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).

The preface contrasts the competing imperatives of the 20th century, namely optimism born of scientific & technological advances alongside skepticism of old moral traditions as well as fragmentation of communities. The author describes how the resulting extreme manifestations of putative utopias (referring to both fascism as practiced by Nazi Germany & fascist Italy, along with communism as practiced by the Soviet Union) shaped Michael Polanyi's development of a moral theory of knowledge & liberty in order to counter what he saw as a destructive form of dispassionate amoral relativism popular in some academic circles.

The first chapter starts by summarizing Polanyi's transition from an experimental & theoretical physical chemist (the combination of which was already rare in chemistry by his time) to an economist-philosopher in the 1940s. The author then gives a little more detail about Polanyi's educated upbringing in Budapest, his early demonstration of a broad range of interests along with a reverential attitude to these subjects & the people around him, his early understanding that people tend to assume conclusions first and think of justifications post hoc, and his marriage & intellectual life in Germany in the 1920s. The author moves onto Polanyi's generally unorthodox path through academic fields over the course of his life which he felt (and the author agrees) gave him advantages as an outsider free from the rigid dogmas of those fields, his belief in the necessity of a sense of authoritative discipline in the natural sciences & that observations alone (i.e. without convincing explanations coupled with specific features of interpersonal interactions) often aren't sufficient to convince scientists of new phenomena, and his complicated beliefs about the ability to forecast trends in politics & society. The author then discusses Polanyi's critiques in the 1940s of totalitarian governments' attempts to achieve total control over economic as well as scientific development and his rejection of the Soviet doctrine conflating pure & applied sciences in the service of internal communist advancement. The chapter stresses that Polanyi didn't transition fields until the age of 57, so he worked for the majority of his adult life as a chemist despite later working for multiple decades in the social sciences, and remarks on how his philosophical work didn't receive the level of attention that he had hoped in his lifetime.

The second chapter describes Polanyi's restatement of Friedrich Hayek that markets are essentially computational optimization systems given the polycentric nature of the economy and how the needs of such a decentralized system can't adequately be met through a centralized alternative to capitalism, his rejection of radical alternatives to markets (i.e. communism) concurrent with rejections of libertarian laissez-faire capitalism & acceptance of the validity of democratic socialist government ownership or market correction functions in the broader framework of capitalistic markets, and his complicated synthesis of Keynesian & monetarist macroeconomic theories which was ahead of its time. There is some discussion about his brother Karl Polanyi's arguments against the sustainability of laissez-faire markets & in favor of social democracy as a means of making markets subordinate to societal goals, his disagreements with his brother in the 1940s about the future of the Soviet Union (even as they agreed about many of its failings) & the sustainability of central planning, and whether the crises of the 20th century, most notably for them the two world wars, were due problematic economic structures (propounded by Karl Polanyi) versus a spiritual/moral vacuum created by materialist skepticism (propounded by Michael Polanyi). The author further discusses Michael Polanyi's rejection of the logical positivist denial of unprovable intuition as knowledge as well as their denial of the role of tradition & authority in shaping such knowledge and his belief that scientists in practice intuitively come up with problem questions & relevant hypotheses from a small biased subset rather than sifting through the infinite set of possible hypotheses at random. This is followed by discussion of his view of the practical problems resulting from redirection of resources to only applied sciences away from pure sciences, though it is interesting to think that in the US, a lot of progress in pure sciences during the Cold War occurred due to general public support for "science" in the faith that it was needed to win the war, having further faith that it would lead to advances in applied sciences. The author then discusses Polanyi's distinction between total central planning of scientific advancement versus decentralized supervision of scientific practice through general rules & norms, his broader distinction between a free society that believes in an orthodoxy of transcendent humanistic ideals versus an open society vulnerable to being thrown into totalitarianism or laissez-faire nihilism due to moral relativist rejection of any orthodoxy, his view of innovators having one foot rooted in tradition in order to ultimately (even if it takes a long time) be accepted in a broader community, his belief that scientific advancement occurs because of a shared "spiritual" commitment to pursuing the truth of nature through the scientific method of inquiry, his view of the relationship between scientific & political freedom, and his view that the extreme atrocities in the Soviet Union & Nazi Germany (among other places) resulted from moral inversion, which he defines as a nihilist skeptical rejection of all traditional morality as vestiges of a decaying orthodox society coupled with an ironic extreme moralizing zeal toward making a utopia inevitable (under the belief that the ends justify the means).
With respect to the points in this chapter, my only concerns are that Polanyi skirts the question regarding defining the line between centralized economic planning versus socialist regulation of markets (or else the book doesn't clarify his view), this book's publication in 2006 prior to the decade of political & socioeconomic upheaval following the 2008 global recession & concurrent widening inequality means that the assertions of the inevitable triumph of capitalism haven't aged well, likewise the book's assertions of the impossibility of centralized information gathering haven't aged well in light of China's brutal but effective use of ubiquitous data gathering thanks to new technology (though this arguably doesn't refute that point, considering that China still lets markets operate even if they are heavily regulated there), and Polanyi's focus on the mass atrocities committed in so-called utopias (whether fascist or communist) leads to a neglect of the equally horrifying mass atrocities by colonial powers like the UK, Belgium, France, and others.

