The protean scholar & multi-disciplinary polymath: Lessons from Michael Polanyi


This week I’ve enjoyed reading an excellent “philosophical biography” (if that’s a genre), entitled  Michael Polanyi, by Mark T. Mitchell. I’ve been struck by several statements that provide insight into the remarkable character, sensibility, curiosity and achievement of Michael Polanyi, the scientist turned philosopher.

“Had one not merely to know Polanyi in an unprejudiced way to realize that here one was dealing with an Erasmian man, with the protean scholar?”

Erasmus was a Renaissance man, cultural literati and Christian humanist, as well as the intellectual nemesis of Luther who demonized “bastard reason” on behalf of authoritarian  “faith” whose glory is that it contradicts reason. Pascal would famously say that “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of,” but Pascal, a brilliant mathematician, would never demonize critical reason or empirical science in the matter of Luther.

Proteus is the shape-shifting god who can take many forms. To be a “protean scholar” is to flexibly adapt one’s intellectual and creative inquiry to different domains of knowledge and to fluently speak the acquired languages of those respective domains without reducing all knowledge to one single privileged domain. To be a protean scholar is to transcend narrow academic and disciplinary specialization. It is to see things from multiple perspectives and even to consider the possiblility that several of they of not all of them may be partly right.

To be a “protean scholar” is also to develop a kind of epistemological variety and flexibility, just as a carpenter learns to use many different tools rather than just rely on a hammer for every building job. So people only learn how to use a “hammer” for every intellectual inquiry and for every practical situation in life. They have never met a question or a problem that they could not answer or solve by just clobbering it into cowering submission. Robert Jay

Any discussion of the “protean scholar” can hardly slip by without mentioning the related idea of “Protean man” that is credited to psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton’s idea is that the “protean man” embraces multiple perspectives at once, modifying them at will, and then lets them go only to re-embrace them in a playful (sometimes seriously playful) manner. He contrast’s the “protean man” with the “the fundamentalist.” That
The Protean man could also be considered an ironist, someone who is “always aware that the terms in which they describe them selves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves” — as stated by Richard Rorty. If there is one thing Protean man or the ironist finds difficult, it is committing to a single perspective among a plethora of options and then acting on it. Rorty distinguishes between metaphysicians and ironists, correlating with philosophical realists and nominalists, as well as absolutists and relativists. When one understands Polanyi’s highly nuanced epistemology, it is clear that he is neither an authoritarian metaphysician nor an ludic ironist, a modern scientistic objectivist or a post-modern literary narrative subjectivist. He offers a middle way, a third culture that transcends this dichotomy that runs through the modern academy and popular culture.
And then there was this statement: “Polanyi was unusual even as a scientist in that he was active in both theoretical and experimental work (as a physical chemist). A keen mind coupled with a rigorous and broad liberal education provided him with the capacity to pursue interests outside of his field of expertise (in physical chemistry); the political upheavals of twentieth-century Europe provided the catalyst.” One may possess a “keen mind” that inquires about many things but be sadly deprived of a “liberal arts education.” Or one may be given the gift of “a liberal arts education” but without a “keen mind” that dares to reflect upon knowledge and experience, to ask interesting and provocative questions, and go outside the field of one’s narrow expertise, it will count for little.

Polanyi’s boyhood education included private tutoring in English, French, German, and the Hungarian that was spoken in the home. What an advantage it is for the budding polymath to become fluent in multiple languages which involve a vast repertoire of lexicons of meaning and idioms of expressions.

Polanyi was introduced to the writings of Schiller, Goethe, Corneille and Racine. These are the great German Romantic writers. Goethe is, of course, the quintessential scientific, philosophical, literary and artistic polymath, as well as a man familiar with the civic, social, economic and political world in which he lived.

Here’s another clue: “The intellectual climate in Budapest at the time was vibrant, and Cecile-Mama, Michael’s mother, established a salon that attracted a wide variety of artists and writers. Both of Polanyi’s parents were engaged in a robust intellectual and cultural life. They were avid readers and they were friends to many different artists and writers. Imagine the stimulating influence this would have on a young mind.

