Michael Polanyi's early writing – some published but also unpublished material – shows he was deeply puzzled by, and was probing, matters concerned with human knowledge. This early material, which is sometimes provocative and not particularly systematic, has been largely overlooked in the extant Polanyi literature. Although this short essay does not discuss any of the pieces in detail, we review a selection of Polanyi’s early writing. Visible in this material are some seeds of what later are developed in Polanyi's account of science and society, and his epistemology, which by the 1960s he called the ‘theory of tacit knowing.’ We also illuminate some tensions among ideas with which Polanyi seems to be experimenting. In sum, this essay examines a selection of early Polanyi writing, briefly discussing what appears to be Polanyi’s early questions about knowledge and his thinking about human knowing in science and society in the late 1920s and 30s.
How did Michael Polanyi understand the nature of knowing in the 1920s and 1930s? Most scholarly discussion of Polanyi’s philosophy of science and his developing interest in epistemology has focused attention on Science, Faith and Society (1946) and publications thereafter. There are, however, interesting Polanyi writings, published and unpublished, which bear on the subject of knowledge reaching back to the 1920s. Scholars with historical-biographical interests, (e.g., Scott and Moleski, 2005, and Nye, 2011) have briefly commented on some of this literature, but it has not received much scrutiny. Although Polanyi’s early discussions are at times sketchy and ambiguous, it is possible to see some patterns in them. Some seeds of themes treated in later Polanyi books and articles are visible in this early literature. Also visible are tensions between some ideas that interest Polanyi and which he, in turn, begins to explore. The present essay briefly discusses a selection of early Polanyi writings, which appear to be first steps on the path toward his later more mature epistemic account of science and of knowledge beyond science.
2.The 1926 Notebook
Perhaps the earliest evidence of Polanyi’s interest in epistemic questions appears in ‘On the Way to the Truth, ‘ a notebook entry comprised of aphoristic declarations.  Written in German, this entry is undated but very likely was written by Polanyi in 1926, since it is sandwiched in the notebook between entries dated Summer 1926 and December 1926.  In the notebook entry, the Polanyi biographers Scott and Moleski (2005, 104) find Polanyi questioning whether he would be able to remain ‘on the path and avoid the abyss,’ appreciating there are ‘many ways and many truths.’ They aver that ‘the arbitrariness of life troubled Polanyi, for he saw no way to resolve the tensions objectively . . . Physical laws are subject to experimental constraint, but moral laws are arbitrary.’ This means ‘that in moral matters we have to take personal responsibility for our actions.’
Surely Scott and Moleski are correct in suggesting that there is in this early notebook entry a certain poetic ambience and what seems a general anxiousness, but there is more in Polanyi’s reflection. Clearly, one of the main points in the notebook entry concerns truth. The title of Polanyi’s note perhaps gives the impression that there is a single path to truth, but early in the text he ruled out this possibility: ‘There is not just one Path and one Truth, just countless paths and truths.’ The different truths Polanyi considered to range along a spectrum from the rudimentary to the well advanced: ‘There is a population of truths, or better yet, a community of truths that is split and intertwined . . . There are highly developed civilizations of truths and wild tribes, with all transitions of development in-between.’ Polanyi speculated that ‘between true and false, or, more colloquially, right and wrong, there is a steady progression.’ Each discipline of science has ‘one piece of the world...to cultivate’ and the seeds planted ‘grow strong or perish.’
Another related theme in the 1926 notebook entry is that each body of knowledge rests on its own particular assumptions: ‘What profoundly separates the ages are the silent assumptions they are built on.’ Polanyi also apparently was curious but skeptical about much of the interest in method in philosophical and scientific discussion. He refers to ‘the particular method, which always leads to the truth, which Descartes and so many others have searched for’ without having found it.
Finally, in his 1926 notebook entry, Polanyi questions the view that science always demands exactness. He was perhaps asking if exactness should be a scientific ideal. Different disciplines of science impose different degrees of precision, and demand different degrees of ‘clarity of. . . terms’ and require different ‘measuring techniques.’ Standards of exactitude in one branch of science may prove to be inordinately strict in another branch. Medical science, for example, would not be able to cope were it subject to the ‘critique. . . which is common in Physics.’
The themes in the 1926 notebook entry, interest in truths and the role of assumptions plus questions about method and matters of exactness in science, are complemented and expanded in some subsequent early Polanyi writings. In December 1928, Polanyi wrote a laudatory piece praising Fritz Haber on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday.  As paraphrased by Scott and Moleski, Polanyi associated outstanding scientific researchers with one of two
Hindu gods, Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishnu, the preserver. Scientists like Einstein, Planck, and Rutherford are the ‘destroyers’ of old ways, the radical reformers. Haber and others are the ‘preservers’ who build additional structures on the current scientific outlook and explain the new in terms of the old (2005, 110).
These two imperatives of scientific research, namely innovation and conservation, become a recurrent theme of Polanyi’s later discussions of scientific knowledge. Polanyi early recognized the tension between these imperatives but also saw they both deserved respect. Mary Jo Nye (2011, 155) notes that in 1930 Polanyi wrote a short essay for Der deutsche Volkswirt arguing ‘for government support of pure, or fundamental, science even when practical benefits might not be immediately obvious as in medicine or engineering.’ In an unpublished essay, ‘New Morality,’ probably written in the early thirties, Polanyi wrote of the need for a ‘morality’ to ground science. Scott and Moleski (2005, 128) comment that this ‘remained a leitmotif of Polanyi’s social analysis and philosophical reflection.’ Polanyi early seems preoccupied with understanding how scientific knowledge (and, more generally, all knowledge in human communities) changes or grows and yet maintains continuity. He seems early to have affirmed the importance of pursuing the transcendent ideals of truth, justice and beauty, which sustain a good society.
