Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was a Hungarian from a non-observant Jewish family; his mother was called "Aunt of the Hungarian Revolution." He was baptized as a Catholic in 1919, but apparently only as a matter of convenience--he wanted to live and work in Germany, and it was better to have a Christian identity on one's passport rather than Jewish. Later in life, he associated most closely with the Protestant point of view. In his professional career, he began as a medical doctor, because that was the only scientific degree he could take in Budapest, but shortly switched to studying physical chemistry. He specialized in the adsorption of gases, X-ray crystallography, and reaction kinetics.

In 1947, Polanyi gave up his scientific research and was granted a chair in the humanities. He concerned himself mainly with the philosophy of science, economics, and sociology. In 1986, his son, John, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for carrying on the kind of work his father had begun in reaction kinetics.

In 1958, Polanyi published Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. In it he outlined the structure of an epistemology based upon tacit knowledge--those things we know that cannot be completely communicated by words. He claims that "all knowledge is tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge." If faith is a way of knowing, and if what Polanyi says is true, then faith must be "tacit or rooted in tacit knoweldge."

The  Catholic University of America Press  published a revision of my dissertation on Polanyi and Newman in 2000.  My dissertation is from Catholic University and was entitled: "Illative Sense and Tacit Knowledge: A Comparison of the Theological Implications of the Epistemologies of John Henry Newman and Michael Polanyi" (1991).  The revision is entitled Personal Catholicism.

Oxford University Press has published Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher. This biography was begun by Bill Scott in 1977. He became incapacitated and I was allowed to act as his co-author, rewriting the manuscript and seeing it through publication.

019517433X, hardback, 368 pages

Price: $45.00

I've been interested in Polanyi's work since I was a sophomore at Boston College (1971-72). Alan Weinblatt told me that I would enjoy his theory of knowledge and meaning. I later wrote a virtually unreadable honors thesis on "Poetics of Process" in which I used Polanyi's thought to argue that if the universe is meaningful, there must be a God.

William T. Scott was a distinguished theoretical physicist with a lifelong interest in philosophy. Two National Science Foundation Fellowships were critical in his development: at Yale he studied theology and met Michael Polanyi, at Oxford he immersed himself in philosophy and deepened his relationship with Polanyi. Scott found in Polanyi a bridge between authentic science and authentic faith. He began work on Polanyi's biography in 1977 and worked on it for seventeen years; he died on February 22, 1999, the twenty-third anniversary of Michael Polanyi's death. From Christmas of 1997 until the spring of 2005, I worked on revising Bill's manuscript.

Polanyi's philosophy of science is rooted in his own experiences as a medical doctor, a physical chemist, and an economist. He was convinced that "all knowledge is tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge." This means that all knowing is personal--objectivity is the accomplishment of subjects who are willing to dedicate themselves to making contact with reality. From this perspective, the physical sciences depend on a metaphysical vision that cannot be put wholly into words nor proven in detail. Science, like religion, is an act of personal commitment that gives meaning to the whole of life.

The Polanyi Society meets annually in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion (AAR), publishes Tradition and Discovery (TAD), a quarterly devoted to Polanyian thought edited by Phil Mullins of Missouri Western State College (mullins@missouriwestern.edu)and sponsors a discussion list on Yahoo Groups.

Polanyi Society Links

Society for Post-Critical and Personalist Studies--a brief biography.