Márta Fehér


(Michael Polanyi on the freedom of science)

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3. Polanyi's conception of liberalism concerning science

The argument, quoted a few lines earlier, is introduced by Polanyi as "the decisive reason for individualism in the cultivation of science." (LL p. 89) Indeed, he brings up many reasons why science is and should be an essentially individual enterprise.

And this is the main reason why he thinks that true science can be pursued only in a liberal society, where the principle of individualism prevails. Academic freedom is considered by him a special case of freedom of thought in general, and as such, one of the basic liberties granted to citizens in a liberal society. Academic freedom, in his view, includes more than mere freedom of scientific thought and opinion; it means freedom of scientific activity and free pursuit of scientific goals as well. Thus, he reasons, a liberal stance towards science must include freedom of science from any social/state interference at any phase of scientific research (including the choice of research fields, problems to solve, assumed solutions thereof, experiments to be performed and the resulting knowledge claims; as well as the organizational structure of scientific institutions.) But---he goes even further by saying that---tolerance of academic freedom by the State is not enough today. On the modern scale, institutions of higher learning and higher education can be upheld only by public subsidies. But if scholars are rewarded by the State and given by the State the means of conducting their researches, the government may well bring to bear on them a pressure deflecting them from academic interests and standards. (LL p.41)

In Polanyi's view, therefore, the liberal state must unconditionally subsidize the scientific and higher educational institutions and support research activities. This means, that the state must not expect any (immediate or long run) return for the financial support given, and more than that: it must even disregard its own interests in cases of conflict with the interests of science. But how can one bring the State to the required state of complete surrender to the authority of science? I.e., how, in what type of society can such a situation come about? To answer this question Polanyi brings up the example of the judicial courts. He says:

Thus, he arrives at his conclusion that the State must recognize the existence of a "spiritual reality", a sphere of highest values, in which Truth stands on a par with Law and Justice or other values. From this he further infers that (as already quoted above in<R>section l):

As it in fact happened in Nazi Germany, where "Jewish science" had been officially rejected, or in the Soviet Union where the party claimed the right to tell whether Lysenko's theory is true or not [14].

The commitment of the State towards these above mentioned metaphysical assumptions is then necessary for maintaining liberalism and avoiding totalitarianism. Polanyian liberalism has thus a fiduciary foundation, and thus can be distinguished from a mere laissez-faire type of liberalism [15]. In accordance with the principles of classical liberalism Polanyi sets up very strict limits to the possible interference of the state with science, and tries to minimize the liberties of the state while maximizing those of science and scientists.

In Polanyi's view, the state and society must accept (on a fiduciary basis) that science is "munificiently showering gifts on all men" (CF p. 10), that it is a good-in-itself, that the unlimited pursuit of science is unquestionably beneficial for society in general and for each individual in particular.

In addition to all the above mentioned privileges, science, in Polanyi's conception has to enjoy a further distinction, namely, that it is exempt from the democratic control of people and the pressure of publicity, so characteristic otherwise for social institutions in a liberal society. The reason for this is the research immanence of scientific standards, which exclude lay persons from the discussion of scientific matters. "According to Polanyi", writes Feyerabend, [16] "there is no way in which outsiders can judge science. Science knows best." [17] This is indeed an elitistic position to take, since Polanyi does not even allow the public to judge science according to the Biblical principle:You will know them by their fruits. Because if pure and applied science are so strictly separated as they are in Polanyi's view, then the only "fruit" by which pure science could be measured would be the truth, but the right of telling truth from falsity is the monopoly of (pure) science itself. As he writes in RS:

This scientific authority he takes to be essentially traditional (RS p. 69), which must be extraterritorial to society in order to secure its control by scientific opinion.

Thus science governs itself under the goodwill of Society. The State fulfils its duties by protecting and subsidizing science as a whole, while letting the administration of scientific affairs operate under the control of scientific opinion. (CF p. 43)

Let us summarize now what kind of liberalism Polanyi professes to accept and defend in the debate with Bernal and the Marxists. As explicitly stated in his `Collectivist Planning' (1940):

He then goes on to reject as superstitious and unjustified the fears of orthodox liberals, that state interference with the market mechanism takes revenge on society (by inflicting unemployment), and that therefore extreme or laissez-faire liberalism is the only correct way to take. Or else, uproot and destroy all spontaneous mechanisms in society and replace them by collectivist planning. In Polanyi's view there is a third alternative.

