Sunday, March 13, 2011

Common Sense (of Michael Polanyi)

The book club I attend recently reviewed "Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi" by Drusilla Scott. Polanyi was a brilliant Hungarian scientist and philosopher who lived from 1891 to 1976. Early in his career, he moved to Germany to do research, but resigned in protest when Hitler's policies forced the dismissal of Jewish colleagues. He then moved to Manchester, England where he accepted the Chair of Physical Chemistry. This dark period of human history deeply impacted Polanyi, and he found his interests shifting from scientific research to philosophy. He determined to understand "the causes of this destruction and descent into violence" experienced in Europe during the first part of the 20th century. "He embarked on a long search for understanding of 'how we know', and in his book Personal Knowledge he worked to free our minds from distorting assumptions about the impersonality and certainty of scientific knowledge, and the belief that anything outside this framework is unreal. These assumptions devalue man's moral values, spiritual powers, affections, responsibilities and judgments. Yet, as we see in modern terrorism and fanaticism, the power of moral ideals remains, but it is power let loose from moral control, denatured and deadly."

The title page of the book has this quote from Polanyi: "In our search for a reasonable world view, we should turn in the first place to common sense." This quote reflects the predicament of a reflective and grounded man who lived during a period where there was a remarkable lack of common sense. A time when people behaved in despicable ways toward fellow human beings with disturbing ease. Polanyi experienced a world unhinged from its moral groundings and he did what any intellectual would do, he sought to understand it.

Before discussing the specifics of Polanyi's beliefs, I wanted to briefly introduce him to give a context for understanding his philosophy. I also highlighted him because I admire the intelligence, insight, and boldness of this man who stood against the zeitgeist of his time and offered alternatives.

I'll spend my next posts highlighting some of his major contributions to the study of epistemology and discuss some implications for religion. I'll also discuss the impact of his philosophy on my worldview.

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