Book Review: "Michael Polanyi" by Mark T. Mitchell

I've recently read the book Michael Polanyi by Mark T. Mitchell. (As an aside, it may be worth noting that some listings of this book carry the subtitle The Art of Knowing, but the usage of this subtitle within the copy of the book I got was inconsistent.) The book gives a relatively brief summary of the life and times of the physical chemist-turned-economist/philosopher Michael Polanyi in the first chapter, and then goes into a little more detail about his philosophies on economics, politics, science, morality, knowledge, religion, and other things in the second through fourth chapters, concluding in the fifth chapter with a comparison of his philosophical views to those of his contemporaries along with a little discussion about the implications of Polanyi's views for the present day.

The book is fairly short, well-written, and engaging even for a layperson like myself. The overview of Polanyi's life is quite interesting, and as I am considering the next steps for my own career (more on that in a future post), I was particularly taken by the story of Polanyi's career change so late in life. The discussion of his philosophy avoids unexplained jargon and very heavy technical arguments, instead clearly laying things out in simple terms & examples, and I was surprised (mainly as I was previously unacquainted with Polanyi's work per se, even though I have already read works about some of the people who influenced him and whom he may have influenced) to see myself having come to similar conclusions as Polanyi even before reading this book. With respect to the latter point, though, I do have a few criticisms, which are attributable in parts to Polanyi or to the author of this book. For one, the appeals to common sense & simple examples lead to the situation where the defense of Polanyi's theory of tacit knowledge against charges of subjectivism or circularity (i.e. begging the question) isn't necessarily as tightly constructed or satisfying as possible; some of this comes from Polanyi's own quotes, while the remainder comes from the author (who seems to agree with and follow Polanyi's philosophy). For another, some of Polanyi's defenses of Christianity and critiques of evolutionary theory, with respect to their implications for constructing meaning out of human existence, aren't clear as to how broadly they should be applied in his more general framework, and it isn't clear whether this very opacity is in itself the fault of Polanyi versus the author of this book. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a nontechnical clear read about a sometimes-overlooked figure in Western philosophy of the 20th century. Follow the jump to read more detailed summaries per chapter and about my thoughts regarding the book as well as Polanyi's philosophy (warning: it may be quite roughly organized).