3. ‘The Value of the Inexact’ (1936)
What is arguably Polanyi’s first philosophical publication on science was an April, 1936, four-paragraph letter which follows up on his 1926 notebook musings about the relative value of exactness in science.  His letter, published under the title ‘The Value of the Inexact’ in Philosophy of Science, treated ‘the subject of chemical concepts as opposed to physical ones,’ arguing that chemistry is built on an appreciation for ‘the great value of inexact ideas.’ Polanyi suggested ‘Chemistry is a world of ideas expressed by such terms as ‘relative stability,’ ‘affinity,’ ‘tendency,’ ‘inclination,’ ‘general expectation,’ as descriptions of behaviour. There is not a single rule in chemistry which is not qualified by important exceptions.’ Polanyi noted that ‘the character of a substance or class of substances is as complex as the features of physiognomy and the art of chemistry appears to be the power of being aware of these complex attitudes of matter.’ Chemists must not ‘let themselves be frightened by physicists into abandoning all vague methods, and to restrict themselves to the field where exact laws (or what are supposed to be such by the physicists) pertain,’ for to do so would ‘have stopped dead’ the development of chemistry and ‘its most valuable parts would have melted away.’ Polanyi points out as a chemist that it ‘is good to contemplate how useless, or even harmful exactitude becomes at so close quarters to physics. Just link up two of three of the atoms of physics, and their behavior becomes so complex as to be beyond the range of exactitude.’ He extended this scientific perspective to suggest it is ‘supremely unreasonable’ to contend that ‘by precise measurements and mathematical treatment, i.e. physical exactitude, a vital knowledge and command of such objects as living organisms and social bodies should be found.’  There is an implicit rejection of reductionism in Polanyi’s 1936 letter – everything cannot be reduced to physics, even in theory, and pretending it is reducible is destructive of science.
4. The Economic and Political Context
Polanyi developed his ideas about knowledge in the context of analysing the great economic and political upheaval of the first decades of the twentieth century. Given Polanyi’s family history (with interests in political economy), his life in Hungary before, during and just after World War I, and his later experience in inflation-plagued Germany after the war, it is not surprising that he developed a serious interest in European politics and economics, including Soviet affairs. The Bolshevik Revolution inspired for many a utopian dream of a new society with absolute freedom and equality that operated on scientific principles. But Polanyi was no utopian. In 1930, Polanyi organized a study group of scientists and economists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes’ Harnack House. Before the middle of 1931, this economics study group held nine or ten meetings (Scott and Moleski, 2005, 121-122; Nye, 2011, 154-157).
In April of 1928, Polanyi took the first of several scientific trips over the next few years to the Soviet Union (Scott and Moleski, 2005, 108, 120, 134; Nye, 2011, 153, 156-157) and these trips stimulated his study of the functioning of the Soviet economy, Soviet politics and ideology and the pressures on Soviet scientists. Scott and Moleski (2005, 109-110) emphasize that on his 1928 trip Polanyi recorded in his notebook and incorporated in a letter to his sister notes about the badly functioning Soviet economy, including some observations about prices, wages and housing.
In the same year, Polanyi read economics books and studies of social-cultural issues, including Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals which would likely have strengthened Polanyi’s commitment to the importance of theoretical scientific inquiry. Polanyi read Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals shortly after it appeared (Scott and Moleski, 2005, 109) and there are several pages of Polanyi reflections on Benda’s book dated ‘17 December 1928’ in archival materials (Box 44, Folder 2).  He may have noticed Benda’s motto for the book: Charles Renouvier’s words, ‘The world is suffering from lack of faith in a transcendental truth.’ Benda depicted the clerks in society (i.e., the intellectuals) as people who historically had ‘interests [that] are set outside the’ mundane sphere of power and wealth, reputation and patriotism (1928/1969, 47, 57, 139). These for Benda were the true clerks, people who dedicated themselves to the ‘disinterested life,’ the life of study (148), to discovering and spreading ‘spiritual’ ends (103), including universal truth and justice (57), universal good (95) and beauty (101). Benda, however, pointedly described many contemporary intellectuals as having abandoned the clerk’s true and traditional role in favour of a more practical, political and materialistic orientation. Polanyi likely saw Sydney and Beatrice Webb as exemplars of Benda’s corrupted clerk. He sharply reviewed the Webbs’ apologia, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? in 1936.  Concluding his review, ‘Truth and Propaganda’, Polanyi (1940/1975, 116) bemoaned the fact that ‘[M]any thinkers to-day do not believe in truth; of those who do, few consider it to be right to tell the truth regardless of political consequences’ and, as a result of this, ‘thinkers have . . . forfeited their right to restrain governments in the name of truth.’ Intellectuals need to ‘make a new departure, inspired by unflinching veracity,’ otherwise ‘truth will remain powerless against propaganda.’
Polanyi’s most memorable later trip to the Soviet Union came in the spring of 1935, two years after he had left Germany for a physical chemistry position at Manchester University, following Hitler’s rise to power. Scott and Moleski (2005, 154-155) report that Polanyi went to Moscow to present a paper on proton transfer and, while there, he discussed Soviet science with Nikolai Bukharin, editor of the government newspaper Izvestia and a leading Communist party theoretician. The conversation was a watershed moment for Polanyi; he later referred to it several times. Bukharin’s ideas about Soviet science seem to have shocked Polanyi into the recognition that his own experience as a scientist and his largely unformulated ideas about science were diametrically opposed to Marxist ideas. But Polanyi, in the next few years after his conversation with Bukharin, as he monitored and publicized the Stalinist Soviet persecution of geneticists, concluded that the logical positivist ideas about science, knowledge and truth in the West were themselves not defensible alternatives to the misguided account of scientific knowledge of Marxism. 
Polanyi first wrote about Bukharin’s claims in his 1939 essay ‘Rights and Duties of Science’,
He [Bukharin] explained that the distinction between pure and applied science made in capitalist countries was due only to the inner conflict of a type of society which deprived scientists of the consciousness of their social functions, thus creating in them the illusion of pure science . . . [T]he distinction between pure and applied science was inapplicable in the U.S.S.R. In his view this implied no limitation on freedom of research; scientists could follow their interests freely in the U.S.S.R., but owing to the complete internal harmony of Socialist society they would, in actual fact inevitably be led to lines of research which would benefit the current Five Year’ Plan. And accordingly comprehensive planning of all research was to be regarded merely as a conscious confirmation of the pre-existing harmony of scientific and social aims (1940/1975, 3-4).
