Polanyi: ‘Personal knowledge’ a.k.a. integrity

Michael Polanyi, author of 'Personal Knowledge'
Michael Polanyi, author of 'Personal Knowledge'
‘Re-enchanting the world’?

About a month ago, in an article about cultivating bananas (!), I announced writing this extraordinary and comprehensive book review.

The book I now review here was written by the most brilliant man you possibly never heard of: Michael Polanyi.
The book is called “Personal Knowledge“.

From ‘atheist-materialist’ Galileo Circle in Budapest …

First, something about Mr. Polanyi (1891-1976) himself
In his younger years he was a seriously secular jew living in Hungary. He first studied medicine. Then chemistry. Both he and his brother Karl were members of a very special, extremely diverse 1), ‘atheist-materialist’ student organization named Galileo Circle.

With naziism rising to power he fled to the UK (in 1933). 

Not just one of his two sons, but also two of his students won Nobel-prizes (And not for ‘literature’ or ‘peace’ …)
And then this: because of his growing interest in social sciences his university (Manchester) created a chair for him!

In Personal Knowledge, Polanyi writes about his contact with Albert Einstein as early as page 10. He checked, two years before Einstein died, the photogenic genius to find out if it was true that his theory of relativity was usually misrepresented. Einstein agreed with him. 2)

Yes, in the 21st century, it is very important to emphasize that the variance in intellectual performance between different academics is greater than that between academics on the one hand and non-academics on the other. 

While an increasing proportion of the population is “academically” educated, it is regularly presented by media and erroneous politicians as if that very difference between being academically educated or not is related to wisdom.
Recently I was starkly reminded of the need to emphasize this by a BBC broadcast on Super-Tuesday in the US. An American political commentator made predictions about voting patterns PER county. He pointed at non-metropolitan counties that he felt were more likely to bring a win for Trump than for Biden on the grounds of fewer academically educated people living there. He made hardly any effort to disguise his contempt.

The terror-loving German socialist Rudi Dutschke 3) posited in the 1960s/70s that in all kinds of institutions power should be taken over. He did not foresee that that very plan would be implemented in almost all Western universities with such resounding success.

Table of Contents

Climbing on his shoulders

Personal Knowledge‘ is based on vast knowledge in a dizzyingly large number of areas. Virtually impossible to summarize.
So many times I had to suppress the urge to write ‘WOW’ in the margin, but I borrowed my copy.
I first read part of the book some 47 years ago, around a year after the death of Polanyi and was immediately very impressed. It seemed to me to be the complete answer to just about all relevant questions about the theory of science. It took some effort to borrow 1) a copy of the book at the technical university nearby.

Instead of even trying to summarize the book first, I have taken a very different approach.
Numerous are the (serious!) scientists who speak or spoke about standing on the shoulders of scientific giants of the past.
Following the implicit hint therein I explicitly tried in a sense to climb on the shoulders of this specific giant.

Advancing insight

Polanyi wrote and published several preparatory studies while working on his Magnum Opus which he worked on for about a decade. The book’s first edition came out in 1958.

There is no reason to delude myself that my stature would come close to his, to still make sensible comments on “Personal Knowledge” ‘from that height’; Simply because during my lifetime so much has changed in science, in society and in the interaction between science and the rest of society.
I’ll illustrate this with two very different anecdotal stories: one about monkeys (compared with humans) the other about the so called Endosymbiosis-theory.

The Language of Humans and Apes

Part two of the book is called “The Tacit Component” and is essentially about the importance of language in the development of humans and humanity, which cannot be overestimated. The first chapter of The Tacit Component deals with the so-called Kellogg Bloomington study, conducted in 1931-32.

The first thing I thought of when I read this was an American sitcom titled “Two and a Half Men”. It ran for twelve seasons and is still regularly shown on television. In one of the later seasons with Ashton Kutcher playing the main character, it turns out that his mother had raised him with a young gorilla, just as the Kellogg-Bloomington couple had raised their infant son with a chimpanzee in real life! The mother in the sitcom is slightly psychopatic.

When I started checking some basic facts about both the real-life experiments and the sitcom, in no time I gathered more information about the life of that real-life son of Kellogg and Bloomington and similar studies and experiments involving children and young apes. Initially, the plan of both psychologists was to raise their son Donald together with the chimpanzee Gua for 5 years, but after 9 months they stopped it already. The main reason was that the son was more influenced by the ape than the other way around!

