Tradition and finding in Michael Polanyi's epistemology

Tradition and finding in Michael Polanyi's epistemology

Author: Francisco Gallardo
Published in: Tradición y finding en la epistemología de Michael Polanyi, in Ildefonso Murillo (ed.), Actualidad de la Tradición Filosófica, Ediciones Diálogo Filosófico, Colmenar Viejo (Madrid), pp. 843-850.
Publication date: 2010

Tradition and discovery is the degree scroll of a journal that has been published since 1974, devoted to the study of the thought of Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), a Hungarian-born scientist and epistemologist who developed a brilliant scientific degree program , first at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut *(1) in Berlin, where he moved in 1919, and from 1933 in Manchester. He excelled in various branches of Chemistry, such as reaction kinetics and the study of crystals by means of X-rays. grade Anecdotally, his initial scientific degree program was medicine, which he pursued in Budapest, but only during the First World War, when he served as a medical officer in the Austro-Hungarian army.

Gradually his scientific activity broadened his fields of interest: he dealt with issues of Economics and society in relation to science, among which the topic of the role of tradition within academic community stood out. His reflections on these issues led him to leave science in favour of a more in-depth study of questions concerning the epistemology and Philosophy of science, in which, according to him, the solution to the problems posed had to be found. In his main work, first published in 1958, degree scroll staff Knowledge *(2), he developed an original "theory of knowledge staff " - a few years later he would opt for the expression "knowledge tacit" - with which he underlined the important role played in knowledge by certain tacit aspects, which cannot be made explicit, but which in turn form a constitutive part of the cognitive process.

From Polanyi's perspective, a given tradition is at the basis of that set of tacit aspects that allow the advancement of knowledge: contrary to what might appear at first sight, the exercise of authority from a tradition could impede such advancement. This is precisely what Bertrand Russell states: "The triumphs of science are due to the replacement of tradition by observation and inference. Any attempt to re-establish authority in the intellectual field is a step backwards" *(3). Polanyi quotation this statement by Russell in a 1963 article which contains some of his reflections on a theory of adsorption that he himself developed at the beginning of his scientific degree program , and which went through various vicissitudes, some of them related precisely to the exercise of authority in science. In this article he concludes that, without underestimating the danger of a tradition that imposes itself in a totalitarian manner, every scientific advance needs a tradition to support it *(4).

Authority and freedom in science

Even as a young man, Michael Polanyi was interested in social issues in the field of science. During his years as a medical student in Budapest, he co-founded a society called the "Galileo Circle" (Galilei Kör), of which his brother Karl *(5) was president, whose aim was the defence and propagation of an unbiased science. Distancing himself from the aims of this society, because his colleagues regarded scientific research as a weapon in the battle for reform partner-political reforms, Polanyi later promoted seminars in Berlin on Economics which culminated in 1935 with the publication of a small book, U.S.S.R. Economics *(6), on Economics in the Soviet Union, in which he criticises the state planning of Economics and science, as well as the totalitarian regime. The idea of transferring proposal of state planning of Economics to the scientific sphere was echoed in England by John D. Bernal, Lancelot Hogben and others *(7). These scientists undoubtedly presented compelling reasons, such as the need to address the extraordinary development achieved by science and applications to industry and military purposes. topic However, the inspiring principles of their doctrine had Marxist roots *(8), which Polanyi did not fail to oppose from the outset, as is shown in some of his works published from the 1930s onwards in which he dealt with the organisation of scientific activity, notably The Contempt of Freedom *(9), Science, Faith and Society *(10) and The Logic of Liberty *(11).

Polanyi's civil service examination to these plans for total centralisation should not be interpreted as the proposal of total anarchy in the field of academic community. But in reality he does not reject any subject coordination among scientists, but rather the totally centralised organisation. The metaphor "republic of science" with which he titles a article published in 1962 *(12) is very eloquent: by this metaphor, Polanyi wants to underline that he considers science as an activity exercised by the community of scientists in such a way that it resembles in some respects a political organisation, and works according to economic principles similar to those regulating the production of goods Materials *(13). In the same way that civil society results from the union of individuals with a view to achieving certain ends - in final, the common good - the "republic of science" is constituted as a community whose aim is to satisfy their desire to know nature.