Although Polanyi (1946/1964, 8) later reported that he was at first amused at Bukharin’s ‘dialectical mystery mongering,’ it launched Polanyi’s philosophical effort to articulate the nature of science and the place of science in modern society. In 1939 in ‘Rights and Duties of Science’, Polanyi commented he had been observing through the thirties the rise of a movement in England and other countries that advances ‘a claim for the reconsideration of the position of science in the light of Marxist philosophy. More recently . . . this movement, while further gathering in breadth, is adopting a less orthodox attitude’ (1940/1975, 1). He began to work at countering Marxist views of science visible in the British ‘planned’ science movement that aimed to direct research. In ‘Rights and Duties of Science,’ Polanyi proposed as an alternative to Marxist influenced ideas about science what he called his ‘liberal view . . . concerning the distinction between pure and applied science and concerning the relation of science and society’ (1940/1975, 4). In his lectures and writing in this period, Polanyi strongly rejected the Marxist idea that thought, including scientific thought, is socially determined; he also rejected Marxist ideas about class warfare (1940/1975, 10-11; 1937/2016, 21-22). 
In 1935, the same year he met with Bukharin, Polanyi published ‘USSR Economics – Fundamental Data, System and Spirit.’ In this largely statistical study of the Soviet economy, one of the earliest of such studies in the West, Polanyi (1940/1975, 61) provided an outline ‘sufficiently certain to base reasonable conclusions on it.’  These conclusions distinguished the truly disastrous early communist phase, following the Russian Revolution, of economic affairs from the more recent socialist phase ‘following the consolidation of Stalin’s dictatorship’ which he (1940/1975, 61) argued had brought a certain ‘improvement in [Soviet] economic life’ by effectively reintroducing (although not acknowledging) certain market mechanisms.
In 1937, Polanyi published a short report in Nature just after returning from Congrès du Palais de la Découverte, an international scientific meeting in Paris. This international scientific meeting was one in which all present were mindful of the ways in which the international scientific enterprise hung in the balance as the Third Reich moved to dominate Europe.
Reporting on this scientific meeting, Polanyi connected the growth of knowledge with freedom. ‘Science, and generally the independent search for truth, is destroyed when political liberty falls . . . By its very nature such [religious, political and scientific] thought must claim superiority to temporal power’ (1937, 710). In effect, Polanyi was agreeing with Benda’s argument in The Treason of the Intellectuals that science and other forms of inquiry require a commitment to truth, and truth necessarily must be regarded as independent of the state. In Stalinism and fascism, Polanyi saw the undermining of, and ultimate dissolution of, the ideal of an external truth. Bukharin’s model of planned scientific research glossed over the importance of the necessary independence of the search for truth. The political and social events of the twentieth century led Polanyi to see democratic institutions and practices as best able to promote what he called the ‘reciprocal’ connections between science and liberty:
[T]he link between science and liberty is completely reciprocal: while the profession of truth needs for its protection the free institutions of democracy, these institutions themselves must decay and fall if people abandon their belief in reason. The idea of liberty derives its strength from many roots but among these there is one most vital: the belief that men can reach a better understanding by free discussion, that in fact society can be continuously improved if public life is steadily guided by reasoned controversy (1937: 710).
The survival of both democratic institutions and science depends upon the continuing confidence modern human beings have in reason. Polanyi affirmed that free discussion relying upon reasoned controversy provided the only way in which the growth of thought in society could be promoted.
In sum, Polanyi’s (1940/1975, 4) ‘liberal view . . . concerning the distinction between pure and applied science and concerning the relation of science and society,’ affirms several key convictions that have epistemological bearing if not always a clear, conventional epistemological formulation. (1) Science and a society guided by science must believe in truth and this implies a continuing belief in reason. (2) Science and a society guided by science must be committed to an ongoing independent search for truth. (3) Such an independent search requires political liberty. (4) The independent search for truth yields what Polanyi calls ‘reasoned controversy’ which is the vehicle through which knowledge grows and society takes steps forward. There is an on-going public conversation in society – a reasoned and lively discussion – about truth, and that public conversation can occur only in a non-totalitarian social context.
5. The 1937 Numbered Papers
5.1 An Introduction to the Suite
By 1937, at the same time Polanyi was working out some elements of his socio-economic political philosophy, he was also probing epistemological questions more directly. There is a suite of four unpublished short papers dated 1937 and numbered two through five (Box 25, F11, MPP), which Polanyi presumably linked together. There is no first paper in the series, but the titles of the surviving papers, numbered two through five, are ‘On Truth,’ ‘On Reason,’ ‘Truth and Justice, Ideas and Belief,’ and ‘Notes on the Position of Science.’  As we discuss below, this material, which seems to be a sketchy set of meditations, suggests questions and tensions in Polanyi’s thinking in this period but also it reveals some tendencies visible in his early thought.
Only one Polanyi commentator, Stefania Jha (2002, 284, n. 20), has to our knowledge made any reference to this unpublished suite of short papers. Jha’s comment is no more than a passing reference, which in some ways confuses matters. She notes ‘a 1937 attempt’ by Polanyi ‘at working out the dynamic order among truth, reason, justice, ideas and beliefs with regard to science and learning, in which he explored the concept of hierarchies and frameworks.’ Jha’s use of the phrase ‘dynamic order’ suggests the papers are more interconnected than they really are. Although these reflections were all written in 1937 and Polanyi sometimes comments on the same theme in more than one paper, the papers are certainly not well integrated. Jha’s use of ‘dynamic order’ is also anachronistic in that Polanyi nowhere used the phrase in the 1937 papers, which became a key term in 1940. Polanyi borrowed ‘dynamic order’ from the Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler, as he notes in his essay ‘The Growth of Thought in Society’ (1941, 435), and adapted Kohler’s ideas to characterize science and other orders (Mullins 2010, 11-16). The concept does also appear a year earlier in Polanyi’s essay, ‘Collectivist Planning’ (Jacobs 2015, 377). Polanyi used this phrase to describe natural and social orders, underscoring the way in which equilibrium is achieved when forces interact in the context of set boundary conditions.
