Michael Polanyi

From 1891
 to 1976

Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) was the younger brother of the famous Karl Polanyi, one of the staunchest critics historically of Western society and capitalist values. Trained as a physician, Polanyi undertook a career as a chemist. Polanyi, a native of Hungary with a Jewish heritage, immigrated first to Germany, where he proved his brilliance as a scientist. When the Nazis hijacked German politics in 1933, Polanyi ventured to Great Britain. There his interest shifted from physical to social sciences. The concept of spontaneous order, on which F. A. Hayek would later build his theory of cultural evolution, stems partially from Michael Polanyi’s writings.

Polanyi anticipated the starting point of Hayek’s analysis by opposing the general contemporary view that where order exists somebody must have been consciously ordering it. In intricately complex social systems, an ordering appropriate to the requirements of a permanently changing environment is possible only by leaving sufficient room for self-determination and voluntary, mutual adaptation to the members of these societies. Polanyi calls the orders resulting from the voluntary and mutual adjustments between free individuals “spontaneous” or “polycentric.” Maintaining order in a complex society then depends on allowing people to have the freedom “to interact with each other on their own initiative—subject only to laws which uniformly apply to all of them.” General restrictions that apply broadly to each member of a society emerge without the directive of a centralized authority. This spontaneous order concept is the fruit of Polanyi’s cross of science with the market process.

When Polanyi shifted his focus from scientific investigation to social and philosophical questions, he also became interested in religion’s role in society and in a modern individual’s life. At the request of his friend J. H. Oldham, a British ecumenical leader, religious intellectual, and editor of the Christian News Letter, Polanyi participated in several discussion groups over a sixteen-year period with other British intellectuals preoccupied with the relationship between Christianity and contemporary culture and politics. In his last book, Meaning, Polanyi tries to extend the epistemological model that he developed in his magnum opus Personal Knowledge to describe the nature of human knowledge found in art, myth, and religion. Using his theory of tacit knowing, Polanyi describes the differences between ordinary perceptual and conceptual knowledge and that which is found in the class of special artifacts available in art and religion. Along side of his insistence for allowing people enough freedom to enable them to order society through their own self-determination, Polanyi stresses the importance of the collective meaning in art, myth, and religion in the contemporary world.

Source: Phil Mullins, “Gospel & Culture: M. Polanyi 1891–1976” (May 12, 2003),