Polanyi insists that there must be a coordination of forces among scientists in order to favour the development of science by joining forces. But such coordination has to be achieved through mutual adjustment of independent and coordinated initiatives, because each one takes into account the other initiatives within the same system. Mutual financial aid between people working in neighbouring regions is desirable, whereas total centralisation would slow down the solution by restricting the initiative of individuals.

In the coordination between scientists, each scientist has to consider and judge the results arrived at by the others, which Polanyi calls the principle of "reciprocal control". This principle consists in the fact that scientists observe each other, so that each is subject to a certain authority, exercised through criticism, both positive and negative, by the others. Just as a political community needs a binding force, i.e. an authority, so the community of scientists needs an organisation supported by an authority. This is the way scientific opinion is formed, either by reinforcing the conclusions reached by science or by regulating the distribution of professional opportunities and grants from research *(14). In this way, scientists from different fields trust and support each other by passing on a body of knowledge, through which they exercise relative, not absolute, authority over each other. On the other hand, a single, central authority is not in a position to decide on the future of science *(15).

Polanyi considers that the knowledge attained by science is transmitted in a manner analogous to traditions relating to folk knowledge, through an act of trust by the disciple in relation to the master, as happens in the development of artistic skills, transmitted from master to student. In these cases, the master trusts in some way in the ability of his student to assimilate by following his example, without having to give him detailed explanations of everything; and the student trusts the master and does not expect an exhaustive demonstration of each of the teachings he receives *(16).

On the whole, this explanation of the transmission of science could perhaps be considered utopian. This has been considered by some authors, such as Agassi, for whom Polanyi is inspired by a model of medieval society, based on guilds, where knowledge is transmitted according to a very elementary structure, from master to apprentice*(17). However, Polanyi qualifies by stating that "the relationship between master and disciple is only one example and one facet of a broader set of institutions that are responsible for the mutual trust and discipline between scientists, by which the internship of finding is ordered and the principles of science are fostered and developed" *(18). In any case, the image of the master-apprentice to illustrate the influence of tradition, without necessarily applying it literally, is a useful guideline which other authors, such as MacIntyre, have also taken advantage of *(19). All this, bearing in mind that the organisation required by science today is not simply a matter of coordinating independent initiatives: major investments are needed to set up certain projects, such as large particle accelerators or hospital facilities with advanced techniques.

Faith in the received tradition and knowledge of reality

At the opposite extreme of the authoritarianism with Marxist roots, already considered, is the attitude of rejection of any tradition constituted as authority. The latter is precisely what Cartesian methodical doubt proposes, to which Polanyi alludes at reference letter to the impossibility of carrying it out in a congruent way *(20). This does not exclude the fact that Descartes inaugurated a new rationalist tradition, which led to Kantian critical idealism and later to absolute idealism, which Polanyi opposed, proposing as an alternative a "post-criticalPhilosophy ", an expression he included in the subtitle of staff Knowledge.

In order to carry out this project, Polanyi chooses to take up some elements of the medieval philosophical tradition, drawing inspiration from Saint Augustine, particularly in his works Contra Academicos and De Magistro. In the latter, he stresses the importance of exercising subordination to an authority as a prerequisite for true learning *(21), a doctrine that is expressed in staff Knowledge *(22). This is a common internship in science: "no one can become a scientist unless he assumes that scientific theory and method are fundamentally true and that their ultimate principles can be accepted without discussion. We have here an example of the process epigrammatically described by the Church Fathers in the words: fides quaerens intellectum, faith that wants to understand" *(23). And in Against Academics, Polanyi found arguments against relativistic positions, noting that man can attain certain truths, faith being at the basis of those truths *(24).