As Polanyi later described it, “I grew up in this circle, dreaming of great things.” Who wouldn’t under such a rich informal apprenticeship and mentoring influence? It is not difficult to see where his idea of the normative and regulative value of “tradition and authority” within a “community of practice” comes from. He witnessed the intellectual stimulation and enchanting delight of a “living community of practice” in the presence of his mother’s conversational salon among gifted artists and writers who learned their crafts from the established masters of their disciplines as well as from each other. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” mutually benefit and enrich each other, as T.S. Eliot so eloquently puts it in his famous essay.

Emerson’s libertarian ideas of “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” are valuable correctives to slavish and unthinking conformity to ideas and traditions that belong to the historical past. But they have always needed the corrective of a highly diverse yet broadly normative intellectual and scholarly tradition that manifests itself in a mentored and disciplined “community of practice.” Without this we have no way to critically challenge “the lunatic fringe” of unbridled solipsism, pseudo-intellectualism, rhetorical propaganda and ignorant stupidity. The fact of the matter is that Emerson himself enjoyed such a “community of practice” among his highly educated and cultured transcendentalist friends. He even encouraged them to develop “portfolios” of their intellectual and creative work to be shared and reviewed by each other. His editorial work with “The Dial” is further evidence that he valued participation a “community of practice.” Emerson was not entirely again the epistemological value of  “Authority (meaning Expertise) and Tradition (meaning Legacy).” He just wanted to create a new one in America that was free of old European influence.  And so it seems clear that he denied in theory what he affirmed in practice.

Then there is this: “During the eight years at the Minta Gymnasium, Polanyi studied history, literature, language, science and mathematics. By his own admission, physics and art history were his favorite subjects–an early foreshadowing of the breadth of interest that would characterize the rest of his life.” Physics and art. I’m reminded of Leonard Shlain’s fascinating book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, and also of his later book, Art and Physics, on how new scientific theories and discoveries have often been anticipated (by decades if not centuries) by intuitive insights and imaginative visions expressed in the metaphorical and symbolic languages of literature and the arts.

This phenomenon illustrates and supports Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge mutually interact with and influence each other in a continual feed-back loop. Shlain, a brain surgeon by profession, also developed into a polymath. Like Polanyi he was a broad-minded and passionately intelligent humanist who thought about life with his whole-brain. He brought the right brain hemisphere and left brain hemisphere, the tacit dimension and the explicit dimensions together. The ancient Taoist tradition expresses this vision of the receptive, perceptive, inward-looking and affective Yin and the active, judicial, outward-looking and cognitive Yang being symbiotically inter-connected within the Integral, Emergent and Ineffable Tao. Jung’s conceptual model for psychoanalytic psychology is deeply influenced by philosophical Taoism.

Mark Mitchell also makes the point that Polanyi began as an “outsider” to the established scientific community and that he would probably not have been able to make some of his most brilliant scientific discoveries that relied upon his own tacit knowledge as much as upon established scientific facts if he had not possessed the independence of mind to think outside the system.

It is said that “a system cannot understand itself.” It cannot understand anything that may exist in a dimension, level or realm outside of above “the system.” Anything o”utside” is variously “labeled” as an anomaly, antimony, conundrum, fluke, blip, absurdity, contradiction, mystery, perplexity, problem or paradox.  We have a whole vocabulary for such phenomena. When enough of these unexplainable phenomena beyond the standard norms of deviation pile up, the system is ripe for a paradigm shift, a revolution in thinking. Intellectual paradigms and cultural zeitgeist sometimes seem to change at the speed of a glacier melting. But at other times these profound shifts occur as a “punctuated equilibrium, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Jay Gould.

At such times thoughtful and inquisitive individuals begin to look for alternative explanations that can give a more full and complete account of both natural phenomena and human experience, fashioning new theories and narratives into more elegant and encompassing patterns of meaning and relationships. They often transgress intellectual boundaries and make new connections across disciplinary lines. That is why “protean scholars” and “multi-disciplinary polymaths” are so often thought leaders who live on the forefront of change and the edge of history.

