Polanyi and European Origins of “Science”


The work of Michael Polanyi (1891 1976) was a powerful antidote to much of what passed for serious discourse in the 20th Century. In a series of books commencing with Science, Faith and Society (1946), and including his Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post Critical Philosophy (1958), The Study of Man (1959), Beyond Nihilism (1960), The Tacit Dimension (1966), and in numerous lectures and essays,36 Michael Polanyi has attempted to formulate a view of science which overcomes the conventional notion of science as supremely objective, impersonal, and detached. The purpose of his study Personal Knowledge is, he writes, “to re equip men with the faculties which centuries of critical thought have taught them to distrust. “37 The challenge Polanyi sets for himself then, could be seen as a direct response to the explicit advice of social scientists like B. F/ Skinner, and the implicit intention of David Easton, that we should replace “traditional prescientific views” with scientific ones.38 I believe Polanyi can inform our views of “public health” professionals advising us on what to do about the Coronavirus pandemic.


Polanyi begins his argument with rejection of the spurious ideal of scientific detachment.39 Scientific reasoning is human reasoning and should never claim absolute objectivity, absent of the scientist’s “passionate impulse. “40 Scientific discourse must maintain its human perspective .

. . .as human beings, we must inevitably see the universe from a centre lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of a human language shaped by the exigencies of human intercourse. Any attempt rigorously to eliminate our human perspective from our picture of the world must lead to absurdity.41

The notion of political life in political community, we may infer, is somehow lost in its translation into reified, “objective” language used by David Easton which reduces all that is human to “processes” of a “system” analogous to a “factory” or airport “traffic control center.”42 The behaviorist’s pursuit of objective knowledge, which in Easton’s approach means the search for causal hypotheses of behavior ultimately verifiable empirically, creates a disjunction between subjectivity and objectivity which Polanyi rejects because it does not adequately reflect the personal character of human knowledge. An element of personal skill is involved in even the most mechanistic of scientific measurements. As such, scientific research can be viewed as an art which is largely communicated by cultural traditions and attitudes. Though science as substantive knowledge can be readily transmitted from one person to another person, from one civilization to another, the art of scientific research is less easily conveyed.

The regions of Europe in which the scientific method first originated 400 years ago are scientifically still more fruitful today, in spite of their impoverishment, than several overseas areas where much money is available for scientific research. Without the opportunity offered to young scientists to serve an apprenticeship in Europe, and without the migration of European scientists to the new countries, research centres overseas could hardly ever have made much headway.43

The instruments of science, moreover, are extensions of our persons; they are not external objects, objective devices, the consequences of which are equally objective. We “pour ourselves out into” our tools, he writes, “and assimilate them as parts of our own existence. We accept them existentially by dwelling in them. “44