The third chapter starts by describing Polanyi's view toward Saint Augustine as a way to restore balance between scientific rationality & the acknowledgment of the importance of underlying beliefs, social contexts, and traditions, though Polanyi makes clear that he does not repudiate the scientific method on the whole, especially given its very real societal benefits. The author then describes Polanyi's belief that all knowledge requires practical/intuitive understanding, beyond explicit rules, in order to grow, and that initial development of such practical skills requires submission to some authority/tradition (whether that is an actual person or not), so models of knowledge devoid of tradition are fundamentally meaningless. This leads to his hope for a dynamic mixture of the radical ideals of Thomas Paine with the orthodox pragmatism of Edmund Burke to avoid societal destruction due to revolution from the former or decay from the latter (applicable even beyond the political context). The author then describes his view of traditions as being bound to the contexts of their communities (though the author in particular, seemingly not Polanyi himself, here & earlier makes some strong claims about language acquisition in children, but I found these claims to be somewhat dubious). Supported by Polanyi's own anecdotes about pattern recognition, like of human faces, there is discussion of Polanyi's view that the senses give subconscious subsidiary aspects of awareness that build into a holistic conscious focal awareness transcending the sum of its parts and that this means it is impossible to fully detach knowledge from the people who know it, and how he applies this to practically solve the paradox of how one gains an understanding of things that one doesn't already know by also valuing intuition & hunches (even using the language of gradient descent optimization to explain the process of discovery at the level of an individual mind, whether in a mundanely individual, scientifically collaborative, or other sense). This leads to his theory of knowledge: reality is external to knowers, is capable of being known at least in part, reveals itself to knowers gradually (though not necessarily smoothly/steadily), and doesn't manifest all of its consequences to knowers in an immediate or clear way. This relates to his explication of the intangibility of sensations created by the integration of tangible sensations from subsidiary awareness into broader focal awareness and the importance of such intangible sensations (for which I could think of an example that electromagnetic fields are theoretically treated & experientially felt as just as real as material bodies even if all such effects could be theoretically modeled in a more complicated manner as nameless delayed nonlocal interactions). From this, the author describes Polanyi's rejection of the skeptical ideal of a human mind as a blank slate devoid of traditional influences, given the critiques of language, tradition, and culture that necessarily lie within those contexts (more precisely, criticisms of language require language, criticisms of tradition simply follow other traditions of various forms, and criticisms of culture may simply lie within a different culture) despite such critics' claims to the contrary (though he also makes questionable claims about individual capacities being innate while remaining vague about the extent to which this is true, but he does admit that he too is influenced by his precedents), and his view that all declarative statements carry at least a small implicit imprint of the beliefs of the speaker/writer in that statement. This then leads to his rebuttal of claims that his philosophy is relativist/subjectivist by positing that his claim of an external reality, along with the imperatives for individuals to actively engage with that reality, with the goals of developing a personal knowledge, convincing themselves that their knowledge is universal, and then convincing or being convinced by others in the face of different versions of personal knowledge, allow his philosophy to transcend passive subjectivity (where relativism or subjectivity are passively accepted without further argument). Finally, the author describes his claim that even scientific knowledge being personal makes the fact-value/is-ought distinction seem arbitrary, while again still not being subjective due to the existence of an external reality that manifests in different ways to different people, so this allows people to once again value things like truth, beauty, and justice even in the context of science (rather than sticking to a narrow conception of facts) given the value of intangible conceptions of reality in various versions of individual knowledge.

