in the true perspective of time and space. What precisely does this mean? In a full 'main feature' film, recapitulating faithfully the complete history of the universe, the rise of human beings from the first beginnings of man to the achievements of the twentieth century would flash by in a single second. Alternatively, if we decided to examine the universe objectively in the sense of paying equal attention to portions of equal mass, this would result in a lifelong preoccupation with interstellar dust, relieved only at brief intervals by a survey of incandescent masses of hydrogen — not in a thousand million lifetimes would the turn come to give man even a second's notice. It goes without saying that no one — scientists included — looks at the universe in this way, whatever lip-service is given to 'objectivity.' (3)
  • While the articulate contents of science are successfully taught all over the world in hundreds of universities, the unspecifiable art of scientific research has not yet penetrated to many of these.
  • To learn by example is to submit to authority. ...By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition. ...Common Law ...is the most important system of strictly traditional activities.

Life's irreducible structure (1968)[edit]

  • The recognition of certain basic impossibilities has laid the foundations of some major principles of physics and chemistry; similarly, recognition of the impossibility of understanding living things in terms of physics and chemistry, far from setting limits to our understanding of life, will guide it in the right direction. And even if the demonstration of this impossibility should prove of no great advantage in the pursuit of discovery, such a demonstration would help to draw a truer image of life and man than that given us by the present basic concepts of biology.

Transcendence And Self-Transcendence (1970)[edit]

  • Our view of life must account for how we know life; biological theories must allow for their own discovery and employment. Theories of evolution must provide for the creative acts which brought such theories into existence. Beginning with our own embodiment our theory of knowledge must endorse the ways we manifestly transcend our embodiment by acts of indwelling and extension into more subtle and intangible realms of being, where we meet our ultimate ends.

Quotes about Polanyi[edit]

  • Polanyi's model, quite clearly, was one of empowerment, in two different yet related ways. First, the master possesses all of the power in respect to his of her apprentice. Polanyi strongly implies that knowledge (and hence power) flows in one direction only: from teacher to pupil. Second, once the apprentice has obtained the necessary tacit knowledge, he or she is empowered with respect to those in the community who do not possess such knowledge. Polanyi's scheme was one of extreme elitism.
    • Myles W. Jackson, Spectrum of Belief: Joseph Von Fraunhofer and the Craft of Precision Optics (2000)

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