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Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher,
by William Taussig Scott and Martin X. Moleski, S.J.,
Oxford University Press, 384 pages, $45

Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing,
by Mark T. Mitchell,
ISI, 220 pages, $15

As much for his shortcomings as for his insights, the Hungarian chemist Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) deserves revisiting. It was in his 1958 book Personal Knowledge that Polanyi put forth what remains, to this day, the most interesting case for the participatory and emotional aspects of scientific knowledge. In challenging a scientific epistemology that “had traditionally aimed at defining truth and falsity in impersonal terms, for these alone are accepted as truly universal,” Polanyi attempted to recover the centrality of humanity to science.

Against both subjective relativism and objective absolutism, Polanyi located “personal knowledge.” Individual appraisals, he said, are not an imperfection of knowledge but a necessary coefficient. When the Copernican revolution supplanted Ptolemaic cosmology, it did not, as is often claimed, signal the displacement of man from the center of his universe. Instead, Polanyi says, we “abandoned the cruder anthropocentrism of our senses—but only for a more ambitious anthropocentrism of our reason.” Try as science might to establish a neutral vantage point, it merely replaces old prejudices with new, equally human biases. Science invariably privileges humanity; it is preoccupied with man’s place and purpose.

“The art of knowing” is Polanyi’s phrase for the human ability to know in aesthetic, nonrational ways. For example, scientists often arrive first at a solution to a problem and only afterward search for the evidence. When people swim, they do not mentally consult the physics that explain how to propel partially submerged human bodies through water. Or consider the polyglot Polanyi: “My correspondence arrives at my breakfast table in various languages, but my son understands only English. Having just finished reading a letter I may wish to pass it on to him, but must check myself and look again to see in what language it was written. I am vividly aware of the meaning conveyed by the letter, yet know nothing whatever of its words.” Polanyi goes even further, insisting that such tacit knowledge is at the root of all we know and that, without it, science would not be possible at all.

Not until Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher had an exhaustive biography been published. Begun by William Scott, a now-deceased physicist and seventeen-year acquaintance of Polanyi, the manuscript was refined by Martin Moleski, S.J., as Scott’s health failed. The strength of the book, its thoroughness, is at times also its weakness. After enjoying the firsthand account of Polanyi’s childhood (“In the morning a cold shower, an hour of gymnastics, hot cocoa with a roll, Schiller and Goethe, Corneille and Racine-all with private teachers”), readers will endure lengthy and unnecessary descriptions of experimental processes and theories.

For more impatient readers, Mark Mitchell of Patrick Henry College has contributed a slim volume on Michael Polanyi to ISI’s “Library of Great Thinkers” series. Because Polanyi played the parts of chemist, philosopher, theologian, and economist, tracing a single thematic arc through his work is not easy. Still, according to Mitchell, all of Polanyi’s endeavors “spring from a common concern: a tireless attempt to reestablish a legitimate grounding for liberty. In this light, Polanyi should be understood as a political philosopher who rightly grasped that liberty depends on resources beyond politics.” It should be added that Polanyi believed such resources were transcendent in origin. In other words, man is made to be free because all kingdoms are subject to the metaphysical norms of justice and goodness. Every legitimate society requires freedom, and freedom presumes the transcendent. No coincidence, then, as Polanyi saw it, that atheist Soviet Russia conflated pure and applied science, strangling scientific and economic freedoms.

But it is as a philosopher of science that Polanyi remains the most fascinating. “Every kind of knowing includes an appreciation of order,” he argued, and all appraisals of order are by nature personal. In the course of his work, Polanyi makes much of the lesson of crystallography. Before we can categorize precious stones as “crystals,” “poor crystals,” or “not crystals,” we must first be taken in by the beauty of the crystal’s idea and believe the crystal form is true—objectively true—and that it frames nature beautifully, which is to say, faithfully. Far from evolving through impartial trial and error, crystallography is a formulized art form, he claims. It was only after the fact, so to speak, that the science’s tight geometric framework of 230 space groups and thirty-two classes of crystal was verified to please what was already sensed to be true, done finally in such a way that the science is effectively unfalsifiable.

Crystallography “is not a mere scientific idealization but the formalization of an aesthetic ideal, closely akin to that deeper and never rigidly definable sensibility by which the domains of art and art-criticism are governed. That is why this theory teaches us to appreciate certain things, regardless of whether we may find any of their kind in nature, and allows us also to criticize these things when we find them, to the extent to which they fall short of the standards which the theory sets for nature.” In contrast to the experimental evidence typically cited by science, crystallography defiantly points to its own self-contained, self-referential attractiveness, having no more convincing argument for its contact with reality.

Indeed, all attempts to pit fact against value form a false dichotomy, Polanyi insists. Science begins by endorsing certain emotions and values as correct. About this prelogical commitment to truth claims, he writes, “I want to show that this appreciation depends ultimately on a sense of intellectual beauty,” which he later calls a “token of reality.” And it is, indirectly, the universal truth of the “the beauty of a work of art or the excellence of a noble action” on which science hangs: “Science exists only to the extent to which there lives a passion for its beauty, a beauty believed to be universal and eternal.” Beauty and goodness make possible truth’s discovery, not the other way around.