This perspective, at least at first sight, may raise some difficulties: is there not a risk of subjectivism? It is certainly the opposite approach to that of positivism, which was the dominant current in the first half of the 20th century, and could be considered, at least in part, the heir of the aforementioned criticism. In particular, the philosophical movement that emerged around the Vienna Circle sought to provide a logical and scientific interpretation of the world. It considers that knowledge is reduced to the collection of observational data and the elaboration of logical constructions, with the goal aim of providing science with an explicit criterion that would make it possible to answer the question of the validity of theories. This is the "principle of empirical verification", according to which those propositions that can be empirically verified are admitted as valid propositions of scientific language; those that cannot be verified are declared meaningless propositions *(25).

Polanyi reacted against this point of view. His critique of positivism, backed up by his long experience of scientific activity, basically focuses on the impossibility of describing the development of science by means of exclusively logical factors. For him, other extra-logical elements play a fundamental role in the scientific knowledge , which cannot be made explicit, and which he calls "tacit factors". Thus, the progress of science is not determined by strictly logical criteria, but rather by certain indicators that make it possible to judge the contributions of scientists *(26). But to say this does not imply that science is arbitrary, for it is governed by rigorous standards, outlined in the previous section , related to trust - faith - in colleagues and predecessors in the exercise of the science in question. It is precisely this idea that Polanyi illustrates with the expression "knowledge staff ": it is a non-explicit component that allows us to know objectively, far from falling into arbitrary subjectivism *(27).

In this context we can understand a statement by Polanyi that at first sight may seem rather surprising, especially if we bear in mind that it comes from a scientist: when referring to science, he affirms that it is "a system of beliefs to which we are committed" *(28).(28) With this phrase, Polanyi is not referring to science as a whole. To interpret it in this way would lead to the conclusion that he subscribes to a kind of fideism or blind belief in a set of principles, which is rather implausible for a man of science. Rather, he stresses the important role of the tradition in which we have been trained, which provides us with a set of received principles without requiring demonstration. Even Polanyi stresses that these beliefs are taken on board not in a distant way, but through a commitment by which we make them our own. This commitment has an emotional component, it is passionately exercised, which does not imply that it is irrational *(29). This passion can be illustrated by the emblematic exclamation "eureka" on the lips of the scientist who has just discovered a new law, of which he is absolutely certain.

The tacit component of tradition

From a Polanyian perspective, it is core topic the idea that "we can know more than we can express" *(30). This does not express a limitation, on the contrary: an attempt to make explicit to the last detail that which remains tacit would be a "destructive analysis", as would happen to a pianist if, when playing a melody, instead of concentrating on the music, he were to concentrate on the movement of his fingers: he would most probably be unable to continue. This analysis would therefore have a destructive character *(31). In fact, science is underpinned by solid foundations, presuppositions without which it could not develop, which Polanyi calls "premises of science". Among this set of principles that constitute the tradition received from our ancestors is the certainty that everything that happens in the world has a rational explanation: these are, in essence, the principles of non-contradiction and causality.

The premises of science are to a large extent a tacit component, which does not imply that they should not be analysed *(32). For Polanyi, these premises are not obtained directly from experience by induction, by means of certain rules fixed in advance, but are like a presentiment about what is at the basis of the experience that surrounds us *(33). He distinguishes two kinds of premises: on the one hand, general assumptions about the nature of everyday experience; on the other hand, particular assumptions on which the process of scientific finding and its verification is based *(34). The general assumptions make reference letter mainly the rational view of nature, whereby it is accepted that every effect has its cause. Polanyi calls this view a "naturalistic" interpretation, as opposed to a "magical" interpretation that explains all phenomena outside rationality *(35). Thus, without excluding that other worldviews may have internal consistency *(36), he considers that the "naturalist" view must be accepted as more positive because it provides a more accurate view of the natural order. Indeed, if we were not confident that we can find reasonable answers to the facts of experience, then science would be meaningless.

These presuppositions of knowledge constitute an unwritten, unspoken cultural tradition, which is not imposed, because they are knowledge that we make our own when we acquire it, or we reject it as false. In a way, we discover them through our own intellectual habits *(37). Underlining the importance of the role of knowledge received through tradition does not mean that a person capriciously chooses a set of knowledge "à la carte", because behind this choice lies a conviction that a true knowledge , valid for all, is reached.

