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Michael Polanyi

Michael Polanyi (March 11, 1891 - February 22, 1976) was a Hungarian/ British polymath whose thought and work extended across physical chemistry, philosophy, theology and economics.


Early life

Michael was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, younger brother of Karl who went on to be a famous economist himself. Their father was an engineer and entrepreneur whose volatile fortunes in railway speculation motivated Polanyi to seek financial stability through a career in medicine, graduating in 1913. He served as a physician in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I but was himself hospitalised and, during his convalescence, started to study physical chemistry, obtaining a doctorate from the University of Budapest in 1917.

In 1920, Polanyi emigrated to Germany to work as a chemist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fiber Chemistry in Berlin. There, he married Magda Elizabeth in a Roman Catholic ceremony. In 1929, Magda gave birth to a son John, who was himself to become a distinguished chemist. The family moved to England in 1933 so that Michael could take up a position at the University of Manchester.

Physical chemistry

Polanyi's scientific interests were diverse, embracing chemical kinetics, x-ray diffraction and the absorption of gases at solid surfaces.

In 1934, Polanyi, roughly contemporarily with G. I. Taylor and Egon Orowan realised that the plastic deformation of ductile materials could be explained in terms of the theory of dislocations developed by Vito Volterra in 1905. The insight was critical in developing the modern science of solid mechanics.

Philosophy of science

Towards the end of the 1940s, Polanyi began to articulate his concerns that the prevailing positivist climate in science failed to recognise the importance of tacit knowledge and of the internal human processes of creativity and imagination. Moreover, he believed that such positivism had motivated government moves to organise science. He was particularly alarmed at the treatment of scientists in the Soviet Union, highlighted by the fate that befell opponents of Trofim Lysenko's Marxist approach to scientific method. The mobilisation of the scientific community during World War II left a legacy in the post-war years and Polanyi was an outspoken opponent of state intervention, collaborating with economist Friedrich Hayek's attack on "...socialists of all parties".

Polanyi criticised the notion of objectivity and suggested the importance of evolved knowledge, ideas that were to influence the thought and work of Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s. His ideas on philosophy are most fully expessed in his book Personal Knowledge.


Having questioned the notion of objectivity and denied any privileged status to scientific knowledge, Polanyi extended his thinking to the nature of religious belief. Concerned with the proper role of religion in a modern technological society, his thought integrates science, religion, philosophy, psychology, sociology and economics. His ideas about theology are most fully expressed in his book Meaning.


For Polanyi, his fears of totalitarianism led him to a belief in the importance of the free market in preserving liberty and exploiting the tacit knowledge of society as a whole. Like Hayek, he believed that such markets were not conscious inventions but evolved habits, sharing and synchronising local and personal knowledge in achieving diverse ends among society's members through a principle of self-organization. Polanyi's ideas on economics are most fully expressed in his book The Logic of Liberty.


Polanyi was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.

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Last updated: 05-07-2005 17:32:40
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04