The fourth chapter starts by describing Polanyi's rejection of the mechanical determinism of Laplace's demon (that some hypothetical being could exactly know the state of every constituent of the universe and its evolution) as well as the biological determinism that became popular in certain circles (particularly in an extreme form in the eugenics movement) after the discovery of DNA. The author describes his argument that emergent properties of physical systems are only meaningful to humans if humans a priori think of possible meanings (i.e. meaningfulness to humans is not an emergent property outside of human conception), and his view that meanings emerge from inanimate physical processes coupled to human conceptions of operational design processes, though my concern with the latter is that if he uses this to say that non-human life is only meaningful to humans by coupling biochemical principles to human-conceived operational principles, such an argument sounds dangerously close to the notion that life is itself intrinsically driven by some human-conceived meaning. The author then discusses his belief that there exists a moral reality, just like with natural scientific reality, external to & pursued by people who gain a personal knowledge with universal intent, and seems to imply that both scientific & moral knowledge are only meaningful in a manner that is dynamic & dependent on societal context. The author moves onto describing Polanyi's varied religious influences & hope that religious truths could become meaningful as moral truths upon further development upon discarding the most bizarre religious conceptions of the natural world, distinction between seeing a phenomenon directly in a broad but hard-to-understand way (like attempting to look directly at the sun) versus seeing it indirectly in a narrower way whose consequences are easier to understand (like seeing a sunbeam illuminate dust in a room), and claim that these two forms of knowledge are necessary complements of each other, as an obvious way to justify Christian beliefs in a deity that cannot be seen in the face of scientists who demand direct proof. To this end, the author further discusses his contrast between the "breaking out" of successive scientific theories (though his view of it seems incomplete in light of work by Karl Popper as well as Thomas Kuhn) versus continual Christian worship that does not visibly yield the fruits of salvation within a person's lifetime, and in turn between notions of verification in science versus validation in religion, though the latter point seems to implicitly restore the fact-value distinction to some degree despite his previous arguments against it. Finally, the author discusses his view that the centrality of faith in various forms to the advancement of science suggests a way forward in seriously reintroducing religion in society in a sensible way, and his belief that the aversion of [biological] evolutionary theory to meaning & teleology make it an incomplete description of human existence, though again, regarding the latter point, while I agree with that when considering that human existence from the perspective of human experience requires a priori conceptions of meaning in order to be sensibly interpreted, this comes dangerously close to incorrectly ascribing evolutionary processes with intrinsic end goals/telic behavior.

The fifth chapter compares Polanyi to his contemporary philosophers (and with some of them, they wrote to or about each other), and proposes that his ideas form at least in part a basis of remedies to current trends of consumerism, fragmented communities, problematic self-help culture, et cetera.

At this point, I will now turn more toward my own thoughts about Polanyi's philosophy as presented in this book. I too think about the process of scientific discovery & theoretical development in terms of searching a sample space & fitting curves based on known parameters describing an "energy landscape" (all of this meant in a very abstract sense), and see the choices of parameters, fit models, and sampling subspaces/procedures to all bear the marks of human intuitions, beliefs, and traditions even within the framework of scientific inquiry. This reminds me of a discussion I had at lunch with friends many weeks ago where I argued that even computers will in some way bear the marks of human-conceived systems of logic because humans are by unable to conceive of alternatives that are by definition utterly divorced from human experiences of perception & cognition. This in turn relates to the point, which Polanyi touches upon as well, that pattern-matching carries no inherent meaning unless humans externally conceive of & impose meanings onto patterns & correlations, even if those correlations emerge from mechanical origins.

He & I both seem to agree (at least to a reasonably significant degree) with Hume's analysis that emotions & beliefs precede logical reasoning, and I see Polanyi's view as consistent with Kuhn's structure of scientific discovery & revolution (particularly in its acknowledgment of the importance of tradition in scientific practice), which I still think can in practice be reconciled with Popper's ideal that scientists develop knowledge through testing of falsifiable hypotheses. I further agree with Polanyi's view that scientists' intuitive beliefs & biases give room for a broader sense of morality in science (beyond simple standards of ethics for conducting scientific inquiry & communication), and that it will only be possible to decouple scientific understanding from the history of human experience by somehow becoming no longer human. Additionally, I also appreciate his characterization of scientific knowledge & religious knowledge, each underpinned by faith in different forms, as lying along a spectrum, even if the discussion in the book of his critique of the fact-value distinction wasn't as clear per se; it was a solid alternative to David Wootton's discussion of the supposedly unique character of facts in his book The Invention of Science, as I found that particular discussion in that book rather unsatisfying.

Politically, I do see his points on the importance of balancing tradition with innovation/progress, and agree that in many cases markets work well while in many other cases they need correction. This can again be seen by viewing market equilibria in the context of a free energy landscape that can be modified by appropriate policy parameters that achieve new equilibria (optimal points) better matched to broader societal goals. In turn, I think he might have agreed with the ideas of making federal & state laws in the US context to set minimum standards for people's welfare in areas like housing, transportation, education, et cetera, while letting state & local governments decide on particular implementations (or even exceed those standards) in response to local needs. That said, I may be more predisposed to centralized action on issues like healthcare & racial discrimination given the peculiar history of the US, though I might otherwise prefer simpler solutions otherwise (e.g. carbon taxes instead of more practically complicated cap-and-trade schemes). Related to this, it is worth noting that Marianne Williamson, who recently ended her presidential campaign, pushed similar ideas to Polanyi in terms of restoring senses of optimism, spirituality, and community, though she did so from the more progressive perspective of remedying historical social injustices.

