The Place of Michael Polanyi in the Modern Philosophy of Science


Thomas F. Torrance, "The Place of Michael Polanyi in the Modern Philosophy of Science," Ethics in Science and Medicine 7 (1980): 57-95; #1980-382


Torrance, Thomas F. "The Place of Michael Polanyi in the Modern Philosophy of Science." Ethics in Science and Medicine 7, no. 2 (1980): 57-95; #1980-382

Publication life cycle / General notes

Presented to a seminar on Polanyi at the session of The American Academy of Religion, Chicago, November, 1975.

Originally published in Ethics in Science and Medicine, #1980-382. Reprinted in Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (#1984-433e). Translated into Italian in Senso del Divino (#1992-544d).


The contribution of Michael Polanyi to scientific discovery and thinking is assessed by reference to the thought of Einstein, Popper, Bohr and Gödel. Polanyi's own thought was governed by the realisation that belief in a transcendent reality independent of our knowing of it and accessible to all men is the ultimate determinant of scientific knowledge, and that dedication to this ideal is the ground of academic freedom. The basic shape of his thought may be traced back to his own scientific activity in medicine and chemistry and his reflexions on the inseparable connexion between empirical and theoretical factors in the process of discovery, and on the distinctive kind of order with an interior power of organisation that emerges in living organisms and crystalline formations. Behind all this, however, lies the immense impact of Einstein's reconstruction of knowledge in his overthrow of the positivist dualism between mathematics and experience and his demolishing of a mechanistic interpretation of the universe. Einstein's emphasis on non-logical intuitive apprehension of intelligibility embodied in nature was deepened by Polanyi and drawn out in his own unique emphasis upon the primacy of informal or tacit knowing over all explicit formalisation that harnesses and extends its range. In this Polanyi was chiefly concerned with restoring the ontology of knowledge, that is, with the epistemic rather than the logical or psychological aspects analysed by Popper, so that his emphasis falls upon the creative rather than the negative aspects of discovery and verification. Comparison of Polanyi's thought with that of Bohr clarifies the relation between the empirical and theoretical ingredients in reality itself, as well as with our knowing of it, and also clarifies understanding of the subject-object relation in transcending the Kantian presuppositions behind Bohr's notion of complementarity. While Polanyi's philosophy of science gives an integral place to the activity of the rational person in knowing, it is shown that this entails no subjectivism or personalism, for it is the person alone who is capable of engaging in rigorous objective operations. Polanyi found considerable support from the Gödelian theorems for his own independently conceived notion of stable open structures in scientific formalisation, and for his concept of the ontological stratification of the universe comprising sequences of rising levels, each higher one controlling the boundaries of the one below it and embodying thereby the joint meaning of the particulars situated on the lower level. Polanyi finds that as we move up the hierarchy of levels of reality, from the more tangible to the less tangible, we penetrate to things that are increasingly real and full of meaning. While the knowing of God is outside his argument, Polanyi's conception of knowing opens the way to it.

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