In our view, the 1937 papers convey a sense of a thinker exploring and probing certain fundamental ideas and initiating what, with the benefit of hindsight, might be described loosely as an agenda for further future philosophical inquiry, a philosophical research program. The papers vary in terms of the level of their epistemological interest. ‘On Truth’ and ‘Truth and Justice, Ideas and Belief’ are the deeper epistemic explorations of the four. ‘Notes on the Position of Science’, Polanyi’s reflection numbered five, is more straightforward and provides a bridge from Polanyi’s social and political ideas to the deeper epistemological probing in this suite of papers. This is the only paper in the suite that directly refers to the planned science movement. It also articulates Polanyi’s views about the nature of scientific education (which connects this paper with others in the suite – see the discussion below). Polanyi cites one of the planned science protagonists, the zoologist and statistician Lancelot Hogben, author of Mathematics for the Millions (1936), suggesting that Hogben misrepresents mathematics and particularly science insofar as he does not recognize the ways in which mathematical development, after Newton, is largely ‘theoretical and independent of welfare’ (V: 1). Polanyi explained ‘it is extremely rare’ for a scientific discovery to ‘result in a particular invention’ (V: 1). It is the case that ‘the discovery of certain scientific truths make [sic.] a whole order of now useful things possible,’ but ‘as to where they are made possible is a second discovery to which the particular status of invention is attached’ (V: 1). Polanyi held – and this is directly contrary to Bukharin’s view – science is not ‘guided by the need for solving certain practical problems’ (V: 1). Polanyi reaffirmed the distinction between pure and applied science, contending that the ‘drama of science’ cannot be reduced to ‘practical implications’ for ‘to try to put it in such terms’ is to ‘completely miss the beauty and depth of’ scientific discoveries (V: 1). He further notes that advances in applied sciences have been stimulated by discoveries in basic science. Modern medicine advanced when it ceased trying to improve methods of healing directly and took notice of discoveries that had been made in the pure sciences of anatomy, physiology and pathology (V: 2).
5.2 An Analysis of the Suite
We believe it helpful to analyse Polanyi’s discussion in his 1937 papers in terms of four dimensions of knowledge: biological-evolutionist, social-psychological, rational, and fiduciary. Polanyi regarded these dimensions as complementary; but there remain tensions between some dimensions, and they also overlap. Hence discussion below of these dimensions includes some repetition.
5.2.1 The Biological-evolutionist Dimension
Polanyi likened ideas to biological organisms, contending that they ‘live, feed, spread, produce progeny’ (IV: 1). ‘New ideas’ he considered
rise like new species from old at the bidding of sudden changes in our mental structure and spread favoured by temporal circumstances, pushing out older ideas by taking away the ground consuming their nourishment, occupying the minds by which they were held, nesting in their minds and transforming them by their growth and progeny. They live in books, habits, forms of greeting, new words and reticences, customs, prejudices and when overcome by a new growth of rival ideas they finally die, these remains are left as fossils (IV: 1).
Elsewhere Polanyi wrote that ‘truths . . . struggle with one another for the minds of men’ and truths compete ‘for the minds of the leaders’ or the ‘intellectual elite’ and these leaders in turn ‘compete for’ the allegiance of the masses (II: 4). Ideas are in competition with one another to survive. ‘The evidence of truth lies in the force of ideas. Ideas convince and supersede other ideas’ (V: 2).
Our knowledge often has survival value for us, and we are impelled by biology to accept that there are conclusions ‘we can trust to be true’ (II: 3). In his 1937 meditations, Polanyi appears to be preoccupied with reconciling his thinking about truth and his thinking from a more evolutionary biological perspective. Doubting conclusions such as ‘we will starve if we don’t eat[,] and be run over if we cross the road’ in front of a car are not biological options (II: 2-3). A person trying consistently to apply an attitude of doubt would paralyse herself or else behave randomly, and thereby prevent herself from taking precaution against dangers. Absolute doubt contradicts ‘the instincts of life’ (II:3). Human beings draw conclusions from evidence as part of ‘our determination to live,’ in the interests of our ‘own preservation’ (II:3). Convictions help to ‘guide life a good way on its further continuation’ (II:5). 
In ‘Truth and Justice, Ideas and Belief,’ Polanyi described the validity of statements as ‘relative’ to the ‘framework of method by which they are ascertained’ (IV: 1). Polanyi later develops a philosophical outlook strongly linking perception and conception; in 1937, he seems already to be trying to work out this connection. The framework in which we believe functions as ‘a sensory organ,’ a ‘means of perception like eyes and ears,’ forming a ‘part of our living self,’ and providing a particular view of the world (IV: 1, 2).  The implication is that statements validated in one framework may not be verifiable, and perhaps cannot even be formulated in other frameworks, although Polanyi allowed that ‘a struggle based on reason between rival doctrines might be possible in terms of a super framework accepted by both parties’(IV: 1). He noted that while in use we cannot scrutinize our framework any more than ‘we can see our own eyes;’ when using a ‘method of discussion,’ it is not subject to discussion (IV: 1). There is no preferred method of discussion and there is no neutral framework. People defend their sense organs and their ‘methods of perception’ with a ‘desperate instinct’ whether these methods are ‘reasonable or mystic, scientific or intuitive’ (IV: 1). Polanyi affirmed that ‘a Communist or a Catholic defending his faith’ struggles for ‘a higher more significant form of existence’ and resists ‘degre-dation (sic) to a shapeless meaningless death-like arid form of life’ (IV: 1-2). All of our responses have biological survival value.