That said, I do have a few broader criticisms of Polanyi's views as presented in this book, and of this book. First, the author makes clear that Polanyi aimed to speak out against the ills that led to WWI, but while he does support claims that these ills were due to weakened spirituality & morality, he doesn't actually refute the notion that economic problems could have also contributed. This is the same error that I find David Brooks and many other conservative pundits make (cynically, in my view) to essentially blame poor people entirely for their problems, even when those problems are actually caused by broader economic forces abetted by systemic discrimination & disinvestment especially in the context of racism in the US. Blaming poor people for their plight could actually be an ironic perversion of Polanyi's views, as it could be argued that unfettered laissez-faire capitalism without protection against discrimination would constitute the sort of "moral inversion" (moralizing about the end state of utopia while dispensing with all morals to get there) that Polanyi argued so strenuously against.

Polanyi says that discovery of scientific & moral truths as personal knowledge requires that people actively engage with reality & with each other in trying to make personal knowledge universal. However, this book doesn't really touch upon what he has to say, if anything, about people who argue cynically/in bad faith, and how to deal with such people in a consistent way.

With respect to Polanyi drawing a similarity between discovering scientific versus moral knowledge, one problem with a total argument against an objective view of science is that non-human entities (whether computers or other life forms, terrestrial or alien) could in principle examine similar features of the natural world even if they don't draw the same conclusions/interpretations as humans would, as the natural world is fully external to the existence of humans, whereas morality is still constrained within the human experience & its history even if it isn't subjective at an individual level. He addresses this point tangentially when contrasting the "breaking out" in scientific theories versus its lack in Christianity (because I don't see this issue of being uniformly unable to "break out" as a feature of every world religion — consider nirvana in Buddhism or "piercing the veil" in Advaita philosophy), but doesn't address this underlying issue. Perhaps this is because he couldn't imagine things like AI or sapient aliens when he was alive. Alternatively, perhaps the point is that an AI that can discover things about and generate its own understanding & meaning of the natural world will have a "morality" governing the interaction of its various components, but if the coarse-grained mathematical rules of its own operation beyond the complexities of its mechanical makeup are clear to it, then it isn't clear what sense of "discovery" is left with respect to its own "morality".

With respect to his views on Christianity, it isn't clear the extent to which his general conception of religion depends on Christianity in particular or if Christianity happens to make up his specific personal view of religion within his more general framework. Likewise, it isn't clear if his view of biological evolution is that various aspects of it are ascribed meaning for it to be a meaningful scientific theory in the context of the human experience, or if there are intrinsic end goals to biological evolution. Plus, he doesn't seem to consider (likely as it was after his time) that a rejection of the teleological arguments for evolution could itself stem from experiential scientific knowledge that is ultimately consistent with his framework of personal knowledge made universal. In both cases, it isn't clear whether the lack of clarity is due to Polanyi versus the author of this book.

Related to this, his arguments against physical determinism (Laplace's demon) & an atelic theory of biological evolution seem to be more expressions of concern for justifications of free will as opposed to being disproofs per se. With respect to the former (as I've already expressed my views on the latter), I don't know how to reconcile physical determinism with free will or with some related concept that can avoid nihilistic justifications of antisocial acts, and I don't know whether the observable universe is a large enough Hilbert space to support unitary time evolution, but I'm not convinced that physical determinism is unsupportable. That said, I can believe that for humans, it will almost always be true that the number of degrees of freedom under consideration is so vast as to require the theoretical tools of probability, statistics, and coarse-graining.

To conclude, even beyond the similarities in philosophical worldviews, I also enjoyed reading this book because I could closely relate to Polanyi's field transition given my own imminent career move (more to come in a future post), and might like to imagine myself thinking in my spare time more deeply about philosophical issues too. His quip at a young age to his professor about how scientists start from conclusions & later come up with justifications was provocative then, and his continued belief in that notion through his life remained & continues now to remain provocative especially as this really is an accurate description of how a lot of science is done in practice particularly now (driven by perverse funding incentives in many cases). The caveat to my appreciation for this is that even if his observation wasn't prescriptive (i.e. it wasn't a statement for how scientists should do science as a matter of principled morality), I think he gives too little credit to the good scientists who do make hypotheses and then perform experiments expecting with some nontrivial probability to disprove their instincts, as can be seen in the case of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which preceded Polanyi's birth by a few years (so he can't possibly have been unaware of that, particularly given his career in the physical sciences). However, even as I have disagreed with many of his views, his emphasis on personal knowledge made universal and his being one fallible human among all of us means that his specific views wouldn't disprove his broad philosophy, and the same goes for my specific views with his general philosophy even if our specific views disagree.