It needs to be noted that even Albert Einstein, who generally respected Polanyi as a brilliant scientific thinker, thought he was wrong about some of his scientific ideas and observations. However, those ideas and observations were validated as accurate decades later by the established scientific community. There is something to be said for the independent scholar and organic intellectual who respects the authority and tradition of  established communities of practice in various disciplines of knowledge and domains of life, but who also enjoys a measure of freedom and autonomy from their potentially stultifying and leveling influences. It is a delicate balance between the extremes of totalitarian conformity and anarchistic eccentricity.

Polanyi’s later ideas of the tacit dimension and personal knowledge are consistent with his lifelong passion for developing a diversified epistemology that vindicates multiple ways of knowing rather than only the “scientific method” as often falsely construed as a strictly empirical objectivist endeavor. He continually gleaned new insights, illuminations, knowledge and understanding of the human condition and the nature of reality as he explored the domains of science, philosophy, history, economics, politics, art, literature, ethics, values and religion. Though his early  professional expertise and success was as a chemist, Polanyi’s gradual adoption of “anti-reductionism” (that would reduce all valid knowledge to mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology) was rooted in his broad liberal arts education, placing the sciences, arts and humanities in a collegial relationship of mutual dialogue. This approach gave him an approach “to knowing and being” that understood reality on multiple levels, rather than flattened out into only one level. E.F. Schumacher develops a similar multi-layered epistemology in A Guide for the Perplexed and Small Is Beautiful. Universal Polymaths think differently than parochial specialists. In the famous analogy of the Hedgehog and the Fox, scientific specialists tend to be Hedgehogs while humanistic generalists tend to be Foxes.

In his book, More Than Matter? Is There More to Life than Molecules, by Keith Ward, the author begins by quoting Francis Crick as an example of the reductionist mentality: “You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve-cells and their associated molecules.” Crick was a brilliant scientist and a co-discoverer of DNA, but his worldview is extremely limited. It reduces all of life to the one discipline he happened to have devoted his entire scholarly life to studying. It is easy to see how one might make this mistake, explaining all the complexities of nature and human existence strictly in of the algorithms, calculations, mechanisms and laws associated with math, physics, chemistry, botany, biology, or even cognitive and social science.

Keith Ward’s book is one of many scholarly critiques of such a narrowly reductionist approach. The most credible critics of one-dimensional objectivism, hyper-rationalism and scientistic reductionism are probably those, like Polanyi, who devoted most of his life to doing serious scientific work in critical dialogue among the leading scientists of his time and within an established community of practice. His unique approach avoided the snares of both modern objectivism and post-modern subjectivism.

Polanyi’s development as both a scientist and a polymath meant that he was deeply interested in understanding and engaging all the sciences, but he was also interested in exploring the philosophy of science, including its epistemological foundations. He was interested in understanding and engaging philosophy, economics, politics, art, literature, ethics and religion, each on its own terms and within its own fiduciary framework of a “scholarly tradition” and “community of practice”, without reducing them to the domains of math, physics, chemistry and biology.

Polanyi clearly had a high regard for the scientific enterprise and for scientific method. He always regarded his knowledge and mastery of scientific inquiry as the best training for his later studies in philosophy and the other liberal disciplines. But he did not “inflate” science into the sum of all knowledge and the only valid method of knowing,  thus turning science into scientism. His broad liberal education endowed him with an equally broad epistemological orientation that unleashed his ability to approach all the liberal arts as mutual colleagues rather than an imperial territorial game of King of the Mountain. And that, quite simply, is the genius of the protean scholar and the multi-disciplinary polymath!

[Note: There is much more to be said about the genius of Michael Polanyi. That I will save for another blog. A short reading list includes: Michael Polanyi, by Mark T. Mitchell. Books by Michael Polanyi include: Knowing and Being. Personal Knowledge. The Tacit Dimension. The Study of Man, Meaning. Wikipedia has a good introduction. Surf the Web. There is a Polanyi Society. Find out thinkers have been influenced by his ideas of the tacit dimension and personal knowledge. The literary critic F.R. Leavis was profoundly influenced by reading “Knowing and Being.” See who else has developed similar ideas without any knowledge of or reference to the work of Polanyi. It is not unusual to find several great minds that come upon similar ideas during the same period and under the same pressures of historical challenge and cultural development.]


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