A Polanyi Primer
Mark T. Mitchell book, Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing,
promises to attract more readers to an important thinker
By Colin Foote Burch
Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing (ISI Books, 2006) by Mark T. Mitchell holds only 195
pages and cites key works on Polanyi, so the book’s aim is not so much to break new ground, but
rather to provide an introduction to the life and thought of Polanyi.

Polanyi, a Hungarian chemist who contributed numerous articles and books on non-scientific topics,
is not a name well-known outside of certain philosophical, theological, and political circles.
Polanyi: The Art of Knowing
could help Polanyi become better known. Mitchell’s book could be
read as a tract for taking the Polanyi message to the masses; it could be read as a primer. But
neither speculation is intended to offend Mitchell, who has woven pertinent threads of research
throughout, including excerpts of letters Polanyi wrote to William F. Buckley, founder of
, and to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late senator from New York and onetime compatriot
of neo-conservatism in the movement’s early days.

Mitchell, an assistant professor of government at Patrick Henry College in Virginia, has successfully
struck a middle note that will neither come across as too elementary to academics nor stand too
inscrutable to curious lay people. Mitchell frequently cites central works of Polanyi scholarship,
Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher by William Taussig Scott and Martin X.
Moleski, and
Michael Polanyi by E.P. Wigner and R.A. Hodgkin. Furthermore, as the closing
chapter brings Polanyi into conversation with three other twentieth-century thinkers, Mitchell’s
introductory elements become integrated in the political and intellectual controversies of our time.

Mitchell orients the reader to Polanyi’s life and times in the opening chapter, including Polanyi’s
breakthroughs in the field of chemistry and the role of intuition in his work, which would later
influence his thinking about tacit knowing, a key philosophical concept in his non-scientific writing.  
The book then follows with chapters on some of the themes Polanyi addressed: ‘Economics,
Science, and Politics’; ‘The Tacit Dimension: A New Paradigm for Knowing’; ‘Meaning, Morality,
and Religion’; and ‘Engaging Polanyi in the Twentieth Century and Beyond’.

Regardless of varying backgrounds, scholars unfamiliar with Polanyi should be able to find historical
and intellectual links between their fields and Polanyi’s life and work. For example, in the chapter
‘Life and Times of Polanyi’ (p. 13-14), Polanyi recalls a conversation he had with Nikolai Bukharin,
the Communist Party’s leading theoretician, that was held at a dynamic intersection of philosophy,
science, economics, and history. The conversation addressed the way a national system could
impact the distinction between pure science and applied science. Polanyi recalled Bukharin’s
insistence that the

distinction between pure and applied science made in
capitalist countries was due only to the inner conflict
of a type of society which deprived scientists of the
consciousness of their social functions, thus creating in
them the illusion of pure science. Accordingly, Bukharin
said, the distinction between pure and applied
science was inapplicable in the USSR. In his view this
implied no limitation on the freedom of research; scientists
could follow their interests freely in the USSR,
but owing to the complete internal harmony of Socialist
society they would, in actual fact, inevitably be led
to lines of research which would benefit the current
Five Years’ Plan.

Mitchell goes on to write, ‘As a practicing researcher, Polanyi recognised immediately that
conflating pure and applied science would, if actually carried out, be fatal to pure science’.

The chapter ‘Economics, Science, and Politics’ provides another interdisciplinary handle to Polanyi’
s work. Mitchell shows how Polanyi related T.S. Eliot’s famous essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual
Talent,’ to his work as a scientist. In Knowing and Being, Polanyi quoted a segment from Eliot’s
essay as a way to acknowledge that individuality operates within tradition, whether that tradition is
poetry or scientific work:

We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference
from his predecessors, especially his immediate
predecessors; we endeavour to find something that
can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we
approach a poet without this prejudice, we shall often
find that not only the best, but the most individual
parts of his work may be those in which the dead
poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most

While providing interdisciplinary handles to scholars, Mitchell, as a good teacher will do, explains
elements of Polanyi’s thought in a fashion that a layman could grasp. For example, Mitchell uses the
metaphor of a pendulum to explain how Polanyi’s post-critical philosophy related history of ideas
(p. 62).

