Author: Dougherty, Jude P
Date published: March 1, 2012
NYE, Mary Jo. Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. xxi + 405 pp. Cloth, $45.00 - This is a chronicle of the scientific achievements of Michael Polanyi, but it is more than that. It is a description of the scientific, political, and cultural landscape of Europe from World War I to the Cold War. Nye follows Polanyi's life and career from his birth (1891) in Budapest to his death in Manchester at the age of 84 (1976). She documents Polanyi's many scientific achievements, but the strength of the volume is her description of the scientific communities in which he flourished, first in Budapest, then in Weimar Berlin, and finally in Manchester. Polanyi earned a medical degree in 1913 and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1917 at the University of Budapest. With the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the Great War, many Hungarian scientists trained in Budapest found it expethent to leave Hungary. Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller were among the Hungarian émigrés. Some found refuge in Germany, others in England. Polanyi chose to further his study of physical chemistry at Karlsruhe, but in 1920 he moved to Berlin to work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Fiber Chemistry. The Berlin of the 1920s was the city of Einstein, Planck, Fritz Haber, Walter Nernst, and Lisa Meitner. Weimar Berlin had become the cultural center of Central and Eastern Europe. Besides the Humboldt University, suburban Dahlem was the site of seven scientific institutes.
The racial policies of the National Socialist Party eventually forced Polanyi to leave Germany. After first declining, Polanyi accepted a chair in chemistry at the University of Manchester in 1933. By 1940 his interests had shifted to economics and social and political philosophy, and he exchanged the chair in chemistry for one in social philosophy. In 1951 he was offered a chair in social philosophy at the University of Chicago, a position that he was unable to accept because he was denied a visa by the U.S. State Department, no doubt because his name was associated with the leftist politics of his brother Karl, who had supported the Soviet economic policies of the 1920s and 1930s.
Nye is especially interested in the social nature of science, in the close-knit families of physicists and chemist who comprised the scientific communities of Budapest and Berlin. Polanyi's views on the nature of science are worthy of a treatise unto itself. Science, he held, is a community of dogmatic traditions and social practices, not a march of revolutionary or skeptical ideas. Polanyi describes his own scientific investigations as ordinary, typical of science, "natural science," in Thomas Kuhn's use of the term. "The popular notion of a straightforward relationship between empirical data and scientific discovery or verification is rooted in a misunderstanding of how science really works." Good evidence is often ignored when a community of opinion favors one opinion over another. He describes as pernicious the simple prescription of nineteenth century positivism and logical empiricism as naïve. Bertrand Russell is a target, for Russell had written, "The triumphs of science are due to the substitution of observation and inference for authority in intellectual matters. Every attempt to revive authority in intellectual matters is a retrograde step." "Nothing could be further from the truth," argues Polanyi, citing his own experience, his career, and authority structures in science.
The scientific community of Weimar Berlin was in a sense detached from the social and political turmoil that was destroying the Republic. In describing the situation, James Crowther, a reporter for the Manchester Guardian upon visiting Berlin in 1930, wrote: "I was left with the impression that the brilliant scientific effervescence . . . had an intellectual life of its own, above that of industry and the people, in spite of the integration of the scientific research with industry. This division of high intellectual life from the rumblings underneath was one of the most striking features of the Weimar Republic." Polanyi's mother had a different perspective: "The times in Berlin are beginning to be frightful," she wrote to a friend in Budapest, "unemployment, privation, and disheveled economic, political and emotional life. One says the worst will come in January, the other in February . . . but that it will come, they all believe."
Nye devotes an entire chapter to the reception of Polanyi's Personal Knowledge, a book based on his Gifford Lectures of 1951-52. Of the book, Nye writes, "Polanyi's realism appealed to many scientists who found his account of scientific life and scientists' behavior more recognizable than most philosophers' or historians' analyses. The religious tone of the realism was also congenial to many scientists. The spiritual dimension of Persona! Knowledge found favor among Christians, and his discussion of cosmic evolution proved useful to proponents of teleology and intelligent design in arguments against mainstream evolutionary biology."
With respect to economic theory, Polanyi took the side of von Hayek and von Mises. The economy, he maintained, is not to be used for social engineering. Economic theory based on political preferences is no substitute for natural laws. He agreed with von Hayek that if a depression seems underway, any attempt to cure it by monetary and fiscal policy will likely worsen the situation. A slump in a trade cycle is a sign that the system will head back to equilibrium and should be left alone. Patience must reign during inevitable periods of unemployment, and an elastic supply of currency makes the situation worse - not better.
No brief review can do justice to this densely packed book. Those interested in Polanyi's insider account of the nature of scientific investigation can be grateful for Mary Jo Nye's painstaking research. - Jude P. Dougherty, The Catholic University of America.
Jude P. Dougherty, The Catholic University of America.