An Example of the Good Life

Steven Shapin

  • Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science by Mary Jo Nye
    Chicago, 405 pp, £29.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 226 61063 4

Michael Polanyi lives on in the footnotes. If you want to invoke the idea of ‘tacit knowledge’, Polanyi is your reference of choice. You’ll probably cite his major book Personal Knowledge (1958), maybe the earlier Science, Faith and Society (1946), maybe the later The Tacit Dimension (1966). ‘We know more than we can tell’ was Polanyi’s dictum. We know how to ride a bicycle, but we can’t write down how to do it, at least not in a way that allows non-cyclists to read our instructions, get on their bikes and ride off. We can reliably pick out a familiar face in a crowd, but we can’t say just what it is about the face that we recognise. And, crucially, since Polanyi is now known mainly as a philosopher of science, a scientist can’t adequately describe how to do a bit of science through any version of formalised ‘Scientific Method’. Whether the craft is cooking, carpentry or chemistry, the apprentice learns by watching and doing. Where knowledge and skill are concerned, it’s not all talk.

Citing Polanyi in these connections is itself a sort of craft convention for historians and sociologists who want to say something about the nature of scientific practice. They do it to indicate that there is a history to appreciations of the informal, perhaps unformalisable, dimensions of science, supposedly the most rationally specifiable practice that we have. Yet the citations don’t index the extent to which the texts are actually read. There isn’t a lot of current interest in who Polanyi was and how he came to hold the views he did. Mary Jo Nye’s excellent and richly researched book aims to tell us and, along the way, uncovers a genealogy for the notion of tacit knowledge that situates it in the force fields shaping much 20th-century thinking about politics and economics as well as science. Two biographical strands run through the book: first, before Polanyi was a philosopher, he was a physical chemist, abandoning the laboratory when he became convinced that telling the world about science was more important for him than doing science; second, he was an émigré Hungarian intellectual whose thinking was forged in the crucible of Central Europe between the wars.

In wartime Los Alamos, there was a conversation piece known as the Fermi Paradox, posed by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. Given the high overall probability that intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe, why hadn’t the extraterrestrials made contact? ‘They are among us,’ Leó Szilárd replied, ‘but they call themselves Hungarians.’ The story was told by the Hungarians themselves and it went like this: the Men from Mars were a restless sort and, in search of new worlds to colonise, they long ago came to Earth, landing on the banks of the Danube. They had effectively concealed their true identity, but there were several signs that could give away their Martian origins. One was their wanderlust: they loved to travel and they readily upped sticks; second was their language, which had no known earthly relation; and third was their supernatural intelligence – they knew things, and could think in a way, that no other people did. One could add a corollary: though they often had a profound understanding of the whole spectrum of mere earthly culture, they seemed to understand it, as it were, from the outside. When one of the Martians, the mathematician John von Neumann, was appointed to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study at the age of 29, a story went around that he was ‘a demigod but had made a thorough, detailed study of human beings and could imitate them perfectly’. In Britain and America, the Martian-English accent was much loved and, sometimes, much played up by its speakers, adding both to its charm and its otherworldly weirdness.

Among the Hungarian scientists and intellectuals who came of age around the First World War, many grew up in the same Budapest neighbourhood. They went to a small number of elite schools: the progressive Minta gymnasium alone produced Szilárd and his fellow physicists Edward Teller (who rejoiced in the initials E.T.) and Nicholas Kurti, the engineer Theodore von Kármán, and the economists Nicholas Kaldor and Thomas Balogh. They were overwhelmingly Jewish or from a Jewish background. Almost all were non-observant, some converted to Christianity, but all were quite Jewish enough to be eligible for the gas chamber under the Nazis. Some were politically socialist or philosophically marxisant; some were violently opposed to anything to do with Communism and the Soviet Union; yet their intellectual lives were framed by the cultural rips between totalitarian and liberal society, between free enterprise and central planning, between (as the Austrian Karl Popper put it) the open society and what were taken to be its enemies.

Many Hungarian intellectuals of that generation passed through double exile. After the 1914-18 war, and the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, their geographically challenged homeland experienced, first, the brief Red Terror of the Hungarian Soviet Republic headed by the Bolshevik Béla Kun, followed immediately by the longer-lasting White Terror of Admiral Miklós Horthy’s government. Kun had a Jewish background; the commissariat was heavily Jewish (or formerly Jewish); and, even though well-off Jews had suffered under the Kun regime, the White reaction sometimes referred to the displaced Soviet Republic as the ‘Jewish Republic’ and presided over the ‘Magyarisation’ of Hungarian institutions. This included modern Europe’s first numerus clausus law, radically reducing the proportion of Jews in Hungarian cultural institutions – Jews so many of whom had thrown over their religious identity and enthusiastically Magyarised themselves. Fleeing the White Terror to Austria or Germany, the Martians embraced Weimar’s cosmopolitanism and liberalism, comfortably at home in Vienna or Berlin.

Polanyi was an archetypal Martian. His family name was Pollacsek, which his father – a railway engineer and businessman – had Magyarised to Polanyi. His older brother was Karl Polanyi, the economist, journalist and author of the anti-capitalist tract The Great Transformation (1944). Michael’s early Hungarian friends included von Neumann, the physicist Eugene Wigner, the sociologist Karl Mannheim and the novelist Arthur Koestler. Michael attended the Minta, qualified as a physician, served as a military doctor during the war, and, having had himself baptised, married a Catholic. (Polanyi’s maternal grandfather had been the chief rabbi of Vilna, so that was a rapid turnaround, though in no way exceptional in his circle.) Polanyi left Budapest during the anti-semitic purges of the Horthy regime, and in 1920, having turned to physical chemistry, was appointed to a position at the great Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for fibre chemistry established in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem.

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[*] Steven Shapin wrote about Fritz Haber in the LRB of 26 January 2006.