From one day to the next, Gua’s environment changed from being raised as a human child to that of a laboratory animal. After several months, the poor animal fell ill and died. Son Donald’s life ended not so quickly and not so sadly: he became a psychiatrist. Yet: very shortly after his parents’ death he committed suicide…. To what extent were these real life parents actually psychopaths too?
Polanyi pays no attention to the (many) criticisms that couple received. Extra painful about that is that this horrific experiment was not even designed to specifically scrutinize language development: the extremely ambitious Kelloggs wanted to produce a groundbreaking contribution to the nature-nurture “debate. 5).

No misunderstanding: my comments about language in apes and humans, by the way, in no way undermine the main thrust of Polanyi’s argument on this point: language development must (continue to) build on something other than language itself (p70).

Endosymbiosis, a Proven Theory or Evolution Myth?

Some seven years ago, I first read about the very existence of that theory.
I referred to it in a (Dutch) article I wrote about my own (very good) health. And I added -a bit jealously- that today some lucky pupils on good high-schools are actually taught knowledge about that theory during biology class.

Talk about climbing shoulders!

The staggeringly impressive thing about that theory is that, in a sense, a crucial, two-billion-year-old step in evolution is still “recognizable” in every cell of your body. Every cell contains, as it were, a kind of repercussion of that equally ancient and miraculous mother of all symbioses.

I refer to this development in education precisely because I conclude this review with some remarks on natural evolution. In his final, thirteenth, chapter, Polanyi also discusses evolution at length. Paragraph 2 has the intriguing title, “Is Evolution an Achievement?

Pebble art, crystallography and chemical proportions

While it is impracticable to summarize the book, to emphasize the great value of the book, it is best to highlight Chapter 3. It is relatively short and its title is “Order”. The sections are called respectively: “Chance and Order”, “Randomness and Significant Pattern”, “The Law of Chemical Proportions” and “Crystallography“.

Randomness is defined, as it were, as “too unlikely”: too unlikely to indicate order.
Polanyi refers to a small train station where people formed a greeting with pebbles of different colors. When the text is legible, the order is immediately recognized by everyone. When the pebble bed is not maintained for years, the text might no longer be legible, but people still recognize that it is a text. After another decades of neglect, it is also impossible for someone who sees the colored pebbles for the first time to figure out that they are letters. If you are asked to read a text into it, you might still succeed.
A brilliant comparison, especially after that comment about the great importance of language in the development of the human intellect.

This consideration, understandable to all, is followed by Polanyi’s explanation of the law of definite proportions and of crystallography. Those chemical formulas assume small numbers for those ratios, but what is small?
And beautifully following that, he writes (on page 44) about crystallography that at some point in the development of this field of research: however widely the crystal specimen deviates from the theory, this will be put down as a shortcoming of the crystal, not of the theory!

In the same paragraph, he then comes up with an amusing reference to art, which he returns to in Chapter 6, “Intellectual passions“. On page 200, he compares “scientific” passion to particular events in music and painting. “There was fighting in the Parisian audiences of Stravinsky in 1913“. 6)

A funny but useful question

When I was already quite advanced in the book, I asked myself the question of what actually was the hypothesis that Polanyi deals with in the book.
A somewhat odd question, but useful to consider explicitly.
After all, it is a question that stems from considerations of verification and falsification. Polanyi does not exactly express it that way in Personal Knowledge but fairly central to the book is his warning against the view that certain prescriptions -verification, positivism, falsification or whatever- guarantees scientific progress, authenticity and integrity.
A highly necessary and justified warning.

Looking back on understandable but misplaced optimism

Standing high on the shoulders of giants is not so difficult where developments in science are concerned; the Advanced insights section was only about that. As for advancing developments in society, it’s even easier.


Polanyi is -of course- strongly opposed to communist dictatorship. However, he seemed to think that mocking the underlying ideology was the best approach.

He seems to have disturbingly little awareness of the bizarre claim of scientificity of Marx’s interpretation of history.

More specifically about that optimism: on page 238 he even mentions that he once contacted a well-known communist leader directly: Bukharin.
Bukarin was a favorite of Lenin but not of Stalin. He was executed on charges of trotzkyism. In 1938… (Trotzky himself was assassinated in Mexico (!) on Stalin’s orders. In 1940 …) 7).

Worse, Polanyi suggests that there was still some room for the practice of science with integrity under Stalin. While at the same time he is very explicit on the Lysenko issue 8):

Take note especially of that last sentence. It does ‘remind’ of the 97% of all scientists agree-narrative, doesn’t it? 9)


At least Personal Knowledge dealt with the communist threat explicitly to some extent.
Polanyi has absolutely no concern however about any threat of resurgent Mohammedan-inspired terror and war. The only line about that subject can be found in paragraph 13 of chapter 6, where he writes about the :

Muhammad, Muslim, Islam, Koran, Qu’ran, Caliphate, Khilafat or (the Indian) Partition: none of these terms are mentioned in the book.