Polanyi contended that ‘the fact that we and others go on living is the justification for our belief in the existence of Truth’ (II: 3). But he wondered if the conclusions we draw according to our instinct for life represent ‘just one Truth out of many or are they the truth?’ (II: 3) This is a question that the early Polanyi does not clearly answer. While Polanyi regarded belief in truth as important and perhaps inevitable for living persons, it is hard to know more precisely how he regarded truth. On one interpretation, he seemed to imply that true conclusions in any field of inquiry are relative to one or other of the frameworks in that field. Each framework provides the concepts in which its believers formulate conclusions and determine what is true. When Polanyi refers to the possibility of ‘many’ truths, he may be suggesting truth is simply relative to an individual or a social group’s framework of belief, in which case the early Polanyi was a relativist about truth. He seemed to rule out objective means of preferring any framework as the cognitively best available at the time: ‘The decision between rival frameworks is a pure judgment of value imposed upon the mind by doctrines’ (IV: 1).
Another possibility is that Polanyi meant that there are different fields of inquiry, each of which has its own standard of truth. Truth in this case would seem to be more objective (or absolute) and emergent rather than simply relative. Four years later he suggested such a view in ‘The Growth of Thought in Society,’ affirming ‘the ideals’ of the various ‘aspects of truth’ (1941, 429). He argued that truth ‘is so complex, and each particle of it hangs together directly with so many others,’ and that ‘there are . . . many kinds of truth, corresponding to the wealth of’ human faculties (1941, 448 emphasis added).  Twenty-five years later, Polanyi repeated this view in ‘The Republic of Science’ in affirming different ‘kinds of truth’ (1962, 73 emphasis added).
It is worth emphasizing that Polanyi began his 1937 meditation ‘On Truth’ by affirming that the ‘miracle of Truth is like the miracle of Life. To lose faith in Truth because there is no absolute Truth is like denying life because we are not immortal’ (II: 1). At times, Polanyi spoke of ‘the Truth as each of us conceives it,’ which suggests truth is subjective (and relative), but he clearly believed that our survival in the physical world constrains what we can believe (II: 3). He explained that the truth depends on ‘our will to live’ and on our personal choices and our circumstances in nature and society (II: 3). He described ‘the degree of safety of life’ as depending ‘on the validity’ of the statements which a person accepts as true. ‘Convictions’ that give no lasting solutions provide no ‘effective guidance to life and are, in effect, delusions, which have to be soon discarded if life is to go on’ (II:3).
Polanyi wrote there are various ‘possible lives’ and they are determined by different convictions (II: 4). Polanyi’s 1937 papers include the expression ‘form of life,’ an expression later used by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (1953). Each ‘form of life’ for Polanyi is ‘conditioned by various possible convictions’ (II: 4). His examples include Communism, capitalism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Fascism as forms of ‘faith’ (IV: 1). Each form of life, Polanyi notes, ‘represents a rival form of Truth,’ and such truths have varying degrees of validity depending on ‘the value of the life’ such truths make ‘possible and on the permanence of the solution they offer to it’ (II: 4). Polanyi emphasized differences among forms of life or patterns of lived faith: ‘The intellectual life of a mystic is different from that of a rationalist as the spiritual life of an epicurean is different from that of a yogi. Each of these reveal different Truths’ and these truths compete for people’s intellectual allegiance (II: 4). ‘The evidence of truth’ consists in ‘the force of ideas’ to convince people (V: 2c). Polanyi described each body of truth as ‘a heritage’ approved of by the ‘intellectual elite,’ the members of which compete for citizens’ support (II: 4).
5.2.2 The Social-psychological Dimension
The 1937 suite emphasizes a social-psychological dimension of knowledge in which Polanyi stressed how children and adults receive their understandings from others. Few people decide for themselves what is true and how they should behave. ‘Children are baptised at birth, they are taught their religion, they are trained to conform to custom and instructed in language, crafts and science according to the conviction of the parent generation’ (IV: 4). ‘The main truth’ about most people’s convictions is they rely on the cognitive authority of others, whether it be their doctor, the journalist reporting in the daily newspaper, or better educated neighbors (II: 4). In short, people with training and education are trusted by the less-educated members of society.
Particularly in ‘Notes on the Position of Science,’ Polanyi emphasized the social nature of education. Schools in a democratic society instil its body of knowledge, including a high regard for reason and ‘properly established facts’ (V: 2). But science teaching is authoritarian, the content of science being imposed on students. Students are not presented with the evidence and encouraged to ‘draw their own conclusions’ (V: 3). They are expected to accept the knowledge claims being taught, without demur. The student must believe his teacher is right before he can understand him or her (V: 3). The actual truth found in a discipline such as physics is too complex for it to be intelligible to beginning students. Scientific truth remains ‘practically unrevealed’ to students being taught science (V: 3). Polanyi affirmed that ‘we apply every trick to make one aspect which is teachable enter the minds of the pupil and refrain from referring to the whole truth which would only confuse him’ (V: 2-3). Schools teach theories – for example, Bohr’s atom theory, Newtonian mechanics, and the undulatory theory of light – which are strictly speaking ‘wrong’ (V: 2).
Elaborating on the social dimension of knowledge, Polanyi envisaged people as belonging to social-cultural ‘circle[s]’, in some cases by virtue of birth – for example, a religion or a nation – and in some cases not – for example, professions (II: 4). A social-cultural circle has its ‘centre’ of specialists – for example, ‘the central authority of science’ – who have been trained in, and have experience of, their area, and these specialists produce the ‘convictions’ of the circle (V: 3, II: 4). These specialists, Polanyi (II: 4) suggested, represent the circle’s ‘leaders’ who are an ‘intellectual elite’ and each circle also includes ‘dependents.’ The intellectual leaders generally add ‘only ...[a] little’ to the inherited body of truths of their circle but every so often there are ‘new revelations of truth’, and these are transmitted by ‘intermediaries’ along ‘the threads of intellectual allegiances to the people’ (II: 4 and 5). 
5.2.3 The Rational Dimension
In his 1937 reflections, Polanyi outlined a very modest account of the potential of human reason, an account at odds with the heritage of eighteenth century rationalism. He seems to have been reading and thinking carefully about some of the events and new literature of this period. Polanyi affirmed ‘reason is a particular method of approach to nature and human affairs’ but it is not ‘an adequate method for a comprehensive study of nature’ (III:1). Conservative religious people reject rational accounts of nature and
many others would agree that the picture of the Universe which it [science] presents is so incomplete that it scarcely satisfied our intellectual needs. The origin of Life is left unexplained [by science], the purpose of Evolution with the rise of conscious being from primordial slime is denied, the Universe as a whole is given no beginning and no end (III: 1).