…Polanyi employs the phrase ‘restoring the balance’
when referring to his post-critical philosophy. The
notion of balance is an important one. The historical
progression that he describes elicits the picture of a
pendulum. It was rejected by Augustine, whose ideas
forced the pendulum far in the opposite direction.
Modern rationalism, in turn, rejected Augustine and
returned the pendulum hard in the direction of rationalism.
The idea of balance, on the other hand, implies
a proper relationship between reason and belief.

How better to express the wild swings in our civilization as it has sought to know? The modern
rationalism, or ‘objectivism’ or ‘scientism’ as Mitchell sometimes calls it, should not be jettisoned,
but merely brought into conversation with the part of each person that believes in order to know.

The last chapter invigorates Polanyi because Mitchell brings the proceeding chapters into
conversation with twentieth-century thinkers whose impact is still fresh. The heart of ‘Engaging
Polanyi in the Twentieth Century and Beyond’ consists of short descriptions of three of Polanyi’s
philosophical contemporaries: Michael Oakeshott, Eric Voegelin, and Alasdair MacIntyre – the first
two of which have appeared or will appear in the Library of Modern Thinkers. In addition to
demonstrating the common ground between Polanyi and these thinkers, Mitchell openly discusses
the disagreements they had with Polanyi’s work. Oakeshott thought that ‘once absolute objectivity
is denied …the danger of a slide into subjectivism becomes acute’, Mitchell writes (p. 142).
However, in his essay ‘Rationalism in Politics’, Oakeshott wrote about the distinction between
technical knowledge, which deals with precise formulation, and practical knowledge, which can
neither be formulated nor reflective. In a footnote to his essay, Oakeshott commended Polanyi’s
Science, Faith and Society as having ‘excellent observations’ on the subjects in his essay.

As for Voegelin, he and Polanyi had similar assessments of the world, but different methodologies in
getting to their individual views, and different solutions to the problems they witnessed, Mitchell
writes (p. 148).

For his part, Voegelin identifies scientism as part of a
broader category of noetic pathology (sick consciousness)
he terms Gnostic. While Polanyi argues that the
moral and political chaos of moral inversion results
from an errant view of knowledge, Voegelin argues
that Gnosticism is the product of an unbalanced consciousness.
Thus, for Polanyi, a proper view of
knowledge will open the door to a restoration of balance.
For Voegelin, on the other hand, a properly balanced
consciousness will, among other things, result
in a proper approach to knowing.

According to Mitchell, MacIntyre’s views were very similar to Polanyi’s on key points, but the
former critiqued the latter with some frequency during the 1970s. MacIntyre described Polanyi’s
views as essentially irrational, stemming from a strain of fideism, yet as Mitchell points out (p. 155),
MacIntyre himself was accused of irrationalism. However, ‘Polanyi and MacIntyre both recognise
that their respective approaches to recovering that which has been lost entail a renewed possibility
for meaningful moral and theological discussion,’ Mitchell writes.

Mitchell’s clarity should help newcomers to Polanyi. His teaching makes the meaning of Polanyi
simple to understand, as he does in closing (p.169):

Polanyi points a way out of the dark forest of rational
scepticism and systematic doubt. He shows us how we
might once again speak meaningfully of the good, the
true and the beautiful. And he shows us how we might
recover an understanding of the importance of the
places we inhabit and the persons with whom we live.

* A version of this review appeared in the March 2007 edition of Appraisal: The Journal of the Society for Post-
Critical and Personalist Studies
Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing also
situates Polanyi among other leading intellectuals
valued by the publisher’s think tank, the
Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington,

The book is the sixth installment in ISI Books’
Library of Modern Thinkers, which has the
mission to provide ‘critical yet accessible’ works
on ‘important intellectual thinkers’.

The first five volumes of the series were about
Robert Nisbet, Ludwig Von Mises, Wilhelm
Ropke, Eric Voegelin, and Bertrand de Jouvenel.

Forthcoming subjects in the series include
Michael Oakeshott, Christopher Lasch, and
Richard Weaver.

For more information, see:
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