By taking this middle way Polanyi seems to accept the justifiedness and desirability of a tradition controlled state interference in the market. Now, you may recall (as mentioned above in section 2) that Polanyi preferred to use the analogy of the market in order to highlight the self-governed, spontaneous character of the working of science. Then why did he not allow for the correctness and usefulness of any kind of state-interference with science? The answer he gives to this question is this:

So, again, he secures a privileged, unique place in society for science. And the middle way he tries to strike is intended to transcend the conflict between the liberalism-conceptions of Edmund Burke on the one hand, and of Bentham and J.St. Mill on the other, i.e. the controversy between traditionalist and purely rationalist conceptions of liberalism. Polanyi, as he says, "accepts Burke's thesis that freedom must be rooted in tradition, but transposes it into a system cultivating radical progress." (RS p. 72) So after all, it seems, he takes sides with Burke rather than with Mill.

Evaluation and criticism

When trying to briefly assess Polanyi's conception of science in society as outlined above, we should recall the historical situation and the social and political conditions under which his above quoted papers were written. His series of papers on the relationship of science and society came into being in a period when western type liberal societies were undergoing modernization and at the same time experiencing most serious and virulent totalitarian challenges on the part of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. The perception of the problems connected with this situation formed then part of the academic study of science. The central question, upon which the Polanyi - Bernal debate was focused, was: what sort of society is able to sustain legitimate and authentic science? And the reverse of this question, namely: what contribution does science make to the maintenance of liberal society? Polanyi's answer to these questions is clear and unambiguous: true science and liberal society rise and fall together. An open and liberal society was seen by him as the natural habitat of science, as the quest for objective knowledge, which in turn secured the continuance of the open and liberal society. And he could back up this standpoint not only by theoretical arguments but by empirical ones as well: the atrocious consequences to which the destroying of liberalism in society and of freedom of science has led in nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union during the '30s. He was right in pointing out that fascist and Stalinist curtailment of the freedom of science resulted in, and were part of, curtailing one of the basic liberties: the general freedom of thought and speech. He was also right and justified by historical facts that the reduction of science to an obedient servant and supplier of merely material goods (a standpoint he ascribes to Bernal and Co.) results in the subjecting of science and scientists to the rank of wage-workers and is a step towards taking away sciences right to self-government.

He was also right in emphasizing the vital importance of the "negative" liberties of science, i.e. that it should be free of coercion, of direct external intervention, and of the political consequences of scientifically justified views.

In listing the numerous points on which Polanyi was right, we must not forget, however, that the same historical situation, the rise of totalitarianism, which was so apt to open his eyes for the perilous consequences the violation of liberal principles may bring to science, at the same time closed Polanyi's ears for any sound criticism of science and of liberalism. That was the reason why he did not see the weak points of his own stance and prevented him from a careful pondering of his own views. Seen against the dark and awful background of Stalinism, he had taken Bernal as the "devil's advocate", as one whose views are completely unsound and rejectable, who brings evil on science and society [18]. This then pushed him towards the other extreme: towards a rather naive, idealistic conception of science and of its relationship to society. In Polanyi's vision (as reconstructed above), science was a product of an ideal community consisting of integer personalities, disinterested individuals who are committed exclusively to the search for Truth (a Platonic idea), the leading star of the academic body governing the steps of all individual scientists. It is almost on the verge of wishful thinking how uncritical Polanyi proves to be towards science and scientists. By relying on this idealized image of science he prevents himself from taking into account in this debate the problems of real science. Another, related point worth mentioning here is that he does not make a clear conceptual distinction between science as a body of knowledge claims, i. e. science taken in the strictly epistemological sense of the word, and science as a social institution, as an organized body of people (called "scientists") and ideas (accepted as "true knowledge"). This confers an analytic confusion on all his argumentation. This is why he makes a wholesale rejection (cf. esp. in CF pp. 10-11) of the possibility even that science is rooted in society, that it is in some sense socially determined. Thereby he seems to confuse the question of validity (truth of scientific knowledge claims) with that of their origination and also the question of science as a special social institution (i.e. the task of which is to find truth, valid knowledge) with that of the validity of its claim for an absolutely privileged position. The first of these confusions moves him to commit the "negative" form of the naturalistic fallacy, i.e.he assumes that if one accepts that a given idea (knowledge claim) is socially rooted, determined or originated, then one has to accept as an analytical consequence that it is invalid, that it cannot be true. The second type of confusion leads him to the assumption that since the task assigned to science by society is a purely epistemological one (i.e. to find the truth and nothing else but the truth), therefore science (as a social institution) must necessarily be exempt from all further social responsibility or determination; that the validity of knowledge it supplies validates its claim for a privileged (socially completely uncontrolled) position as well. He seems to assume that the epistemological character of the task ("putting together the jigsaw puzzle) completely determines the organization in which this task can be performed. He does not seem to realize that the completely democratic, polycentric and spontanous organization of scientific research work suggested by his jigsaw puzzle analogy and the real-life situation in science organized in a strict meritocratic (or allegedly meritocratic) hierarchy, approved otherwise by Polanyi (think of his appreciation in LL of the scientific system of supervision and apprenticeship), are inconsistent with each other and with the democratic principles of an ideal liberal society. He always takes an aristocratic-elitistic stance towards the lay public (and even towards "applied" scientists) and never problematizes its role (cognitive or other) in, or: with respect to science. He sees the sphere of "outsiders" as only a source of possible threat for the freedom and privileged position of science.

