Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing,
by Mark T. Mitchell
(ISI, 215 pp., $15)
The boulevard leading into Dachau from Munich is now called the Max Born Strasse. It is named after one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century, Max Born (1882–1970), a German Jew who taught in Frankfurt and G÷ttingen (1919–32) and then in exile in Britain (1933–53), before returning to Germany. Born, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1954, had worked alongside and trained several other Nobel physicists in Germany in the interwar years. Looking back across his career and the tragic history of modern Europe, he wrote in 1965: “I am haunted by the idea that this break in human civilization, caused by the discovery of the scientific method, may be irreparable.” He went on to say that “the political and military horrors and the complete breakdown of ethics which I have witnessed during my lifetime may be . . . a necessary consequence of the rise of science.” He concluded: “If this is so, there will be an end to man as a free, responsible being.” A tragic outcome to modern scientific progress is here envisioned by one of the greatest of modern scientists.
We are enormously indebted to three polymathic, polyglot, Hungarian émigré intellectuals for illuminating this tragic intellectual-moral terrain over the last century: Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), Arthur Koestler (1905–1983), and Stanley Jaki (b. 1924). If Born’s gloomy prophecy is to be avoided, their works as well as their life stories need to be widely known and meditated, for they provide a potential “saving remnant” in a world of vast intellectual destructiveness, folly, and fecklessness: the somnambulist, sorcerer’s-apprentice world of modern specialization, “value-free” science, and postmodern skepticism and immoralism.
Drawing upon the recently published definitive biography of Polanyi — Michael Polanyi: Scientist and Philosopher, by the late William Taussig Scott and Martin X. Moleski, S.J. — Mark T. Mitchell’s volume in the ISI “Library of Modern Thinkers” series is an outstanding brief introduction. Polanyi started out his mature life as a brilliant physical chemist in Hungary, serving in World War I as a medical doctor. He lived through both the Communist Bela Kun regime and the fascist, anti-Semitic Horthy regime in Hungary before fleeing to Germany, where he met and befriended Max Born, among other distinguished scientists. Like Born a Jew, he was fortunate enough to be able to emigrate to Britain in 1933: He was invited to occupy the chair of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester. Unlike many of his colleagues and friends (and his brother Karl), Polanyi from early on was not only anti-fascist but anti-Communist. The brief Kun regime in Hungary and then several invited visits to lecture in the new Soviet Union in the 1920s and ’30s gave him the opportunity to see Communism close up and to talk with such high-ranking Bolsheviks as Nikolai Bukharin, the chief Communist theoretician after the death of Lenin and the demotion of Trotsky.
Polanyi was astonished and appalled by the philosophical and ethical ignorance and arrogance of self-styled “scientific socialist” thinkers such as Bukharin, and of their English allies, especially prominent Cambridge Marxist scientists such as J. B. S. Haldane and J. D. Bernal. A sharp observer of “life on the ground” in the USSR, he noticed not only the epistemological poverty and brutal na´veté of the utilitarian Marxist regime, but also its gross political tyranny and economic ineffectiveness. As a high-school student in Hungary Polanyi had been profoundly affected by his reading of Dostoyevsky, whose depiction of both Nietzschean immoralism and self-contradictory scientistic moral fanaticism was eventually to ripen in Polanyi’s own work into a devastating, detailed critique of modernist epistemological and moral confusion. This critique would influence his fellow refugee Koestler, whose works affected the course of world opinion in the period during and after World War II.
Perhaps the most powerful and enduringly valuable of Polanyi’s projects was to answer that terrifying vision raised by Max Born and to challenge and refute the supposedly “scientific” character of Marxist “scientific socialism” and Nazi/Social Darwinist “civic biology.” Lastingly affected by Dostoyevsky’s prophetic insight into the dialectical oscillations of nihilism, Polanyi also read Reinhold Niebuhr during the dark days of World War II as European civilization was committing suicide. Niebuhr wrote with devastating cogency against both forms of secular modern utilitarianism — liberal and Marxist. Of the secular liberal tradition from Diderot and Bentham to Dewey and Wells he wrote in 1944: “The most na´ve form of the democratic faith in an identity between the individual and the general interest is developed by the utilitarians of the 18th and 19th centuries. Their theory manages to extract a covertly expressed sense of obligation toward the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ from a hedonistic analysis of morals which really lacks all logical presuppositions for any idea of obligation, and which cannot logically rise above an egoistic view of life.”
Insights such as this had a powerful effect on American intellectuals, including Whittaker Chambers and Lionel Trilling, as well as on Polanyi. But unlike Chambers and Trilling, Polanyi had much earlier had an intuition of profound clarity about the root epistemological self-contradiction of Marxist moralism, an intuition that had rendered him invulnerable to its epidemic appeal among the intelligentsia. After Polanyi’s 1928 trip to the USSR, he had written to his brother Karl: “It is a cause for despair that there are people who can be led to die or to kill with this kind of scientism.” As a world-class research scientist, he knew existentially and introspectively that he had some margin of free will and initiative, and a purposeful disposition toward reason, truth, evidence, argument, and justice — all of which was absolutely inconsistent with any alleged deterministic “laws of history.” He saw that there were no such laws of history, and that believers in them, having replaced providence with progress, were prone to the fate of Bukharin, who fell from scientistic triumphalism to moral panic, ideological despair, and political execution.
The tragic but revealing fate of Bukharin, consumed by his own revolution, drove Koestler as well as Chambers out of the Communist party and into permanent opposition to it. Koestler befriended Polanyi in England during World War II and was allied with him in the Europe-wide anti-Communist cause. In 1946, the French translation of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, an imaginative portrait of the fate of Bukharin at the hands of the Stalinists, broke French publishing records and was credited by many, including Franšois Mauriac, with being the decisive influence on the epochal Communist defeat in the French referendum in May of that year. Koestler went on to popularize and promote Polanyi’s critique of both scientism and moral nihilism for the next four decades.
Meanwhile, another Hungarian émigré polymath, Stanley Jaki, who had also lived under the Hungarian fascist and Communist dictatorships, came in 1950 to the U.S. A Catholic priest as well as a distinguished physicist, Jaki has — in a vast, profound body of writing on the natural sciences over four decades — deepened and developed Polanyi’s insights and given them philosophical consistency and contemporary application.
While on the run from the Nazis in southern France in 1940, the desperate Koestler was surprised to find comfort in the sympathetic conversational ministrations of a French soldier who turned out to be a Dominican priest. The still-leftist Jew Koestler remarked to the priest the oddity of his finding hope from such an unlikely source. The priest’s reply: “Le bon Dieu est un metteur-en-scène raffiné.” Father Jaki’s magnificent completion and development of the noble Polanyi-Koestler project may be another such refined stroke of providence, as well as the answer to Max Born’s despairing vision.
Mr. Aeschliman is a professor at Boston University and the University of Italian Switzerland and the author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.