Reason can contribute to people’s ‘material welfare,’ but it provides ‘nothing definite’ by way of understanding human needs apart from confirming the obvious fact that we need ‘food and shelter’ (III: 1). Tastes vary and people have changes of heart, which are often not motivated by reason. Reason can ‘only register the changes in taste’ and try to cater to ‘the new tastes as it served the old ones’ (III: 1). It cannot invalidate moral conclusions nor pronounce ‘one moral doctrine’ as superior to another and ‘in the limited field of welfare’ reason is ill-equipped to decide any ‘major issue’ (III: 1, 2). Reason may be able to clarify certain ‘issues by pointing out consequences’ but people select the consequences that best suit their interests and their underlying motives (III: 2). In many situations, ‘reason has nothing to say at all’ (III: 2). An illustration of the infirmity of reason is its failure to provide a convincing argument against racial intolerance. Polanyi considered ‘reasonable argument’ to be ineffectual against the German anti-semite who has no objection against a person with whom he has been friendly in the past other than that he is now aware this person is Jewish (III: 2). Polanyi’s overall assessment is ‘as an approach to human affairs Reason is scarcely more than a sectional method. A guide for a short while here and there’ (III: 1).
What animates the follower of reason? Polanyi considered people like himself to be ‘propagandists, making propaganda for reason’ (III: 1, see also III: 3). He cites Leonard Doob’s recent study, Propaganda: Its Psychology and Techniques (1935), in the nascent field of social psychology and suggests propaganda ‘is inevitable and its abolition can be secured only by rupturing practically all of the complicated social bonds through which men associate on friendly or hostile terms with one another’ (III: 3). In his reflection on education in democratic societies, he suggests many ideas might be regarded as “propaganda’ if propaganda means the inculcation of an order of ideas which can be controverted by another order of ideas’ (V: 2). According to Polanyi, ‘the propaganda for Reason’ is grounded in the idea that people ‘behave better’ when they take notice of their ‘material welfare and . . . [of] those conditions which prevail in a more placid state of mind’ (III: 2). To say that reason is an object of propaganda entails that there can be no convincing justification of reason other than that we like it, and this consideration for Polanyi is ‘a perfectly sound one’ (III: 2). Reason and freedom have had their ‘martyrs’ who did not preach the case for reason and freedom but rather ‘they fought for their ideals destroying its enemies or losing their own lives’ (III: 3). Reason and free discussion inevitably depend on propaganda. Propagandists for reason and free discussion need to provide a personal ‘example of toleration while preaching toleration’ and they also ‘must argue against intolerance’ and ‘evoke all emotions to blacken its picture’ (III: 3). In the case of the ‘propaganda of dictatorship’ – unlike the case of democratic orders in which the propaganda for reason prevails – propaganda is not merely the means for the establishment of the dictatorship but also constitutes ‘part of its doctrine’ which requires one ‘to submit unquestioningly to the Leader’s assertions’ (III: 3).
5.2.4 The Fiduciary Dimension
Learning, for Polanyi, is a process of discovering ‘meaning’ and it cannot proceed without the learner having faith in what he or she is being taught (II: 1). The child cannot learn to speak unless it accepts on faith that the sounds heard are significant. The child ‘is guided by its trust that’ what he is hearing includes ‘a hidden significance’ (II: 1). Polanyi compared the child’s faith or trust in learning to speak with the scientist seeking a discovery who is guided by his trusting that there is ‘significance in the objects which he investigates’ (II: 1). ‘The strength of faith in learning to speak is illustrated by the reluctance of children to speak a language which is not the right one’ (II: 2). Regardless of whether he or she is learning a language, or learning quantum mechanics or grasping an ‘ethical revolution,’ the student is sustained by believing there is ‘hidden truth’ to be discovered (II: 2).
Polanyi noted that faith underlies scientists’ decisions on which experiments to conduct, and it may take them ‘a lifelong practice of devotion’ for the results of an experiment to become manifest (IV: 3). Experience won’t accurately guide a scientist as to which experiment he ought to conduct. He has to fall back on his ‘faith’ in what he believes the experiment will yield, and ultimately his decision is ‘arbitrary.’ Polanyi believed ‘Chastity, Revolution, education, parentage’ to be ‘fateful experiments,’ each of them based on faith (IV: 3). The scientist expects to ‘find something’ and he is prepared to brush ‘significant evidence’ aside when it disagrees with scientists’ ‘expectations as expressed in current theory’ (IV: 3). Polanyi illustrated this with the example of what he labelled the ‘position’ but, because that name makes no sense in this context, the present authors suggest that he probably had in mind Carl Anderson’s recent (1932) discovery of antimatter in the form of the ‘positron’ (IV: 3). Belief, for Polanyi, supports the status quo but every so often knowledge changes because someone has come up with a new ‘daring’ idea’ or a ‘bold’ generalization’ that disturbs established views (IV: 3). Max von Laue’s discovery of diffraction of X-rays by crystals was driven by his believing intensely in his inquiry which Polanyi described as ‘a miracle of belief’ (IV: 3). Perhaps Polanyi also intended his notion, ‘miracle of belief,’ as an argument against Laplacean determinism. In a similar vein, at the end of ‘On Truth,’ Polanyi wrote that ‘The most scientific way to look upon life seems to me to regard it as a miracle. That is to realise [sic.], that looking at the universe not knowing of the existence of life there could be nothing more amazing than to come across the fact that life exists’ (II: 5).