As remarked earlier (section 3), Polanyi emphasizes and argues for only the "negative" liberties of science, i.e. for those respects in which it must be free from external pressure and direct influence. But he never tries to enter into discussing the "positive" liberties, i.e. what science is free to do; at least not those which belong to the sphere of the responsibilities of science. He does not even touch the thorny question (to which the case of Mengele's experiments on human subjects gave then a grim actuality), whether scientists are justified in being completely free to do whatever they think fit as prescribed only by the methodological rules of science for the sake of attaining objectively valid knowledge. (Let me remind you, in connection with this question, also of the acceptability and justifiedness of experiments on animals, irrespective of any "social" considerations.) Polanyi's idolatry of science is thus an extremist response to an extremist (Stalinist) challenge (made by Bucharin and less so, by Bernal, Hogben and Crowther).

Another confusion which runs through all his papers connected with this debate is caused by the lack of clear distinction between "state" and "society". Similar and related confusions arise from his not sufficiently distinguishing between direct and indirect, conscious and unintended interference with science on the part of either society or the state. Most of his arguments are convincing only if taken to support a standpoint against direct, intended state-intervention, though he explicitly states them at several places as if they were convincing against non-intentional (tacit) social influencing (or social determination) of science, as well.

Serious objections can be made against Polanyi's oversimplified view of the very notions of and the relation between what he calls "pure" and "applied" science. In consequence of his naive idealistic notion of science (which is the direct opposite of the crude materialist view propounded by his Marxist opponents in the debate), he tends to forget about the fact that the essential feature of modern science, characterizing it from its birth in the 17th century was that its eminent goal was constructive knowledge, and not just intelligible truth, (as for the Aristotelians formerly). Francis Bacon gave voice to this new conception of the goal of early modern science as follows:

About the relationship of truth and usefulness Bacon has a definite view:

In summing up : the whole tenor of the Polanyi - Bernal debate is determined by its social setting. Polanyi's analytic capacities have been impaired by his strong negative feelings aroused in him by the disastrous consequences of totalitarian "planning" of science. Under these circumstances, i.e. when facing the Evil Powers, and experiencing the threat of being overpowered by their allies, no wonder that he felt justified and absolutely certain in sticking to a naive and oversimplified view of science and society, and also in persevering in his idolatrous attitude towards science. But, I would add, in using Shapin and Schaffer's (l985) words:

No wonder indeed...


