Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was a Hungarian polymath whose scientific work permitted him to gain deep insights into the methodology, philosophy and epistemology of science that he elaborated into an economic and political theory. Although a Keynesian critic of the Soviet Union, Polanyi attended the inaugural meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947.
With doctorates in medicine and chemistry, Polanyi deemed positivism to be a negative influence on science, especially when the state became engaged with scientific institutions. He cited the case of Lysenko in the Soviet Union as an example of destructive political interference in science. Polanyi argued for the creative role of the imagination and ‘tacit knowledge’ in the process of scientific discovery, echoing comments published by Einstein on the role of the imagination in theoretical physics.
A critic of absolute objectivity, Polanyi was deeply suspicious of totalitarian manipulations of the economy. A Jewish intellectual, he left his post at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1933 following Hitler’s rise to power. His philosophy of science is encapsulated in his books, Personal Knowledge and Science, Faith and Society. His philosophic work had an impact on Thomas Kuhn and many other philosophers of science.
The Logic of Liberty
Polanyi’s economic theory is the subject of The Logic of Liberty and The Contempt of Freedom in which he argues as a deeply committed Keynesian in favour of the free market and opposed to the Soviet economy. He corresponded with important economists including: Friedrich A Hayek; David Caradog Jones; Wolf Mayes and John Maynard Keynes. His increasing interest in economics led to his involvement with The Moot, a group of British intellectuals convened by Joseph H. Oldham, editor of the Christian Newsletter. Other members of The Moot with whom Polanyi corresponded are T. S. Eliot and Karl Mannheim.
From 1935 Polanyi produced several essays on economics: Reflections on Marxism (1938); Collectivist Planning (1940); Principles of Economic Expansion (1944) and Soviets and Capitalism (1947). Much of Polanyi’s economic thought presents a Keynesian critique of Soviet economic policy.
Persecution during McCarthy Era
In spite of his vast publications on the subject, Polanyi was subjected to McCarthyite persecution by American bureaucrats in 1951 who suspected him of involvement in a subversive organisation – an absurd charge since he was a prominent member of the leading anti-communist organisation, The Congress for Cultural Freedom.
Political commentaries and professional affiliations
As a perceptive social critic of totalitarianism, Polanyi produced a stream of comments on current affairs, many of which were published in the Manchester Guardian during WWII.