Polanyi affirmed a deep connection between belief and truth. The assertion ‘Truth exists’, in his view, expresses a faith that there are ideas in which we ‘can safely believe’ (II: 2). Believing an idea to be true, we assign it significance ‘beyond the range of evidence which forms its foundation’ (II: 2). Ideas are ‘incomplete presentations of experience’ and the ‘validity of accepted ideas’ (including those in science) requires that we ignore a good many ‘elements and issues as irrelevant to their validity’ (IV: 3). Polanyi contended ‘the only path to discovery is the expectation to find something and most significant evidence is overlooked so long as it does not fit in with our expectations as expressed in current theory’ (IV: 3). He held that the ‘suppression of a great deal of information is necessary to establish truth and convey it to the public’ (IV: 3). These and other similar statements make it plain that by 1937 Polanyi had rejected the critical, falsifi-cationist perspective on science.
Faith, for Polanyi, clearly trumps criticism and is intimately connected with life. The ‘state of absolute doubt’ is not a real option ‘because the instincts of life set us such aims with which it is irreconcilable’ (II: 3). Questions about whether certain ‘conclusions should be drawn or not are set by our determination to live, to seek mental and bodily existence’ (II: 3). Although he does not mention Saint Augustine, Polanyi considers ‘we cannot understand without first believing. If that is true for the study of Quantum Mechanics it holds still more for ethical revelation’ (IV: 2). Polanyi notes that Buddhist philosophy states the case ‘admirably’: ‘It is the practice of faith that conveys enlightenment, not the other way round’ (IV: 2). Communists and fascists have formed a similar view.
Revolutionary Socialists believe that not before a complete revolution has been achieved and has reigned for a few generations can the truth of their faith be perceived by the masses. Similarly to the Fascist it is useless to ‘consider’ Fascism. It must be established and lived to be appreciated by the community (IV: 2).
Polanyi perhaps here foreshadows his view developed later that realities have indeterminate future manifestations; a true theory shows its truth in future disclosures. His discussion also appears to presage what in Personal Knowledge (1958) he signified as ‘universal intent.’ Certainly, in light of what we have been discussing, in 1937, Polanyi was developing a philosophy of belief, the centrepiece of his research program that is fully manifested in his Gifford lectures (19511952) and Personal Knowledge.
This essay has reviewed a selection of early Polanyi writings, some published and some unpublished. These selections roughly outline the contours of Polanyi’s first explorations of questions about human knowing and the nature of human knowledge. From the mid-twenties, Polanyi had a consuming interest in the nature of truth. He puzzled about what appeared to be the diversity of knowledge and truth. He was attuned to the discovery of new scientific ideas, but he also appreciated scientific institutions and the continuity of the scientific tradition. Polanyi’s early writing suggests that he saw precise measurement and mathematics as central to physics, but as often being inappropriate and even misleading when applied in most other kinds of inquiry. In the context of the economic and political upheaval of the first part of the twentieth century, Polanyi became an outspoken critic of planned science and he rejected the Marxist effort to undermine the distinction between pure and applied science. Polanyi early promoted the importance of belief in the independence of truth in science and other socio-epistemic orders in society. But it is unclear whether he affirmed a relativistic or a pluralistic, emergent approach to truth. In the face of rising totalitarianism, Polanyi emphasized a democratic social order as that most likely to promote rational public discourse (his ‘reasoned controversy’) in scientific circles and other social orders. Polanyi’s 1937 meditations indicate he did not entertain great expectations about the powers of rationality to transform society. His suite of unpublished 1937 papers suggests that Polanyi was at the time thinking about knowledge in both social and biological-evolutionary terms. He sketches out a social-psychological perspective which is woven with his stress upon fiduciary elements, emphasizing the importance of trust, faith and social location. Exactly how ‘truth’ fits into this account, which also focuses attention on ‘frameworks,’ is not altogether clear. Polanyi’s social-psychological and fiduciary views are strongly linked with ideas of biological-evolutionary epistemology that concern the survival value of ideas and commitments. Polanyi suggests that ideas compete in human culture and society and that idea frameworks are like organs of perception through which human beings attend to the world. Some of the themes that appear in early Polanyi writing are clearly topics that he further explores and develops in his middle period and late philosophical writing.
2010. ‘Michael Polanyi's Use of Gestalt Psychology.’ In Knowing and Being: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Michael Polanyi, edited Tihamér Margitay. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010: 10-29.
Nye, Mary Jo
2011. Michael Polanyi and His Generation, Origins of the Social Construction of Science. Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011, 2015. ‘Foreword.’ Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. xi-xxv.
1926. ‘On the Way to the Truth’ [notebook entry]. Box 43, Folder 8, Michael Polanyi Papers, Department of Special Collections, Regenstein Library University of Chicago.
1928. ‘17 December 1928’ [notebook entry with notes on Benda]. Box 44, Folder 1, Michael Polanyi Papers, Department of Special Collections, Regenstein Library University of Chicago.
1937. ‘On Truth’ [paper number 2]. Box 25, Folder 11, Michael Polanyi Papers, Department of Special Collections, Regenstein Library University of Chicago.
1937. ‘On Reason’ [paper number 3]. Box 25, Folder 11, Michael Polanyi Papers, Department of Special Collections, Regenstein Library University of Chicago.
1937. ‘Truth and Justice, Ideas and Beliefs’ [paper number 4]. Box 25, Folder 11, Michael Polanyi Papers, Department of Special Collections, Regenstein Library University of Chicago.
1937. ‘Notes on the Position of Science’ [paper number 5]. Box 25, Folder 11, Michael Polanyi Papers, Department of Special Collections, Regenstein Library University of Chicago.
1940/1975. The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After. London: Watts & Co  New York: Arno Press [1975 reprint]. 1941. ‘The Growth of Thought in Society.’ Eco-nomica 8: 428-456.
1946/1964. Science, Faith and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press [1964 reprint].
1971/1997. ‘Genius in Science’ In Society, Economics and Philosophy: Selected Papers of Michael Polanyi. edited R. T. Allen. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers. 267-282.
Popper, Karl R.
1994. ‘The Rationality of Scientific Revolutions’ in The Myth of the Framework. edited M. A. Notturno. London: Routledge.
Scott, William T. and Martin X. Moleski, SJ
2005. Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher. Oxford: OUP.
Box 43, Folder 8, Michael Polanyi Papers, Department of Special Collections, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago Library. Citations of subsequent archival material will be in the text, using simply box and folder numbers and MPP. In this period, as one of our reviewers reminded us, it was fashionable among intellectuals in Austro-Hungary to write a book of aphorisms.