Tradition as a catalyst for discovery

Man's preconception of nature has a decisive influence on the process of discovery. Behind this consideration lies the role Polanyi gives to tradition: a scientist's task research cannot be separated from the vision of reality he has received. The same can be expressed with the Kuhnian notion of paradigm, for it is not in vain that Polanyi's conception of science is similar to Kuhn's *(38). In any case, Polanyi differs from Kuhn mainly by considering that there is progress in science, and that it is a progressive approach to truth.

In this respect, at the beginning of staff Knowledge Polanyi points out some interpretative keys that contribute to shed light in particular on those factors, in relation to the previous vision of reality, that made the advance of experimental science possible. Going back to Greek thought, he points out that at the beginning of experimental science there were two different views of nature. The first, the Pythagorean school, describes nature in terms of mathematical relationships. This tradition considers numbers to be the ultimate reason for things. Thus, according to Polanyi, Copernicus' conception of astronomy finds its inspiration in the Pythagorean tradition. Even more clearly, Kepler draws on this tradition, because of his interest in the search for relationships that account for the motion of the planets *(39).

In addition to the Pythagorean tradition, Polanyi considers that science in the Modern Age is progressively influenced by the Ionian tradition, and in particular Thales of Miletus. This school describes the universe in terms of certain material elements, and in this sense is said to possess a conception of nature of subject materialist or atomist. Thus, the mathematical relations by which Copernicus and Kepler described the motions of the planets became expressions of mechanical laws to which the particles are subject. Following Polanyi's description, this mechanistic conception lasted until the beginning of the 20th century*(40). In modern science, the transition from the Pythagorean to the Ionian tradition took place gradually, since - as Polanyi points out - the Pythagorean tradition was influential for a century after Copernicus. In Galileo, for example, we can see that this tradition is still partially preserved in the study of celestial dynamics: Galileo considered that the heavenly bodies, unlike the terrestrial bodies, must follow a perfect, i.e. circular, motion *(41).

Even Polanyi speaks of a third stage, which began in the twentieth century. This stage is dominated by a view of nature that is no longer based on the description of the mechanical evolution of a system of particles. Physical systems are now described in terms of mathematical invariants, as is done in relativistic mechanics and quantum mechanics *(42). For Polanyi, this stage is in a way a return to the Pythagorean perspective, albeit with a different approach , because of his attempt to describe nature in a rational way by resorting to mathematical relations. For this reason, for him, the changes introduced by physics in the 20th century have not meant an essential change in the rational conception of reality.

Regardless of whether one considers these considerations to be more or less correct - it would be necessary to introduce the relevant amplifications and nuances, which is beyond the scope of this brief exhibition- what we wish to point out here is the decisive influence of tradition in the advancement of science, which Polanyi has highlighted in a very suggestive way throughout his intellectual trajectory.


  1. This is the prestigious academic institution that after the Second World War was renamed the Max Planck Institute.

  2. Michael Polanyi, staff Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy, 2nd ed., Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1962 (hereafter cited as PK).

  3. Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society, University Press, Oxford 1946.

  4. Michael Polanyi, The Potential Theory of Adsorption, "Science", 141 (1963), pp. 1010-1013. A few years later it would be published as chapter six in Knowing and Being, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1969, a collection of Polanyi's articles compiled by Marjorie Grene (hereafter cited as KB).

  5. Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) is best known for his work on Economics with a sociological approach , which development mainly in the United States and Canada. His most widely published work is entitled The Great Transformation. In addition, John Polanyi, Michael's son, was awarded the award Nobel Prize at Chemistry.

  6. Michael Polanyi,U.S.S.R. Economics, Manchester University Press, Manchester 1935.

  7. Cf. John D. Bernal, The Social Function of Science, Routledge, London 1938.

  8. Michael Polanyi, The Growth of Thought in Society, "Economica", 8 (1941), p. 428.

  9. Michael Polanyi, The Contempt of Freedom, C. A. Watts, London 1940.

  10. Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, Oxford University Press, London 1946. Hereafter cited as SFS in the Spanish translation of M. D. Cuadrado: Ciencia, fe y sociedad, Taurus, Madrid 1961.

