Michael Polanyi

From Academic Kids

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


Early life

Michael was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, younger brother of Karl who went on to become a famous economist. 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 hospitalised and, during his convalescence, wrote what became his 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 also became a distinguished chemist. With the coming to power in 1933 of the Nazi party Polanyi took up a position as Professor of Chemistry 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

From the middle years of the Nineteen-Thirties Polanyi began to articulate his opposition to the prevailing positivist account of science, arguing that it failed to recognise the part played by tacit knowledge and the creative role played by the imagination. He viewed positivism as encouraging some to believe that scientific research ought to be directed by the State. He drew attention to what happened to genetics in the Soviet Union, once the doctrines of Trofim Lysenko gained political approval. Polanyi like Friedrich Hayek supplied reasons why it is desirable to live within a free society.

Polanyi criticised the notion of absolute objectivity and acknowledges the importance of inherited practices, ideas that were to influence the thought and work of Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s. His philosophical ideas are most fully expressed in the Gifford lectures he gave in 1951–52 at the University of Aberdeen which resulted in the book Personal Knowledge.


Polanyi, like Hayek, believed that a free market facilitates the use of tacit knowledge within a society. This helps society to self-organize, facilitating the pursuit of various goals. Polanyi's ideas on economics are elaborated in his book The Logic of Liberty.


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

See also


  • Polanyi, M (1951) The Logic of Liberty ISBN 0226672964
  • Polanyi, M (1964) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy ISBN 0226672883
  • Polanyi, M (1967) The Tacit Dimension
  • Polanyi, M & Prosch, H (1975) Meaning ISBN 0226672948

External links

it:Michael Polanyi nl:Michael Polanyi ja:マイケル・ポランニー sk:Michael Polanyi


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