We are most grateful to Dr. Evelyn McBride and Mr. Paul Dijkzeul, a 2015 Fulbright Scholar residing in northwest Missouri, for helping us translate this 1926 text. Our several quotations (in this and subsequent paragraphs) are from this translation of the notebook entry (Box 43, Folder 8, MPP) and are not cited separately.
Haber was the Nobel prize winning physical chemist who headed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry (Scott and Moleski, Phil Mullins & Struan W. Jacobs: Polanyi’s Early Work on Knowledge 2005, 25-26, 67). See also Nye’s discussion (2011, 51-57, 80-81) of Haber’s importance in German science.
‘The Value of the Inexact,’ first published in The Philosophy of Science (13: 233-234) was reprinted in TAD (18:3, 35-36) and is available at http://polanyisociety.org/Ltr-Vlu-Inexact-18-3.pdf. Quotations from ‘The Value of the Inexact’ in the discussion following are not cited separately but are from the reprinted TAD copy at his web address. Richard Gelwick discovered ‘The Value of the Inexact’ and showed it to Polanyi in 1962. Gelwick reports that Polanyi laughed since he recognized the continuity between this early letter and ideas developed in his 1962 Terry Lectures which later became The Tacit Dimension (1966).
Polanyi’s brief 1936 reflection on the nature of chemistry and its relation to physics hints at philosophical ideas later developed as his peculiar hierarchical ontology and his corresponding way of understanding the spectrum of human inquiry running from physics to dramatic history. These ideas Polanyi begins to work out in his Gifford Lectures (1951-1952) but it is only with the publication of Personal Knowledge (1958), especially in Part IV, and The Study of Man (1959) that Polanyi makes his case carefully and lucidly. Polanyi cites his 1936 letter in his 1971 essay ‘Genius in Science’ (SEP, 278), noting that the value of the inexact extends much beyond chemistry and ‘makes possible the science of biology.’
Scott and Moleski (2005, 109) translate parts of this Polanyi notebook entry in German on Benda’s book and suggest the entry confirms Polanyi’s commitment to modern civilization with its science and technology. We emphasize, however, that Benda’s book likely confirmed Polanyi’s sense of the importance of pure scientific research in the changing German university context. See the discussion in Nye (2011, 42-46).
This 1936 review, ‘Truth and Propaganda,’ along with other material written from 1935 to 1940 is included in Polanyi’s 1940 collection The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and Thereafter. Material in the collection is parenthetically cited hereafter in the 1975 Arno reprint as 1940/1975 plus the page number, although the year of original publication of particular material may be identified in the text.
See the 1964 reprint of Science, Faith and Society (1946/1964, 8-11), where Polanyi, in his new 1963 introduction, ‘Background and Prospect,’ gives an account of his turn to philosophy of science which begins with his conversation with Bukharin but culminates in his recognition by the early forties that the Western defence (i.e., the Western philosophical account of science) of the persecuted Soviet geneticist Vavilov was baseless. See also Nye’s discussion in her ‘Foreword’ to the 2015 reprint of Personal Knowledge (xiv-xv).
Polanyi’s formerly unpublished 1937 lecture ‘Popular Education in Economics’ was published in 2016 in Tradition and Discovery: The Polanyi Society Journal (42:3: 18-24) and is cited as 1937/2016 with page numbers.
‘USSR Economics—Fundamental Data, System and Spirit’ (The Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies, VI [Nov. 2, 1935]: 67-89 was republished in 1936 as a monograph, USSR Economics, by Manchester University Press. With minor changes, this material was published a third time as ‘Soviet Economy: Fact and Fiction’ in Polanyi’s 1940 collection of essays, The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After (1940/1975, 61-95). Quotations are from the 1940 publication.
In the following discussion, these archival papers from Box 25, Folder 11, MPP are referred to either by name or they are cited in parenthesis in the text using Polanyi’s identifying Roman numerals for each respective paper, followed by page numbers in that paper. Since we often, on a particular topic, bring together Polanyi’s comments in more than one of his four papers, we normally, for clarity, put the citation at the end of a sentence or group of sentences.
Some of Polanyi’s comments linking ideas and survival echo notions developed in classic pragmatism (e.g., Peirce and James). They also seem akin to arguments found in Anglo-American epistemology over the last 75 years or so, as for example in the work of W. V. O. Quine, Donald Campbell, Karl Popper, Konrad Lorenz, David Hull, and Fred Dretske.
Years later Popper (1994, 8) would express a similar view. ‘All observations are theory-impregnated. There is no pure, disinterested, theory-free observation. (To see this, we may try, using a little imagination, to compare human observation with that of an ant or a spider.)’ Popper added, ‘theories are like sense organs’ and ‘our sense organs are like theories... [in that] they incorporate adaptive theories (as has been shown in the case of rabbits and cats).’
In the same period, in his 1940 lecture ‘Collectivist Planning,’ incorporated in The Contempt of Freedom (1940, 42), Polanyi argues, 'The mutual consistence between discoveries made simultaneously or in close succession to one another requires no explanation to those who recognize the existence of Truth. A statement which is part of Truth will always be consistent with another part of Truth; and both parts together will reveal a further, more comprehensive aspect of Truth. This is just as necessary as that two pieces which fit into neighbouring gaps of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle must also fit to one another.' Later in the same essay, Polanyi notes ‘Science has emerged from medieval scholasticism precisely by abandoning such comprehensive tasks as the search for the Philosopher’s Stone and for the Elixir of Life, and by applying itself instead to specialized pieces of research, knowing that the parts of truth thus discovered must form a joint pattern in the end’ (1940, 45). See Mullins (2003, 168-170) for further discussion of some early Polanyi comments on truth and ways these ideas are extended in the writing of the late forties.
Some of Polanyi’s comments here are akin to suggestions made four years later in ‘The Growth of Thought in Society’ (1941, 42-46) about the role of the ‘influ-entials’ in the ‘dynamic orders’ (such as science) which constitute society.