  11. Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1951.

  12. Cf. Michael Polanyi, The Republic of Science, Its Political and Economic Theory, "Minerva", 1 (1962), pp. 54-73. This article was collected in Knowing and Being as chapter four (KB, pp. 49-72).

  13. Cf. KB, p. 49.

  14. Cf. KB, pp. 84-85.

  15. Cf. KB, p. 85.

  16. Cf. PK, p. 53.

  17. Cf. Joseph Agassi, Science and Society. Studies in the Sociology of Science, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht 1981, pp. 1-2.

  18. SFS, p. 44.

  19. Cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Encyclopaedia, Genealogy and Tradition, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame (Indiana) 1990, p. 63.

  20. Cf. PK, p. 269.

  21. Cf. Patrick Grant, Michael Polanyi: The Augustinian Component, "The New Scholasticism", 48 (1974), p. 441.

  22. Cf., for example, PK, pp. 53-54. An explicit quotation to De Magistro can be found in PK, p. 92.

  23. SFS, pp. 41-42.

  24. Cf. Grant, Michael Polanyi: the Augustinian Component, cit. p. 442.

  25. Cf. Mariano Artigas, El desafío de la racionalidad, Eunsa, Pamplona 1994, pp. 32-33.

  26. Cf. for example chapter II of Science, Faith and Society, graduate "Authority and Conscience" (SFS, pp. 38-61).

  27. Cf. PK, p. 195.

  28. PK, p. 171.

  29. In this line, the expression "intellectual passions", which appears in the degree scroll of a long chapter of Personal Knowledge (cf. PK, pp. 132-202), is significant.

  30. Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, Anchor Books, London 1966, p. 4.

  31. Cf. PK, p. 50.

  32. This idea, which is developed in depth in staff Knowledge (cf. PK, p. 163), is already inculcated in Science, Faith and Society: "The premises of science cannot be formulated explicitly, and it is only in the internship of science that they become apparent, as they have been preserved by the scientific tradition. This does not mean that we deny the usefulness of the analysis of the premises of science" (SFS, p. 87).

  33. Cf. SFS, p. 38.

  34. Cf. SFS, pp. 38-39.

  35. Cf. SFS, pp. 19-20. The contrast between the two types of interpretation of the world, "naturalistic" and "magical", should not be interpreted in the sense given by Kurt Hübner. This author uses this distinction to affirm a supposed superiority of science over Philosophy, which he considers to be a mythical interpretation (cf. Mariano Artigas, Philosophy de la ciencia experimental, Eunsa, Pamplona 1989, pp. 373-378), an opinion which, on the other hand, Polanyi does not share. Basically, with the expression "naturalistic interpretation" Polanyi alludes to a rational interpretation of reality.

  36. In support of this assertion, Polanyi refers to Evans-Pritchard's programs of study on the African Azande tribe (cf. PK 287-288).

  37. "Traditions are handed down to us from the past, and we come to them in turn in the context of the current problems we face" (PK, p. 160).

  38. In fact, in his main work Kuhn expressly mentions Polanyi as having developed in staff Knowledge a theory similar to his on paradigms (cf. Thomas S. Kuhn, La estructura de las revoluciones científicas, Fondo de cultura económica, México, D.F. 1971, p. 82).

  39. Cf. PK, pp. 6-7. The Pythagorean world picture underlying Kepler's view that the orbits of the planets would be derived from purely geometrical considerations is well known.

  40. Artigas points out that this mechanicism underwent an evolution, as materialistic mechanicism, of a reductive nature, did not appear until the end of the eighteenth century. Although Galileo and Newton were interested in the study of mechanics, this did not mean that they had a materialistic conception of the universe (cf. Artigas, Philosophy de la ciencia experimental, cit., pp. 311-312).

  41. Cf. PK, pp. 7-8.

  42. Cf. PK, p. 164.