14. This logic of totalitarianism can be observed in the infamous Moscow Trials against prominent party leaders like Bukharin and others during the '30s (as described in Koestler's Darkness at Noon) and also later on in other so-called socialist countries. The epistemological situation prevalent in these trials is brilliantly analysed by P. Skagestad, who writes that: "The replacement, under totalitarian regimes, of multiple sources of information with a single information monopoly confers an indeterminacy on the concepts of truth, fact, objectivity and reality. From a pragmatist perspective, these words can then no longer mean exactly what they mean to speakers accustomed to freedom of discussion and inquiry." (`On History's Witness Stand: Rubashov, Bukharin and the Logic of Totalitarianism', Inquiry Vol. 31, No. 1, March 1988, p. 3)

15. Polanyi emphatically rejects laissez-faire liberalism which "has been most effective in bringing contempt on the name of freedom," and "the position which collectivists want us to take up" as the only rational alternative to totalitarianism. Cf. `Collectivist Planning' (1940), republished in CF pp. 58-59.

16. Feyerabend 1981, p. 26.

17. "Lakatos shares Polanyi's view of the role of science in society", adds Feyerabend, "except that he chooses part of science as his measure while Polanyi chooses all of science. Hence, if Polanyi is a `Stalinist' (or `elitist') then so is Lakatos, except that he bases his Stalinism on a different, more narrow basis than Polanyi." (Ibid. p. 27)

18. Let me mention here that Polanyi had another, more practical or personal grudge against Bernal, who, as mentioned above, in fn.5 of this paper, played a prominent role in the Association of Scientific Workers (AScW), an organization comprising scientific researchers ("pure" scientists) as well as technicians ("applied" scientists), which has grown into quite a strong factor in science policy. As if it were a reaction to the growing influence of the AScW, another, more exclusive organization (accepting only "pure" scientists) came into being in 1940 under the name of Society for Freedom of Science (SFS), in which Polanyi played an active role. The SFS criticized Bernal's The Social Function of Science (1939) as "materialistic propaganda" and "a movement against pure science and against freedom in science". (Baker and Tansley: "The Course of the Controversy on Freedom in Science', Nature 1946, Oct. 26,) Peter Wilhelm in his `Legitimaties en sociale structuur - Insiders en Outsiders in de wetenschap' analyses the views accepted by Polanyi resp. by Bernal in the AScW versus SFS controversy, as well as those put forward by them in the Polanyi - Bernal debate. P.Wilhelm makes use in his investigations of Mary Douglas' famous grid/group analysis. In terms of this, P.Wilhelm argues, Polanyi's standpoint can be characterized as "high group-high grid", while that of Bernal as "low group-low grid", meaning, that Polanyi's stance towards science was elitistic, exclusive and strongly hierarchical, while that of Bernal was just the opposite.


Bacon, F. (1905): The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon. ed.: J.M. Robertson from the ed.of Ellis and Spedding, N.Y. Books for Libraries Press.

Bacon, F. (1964): Thoughts and Conclusions. In: The Philosophy of F.Bacon, trans. by B.Farrington, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Bernal, J.D. (1939): The Social Function of Science. London, Routledge and Sons.

Feyerabend, P. (1981): Problems of Empiricism. Vol.2 of Philosophical Papers. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Mannheim, K. (1936): Ideology and Utopia. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Merton, R.K. (1964): Social Theory and Social Structure. New York, The Free Press of Glencoe. 9th edition.

Polanyi, M. (1940,1975): The Contempt of Freedom, the Russian Experiment and After. 1st published 1940, by Watts and Co., reprint ed. 1975, by Arno Press, N.Y. (referred to as: CF in the text)

Polanyi, M. (1951): The Logic of Liberty. Chicago, University of Chicago Press (referred to as LL. in the text)

Polanyi, M. (1962): The Republic of Science. Minerva, vol.I. Oct. 1962. pp. 54-73, (referred to as RS in the text)

Polanyi, M. (1969): Knowing and Being. Essays by Michael Polanyi. ed.: Marjorie Green, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. (referred to as: KB in the text)

Polanyi, M. (1967): The Tacit Dimension. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Shapin, S. and Schaffer, S. (1985): Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Hobbes,Boyle and the Experimental Life. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Wilhelm, P. (1981): Legitimaties en sociale structuur - Insiders en Outsiders in de wetenschap. Kennis en Methode, Vol.V. No.1, pp. 32-56.

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Polanyiana Volume 5, Number 1, 1996, pp. 47-62