There is, as a result, an embarrassing circularity to scientific discourse. “Any inquiry into our ultimate beliefs can be consistent only if it presupposes its own conclusions,” Polanyi writes. “It must be intentionally circular.” Once we “realize that we can voice our ultimate convictions only from within our convictions—from within the whole system of acceptances that are logically prior to any particular assertion of our own, prior to the holding of any particular piece of knowledge,” scientific objectivism becomes untenable. Drawing from a “deeper secret pivot of faith,” these “acceptances” can never be fully rationalized or impersonalized. Symmetry, coherence, richness, scope, fruitfulness, simplicity—the qualities used by science to recognize theories as true—are, Polanyi says, veils for rationally unjustified assumptions. Logic cannot be the sole arbiter in science’s pluralistic conversations.

Which is not to say these terms are purposeless: For Polanyi, they function personally and aesthetically, and are scientifically relevant insofar as their meanings “are stretched far beyond their usual scope, so as to include the much deeper qualities which make the scientists rejoice in a vision like that of relativity. They must stand for those peculiar intellectual harmonies which reveal, more profoundly and permanently than any sense-experience, the presence of objective truth.”

Thomas Kuhn, in this connection, famously argued that scientific paradigms are “incommensurable,” since any paradigm’s truth is determined by its specific premises; making sense of a paradigm’s rhetoric requires first entering into its conversation, playing by its rules. Polanyi agrees, in part. (Where Kuhn thought science was either choosing between paradigms or, having accepted one, applying it until another paradigm came along to pose a challenge, Polanyi believed science was always in a state of paradigm flux.) For Kuhn, however, the problem is to explain how and why we choose one paradigm over another: Not only are the systems incommensurable, but the criteria are as well-unless, of course, the definition of “objectivity” is enlarged, as Polanyi would have it, to include personal, aesthetic assessments of paradigms and their merits, precisely as science did in embracing Einstein’s counterintuitive, highly theoretical relativity. “We cannot truly account for our acceptance of such theories,” Polanyi notes, “without endorsing our acknowledgement of a beauty that exhilarates and a profundity that entrances us.” Joy and wonder are the place where beauty and truth meet.

Mark Mitchell’s Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing places Polanyi in fertile conversation with three other thinkers: Michael Oakeshott, Eric Voegelin, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Another name, Hans Urs von Balthasar, may also be of interest. By reversing the operative order of the Platonic transcendentals of Being as caged, prioritized, and approached by Kant in his Trilogy (first the True, then the Good, and lastly the Beautiful), Balthasar reintroduced beauty and drama into Christian theology, doing for Christianity what Polanyi, in effect, did for science.

Was Polanyi a Christian? It’s difficult to say. Following the First World War, he relocated to Germany, where he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion, many suggest, was pragmatic: Being both Jewish and foreign-born, he was looking for ways to assimilate. What is known is that Polanyi saw little of value in Jewish culture (he was an anti-Zionist), instead championing “Anglo-American civilization” and crediting Christianity with giving rise to the West. Though he never attended Mass after his conversion, he did carry a prayer book in his breast pocket.

On matters of dogma, Polanyi was influenced by the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. If “the decisive fact of Christianity is that the ‘tomb is empty’” or the “claptrap about heaven and hell,” then, Polanyi admitted, he could not call himself a Christian. “My faith in God has never failed me since 1913,” he wrote, “but my faith in the divinity of Christ (for example) has been with me only for rare moments.” Convinced by Tillich that true faith incorporates its own doubt, Polanyi applied the Christian doctrine of fallen nature and divine grace to scientific efforts: “The Pauline scheme of redemption is the paradigm of the process of scientific discovery. It demands us to undertake a task for which our explicit faculties are clearly insufficient, trusting that our labors will be granted success by powers over which we have no command,” a hope he calls “a clue of God.” Only because of “the universal principle of faith beyond evidence, of love beyond desert, of gratuitously given confidence which the Gospel enjoins” is science a possibility. In a letter to Karl Bonhoeffer regarding his brother’s execution, Polanyi honors Dietrich’s “love of freedom which can only derive its rational justification from an obligation to the transcendental.” Elsewhere he speaks of “the universal obligations” to which he felt subject, of his “sense of calling” in being a scientist, and of “trusting the unfathomable intimations” behind scientific knowledge.

But the Christian faith resists reduction to a symbol, clue, or intimation. Unaware that beauty, by definition, cannot be separated from its particularities and is always prior to and still beyond all systems of logic, Polanyi let his Tillichian metaphysics revert to the failed objectivism he so consciously opposed. He was quite right when he wrote that “the belief that, since particulars are more tangible, their knowledge offers a true conception of things is fundamentally mistaken.” But belief in the reality of the unseen is nothing without belief in particulars. By fictionalizing and making symbol of transcendent beauty and goodness, Polanyi abandoned them to rationalism, undoing his epistemology with his theology and, sadly, closing himself off from the truth of the God who dwelt among us.

On his deathbed, Polanyi was asked how he felt. Pointing to a painting on the wall in which Saint Augustine was shown struggling to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, he answered, “That is what I feel.” It seems a fitting, almost crystalline image for this, the most intriguing philosopher of science of the twentieth century.

John Rose is an assistant editor at First Things.