Interview with Mark T. Mitchell
author of Michael Polany:The Art of Knowing
Who was Michael Polanyi?
Polanyi was born in Budapest in 1891 into an upper class Jewish family. He was trained as a medical doctor, but never practiced medicine. His interest in chemistry led him to study in Germany where he settled after WWI. With Hitler’s rise to power, living conditions for Jews gradually deteriorated, and Polanyi accepted a position at the University of Manchester. As the world became engulfed in a second great war, Polanyi’s attention began to shift away from chemistry and toward economic and philosophical themes. His multifaceted projects all centered on the various threats posed to liberty. In 1948, the University of Manchester officially recognized Polanyi’s change of direction by creating a special chair of social studies that freed Polanyi to pursue his non-scientific research. Polanyi, then, had two academic careers: the first as a physical chemist and the second as a philosopher seeking to articulate an adequate foundation for liberty.
What is Polanyi’s view of economics?
Polanyi stood firmly against any kind of economic planning for the same reason he opposed planning in science. In each case, the complexity of the web of relationships precludes any attempts to predict or plan for a particular outcome. Economic systems (as well as scientific efforts) are far more successful when the various participants are allowed freely to pursue their chosen ends. As they do so, they constantly make adjustments in response to the actions of others. A finite central planner can never achieve anything better than a clumsy attempt to coordinate activities that would be far better coordinated by the free choices of many individuals.
Was Polanyi a conservative?
Many conservatives have found much to appreciate in Polanyi’s thought. For example, at one point William F. Buckley invited Polanyi to write for the National Review. Polanyi graciously declined. To be sure, his emphasis on such concepts as tradition, authority, and liberty as well as his anti-materialist metaphysics all resonate with conservatives. At the same time, not all of Polanyi’s ideas are obviously conservative. For example, Polanyi held that all inquiry, including moral inquiry, is open-ended and contingent, and his religious sensibilities often steer toward a sort of vitalism. Thus, it might be most accurate to say that in the same way Polanyi defied professional labels, his thought, too, resists simple labels.
Was Polanyi religious?
Polanyi was born into a secular Jewish family. At the age of nineteen he converted to Catholicism. After he immigrated to England, he became increasingly influenced by the Protestant thought of people such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr as well as the Anglican ecumenist J.H. Oldham. While Polanyi’s philosophical writings frequently touch on religious themes, his personal religious commitments are far from certain. There is debate even among those who knew him well. What is certain, though, is that Polanyi was deeply influenced by Christianity and had a deep respect for religious believers.
Is Michael Polanyi related to Karl Polanyi?
Karl is Michael’s older brother whose magnum opus, The Great Transformation, is an economic history of the modern industrial society. Karl believed that the woes of the twentieth-century are the result of a faulty economic structure and that the obstacles could be overcome if the institutions could be altered better to reflect human nature. Karl was optimistic that the socialistic project being attempted in the Soviet Union would, if properly managed, be successful. On the other hand, Michael ultimately located the modern crisis in the spiritual and moral vacuum that resulted from a conception of knowing that denied the very possibility of spiritual and moral reality. This denial was the product of a view of reality that was both skeptical and materialistic. Polanyi called this union “objectivism.” For Michael, then, the modern crisis was not primarily economic, and consequently, the solution must be found beyond the realm of economics.
Why did you write this book?
I’ve been interested in Polanyi’s thought for some years. As I have become more familiar with his work, I have become puzzled and increasingly frustrated that so few people are conversant with his ideas. He deserves a hearing, not simply because his thought is provocative and creative, but, more importantly, because Polanyi recognized that the modern project leads to a dead end. Or more precisely, he understood that the logic of objectivism leads to nihilism. Nihilism, at the individual level produces characters like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov and Turgenev’s Bazarov. In politics, nihilism undergirds an all-encroaching totalitarianism that can, of course, resemble Orwell’s Big Brother, but in our age it is more likely to take a milder, though more insidious, form such as that described by Huxley and Tocqueville. At its heart, Polanyi’s philosophical program seeks to articulate an account of knowing that overcomes the skepticism and materialism of the modern project. In so doing, Polanyi makes possible the meaningful discussion of such concepts as the good, the true, and the beautiful.
What is unique about this book and how does it contribute to recent books on Polanyi?
There are a number of books on Polanyi, some introductory and some not. This book is aimed at those who have never read Polanyi and, as a consequence, could benefit from a general overview of his thought. It is broader than other introductions in that it covers Polanyi’s ideas on the philosophy of science, economics, politics, epistemology, ontology, and religion.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Polanyi wrote at a high level on a broad range of subject spanning several academic disciplines. This breadth is one of the attractions of Polanyi, but it also creates an obvious challenge.
Who would you most like to read your book?
Because I want Polanyi’s work to be more widely known than it currently is, my hope is that students and academics will read the book and be prompted then to read Polanyi himself. Ultimately, there is no substitute for the primary sources.
Who are your intellectual influences?
There are a handful of writers I continually return to and whose thought has shaped mine in significant ways: Plato, Augustine, Tocqueville, Wendell Berry, and of course, Michael Polanyi.