In chapter 12 Polanyi kind of formulates an ideal:

He had not allowed the guiding principle of the Qur’an to sink in: leave all thought and decision to “The last of the prophets.

The concept of god
From seriously secular jew
to a special type of christian

I wrote above that as far as advancing developments in society are concerned, it was even simpler than concerning science. But there is a very serious exception to this.

That exception concerns the curious way in which Polanyi deals with the concept of god. This is actually my main criticism of his whole approach. Initially, I did hesitate to include this criticism. The deciding factor to do so anyway was a passage he included on Augustine who lived in the 4th century! Polanyi approvingly quotes this church father of all church fathers:

This Augustine is highly regarded by Protestants and Catholics alike.

Raised Catholic myself, I was already a little more familiar with Thomas Aquinas.
That church father is still highly regarded: however, not only by devout Catholics but also by people inclined to agnosticism or even atheism!

Aquinas wrote about women as being “empty vessels. Absolutely inappropriate in 21st century, non-misogynist eyes.

Contempt for women is a central tenet of all three religions known as Abrahamic. There are great differences between those three but also great similarities. The fact that in practice Christianity is by far the most civilized of the three nowadays is in my non-humble opinion due in large part to the magnificent Harriet Beecher Stowe.

However, those “empty vessels” remarks by Aquinas are dwarfed by what Augustine wrote about sexuality.
In 2017, the phenomenal Stephen Greenblatt wrote a truly scathing critique of the man’s views.
And he based it on this person’s own writings…
Especially about his mother …
It turns out Augustine was a flesh-and-blood man to whom the seriously perverted fantasy figure Oedipus compares favorably. The quote below is not even the most embarrassing thing that Greenblatt highlighted:

‘God’ or ‘truth’?

Many scientists, including great ones in serious fields of knowledge, are not atheists. This is not at all strange. They are -unlike many arrogant anti-scientific charlatans 10)– fully aware of the limits of their knowledge, the potential power of what is already understood, the great beauty in what they observe or do ‘simply’ recognize the (near?) infinity of the universe or universes.

For those who need worry little about their own immediate survival -today or in the distant past- it is and was not strange to start thinking about “the everything“; even “the being“, perhaps the meaning or even intentions of the “All“.
To put the label ‘God’ -with or without a capital letter- on this, however, is problematic.

After all, God is a seriously defiled word.
And that has to do with attributing intentions to god: one’s own god. Rarely if ever those of someone else’s god or gods.
Gods, especially those Abrahamically inspired, are created in the image of humans. Not infrequently of childish or even vengeful humans. And people cast themselves -often implicitly, sometimes even quite explicitly- as a good or even the very best “interpreter” of the intentions of the only real god: theirs. Demi-gods I call those men.
And yes, they are seldomly women and the intentions of goddesses are seldomly cruel or hateful. I elaborate on this further in my as yet unpublished book 49:49.

No mistake: I acknowledge that religion -individal and yes: in organized form too- can be a force for the good in as far as it can supply comfort and hope. Unfortunately, people who are in greatest need of comfort and hope are often also vulnerable people.

Of course something called ‘Truth’ simply can not have any intention; nevertheless it is a defiled word too.

Mohandas Karamchand, better known as Gandhi, might be called the personification of that: he named his autobiography (!), The Story of my Experiments with Truth. His choice to use ‘Truth’ and not ‘The Truth’ in the title already hints to a huge problem involved. (My next comprehensive book review on this website will be about that remarkable book and person).

In the year 2000, the entire legacy of Polanyi’s great contribution to the theory of science was in danger of going under because of that intertwining with Christianity.

The conflict developed and unrolled in and around an explicitly Christian university. A Baptist one more precisely. The two most passionate parties in the conflict had goals related to that Christian identity. On one side there was pressure to shed that Christian identity 11).

Linearly opposed were Christian fundamentalists who believed that the university should be a bulwark in the fight against Darwinian thought. People who believe that only the literal creation stories 12) from Genesis should be taught in elementary and secondary schools. In between, Mr. Dembski, the personification of the Polanyi approach so to speak, who shortly before had been appointed the head of the Michael Polanyi Center at this university, seemed to be utterly crushed. Dembski himself compiled this comprehensive and detailed record of that struggle.

In a way Demski lost, in another way Polanyi’s legacy was rescued: the Polanyi Society was founded. Ultimately, the way out of the conflict was to recognize that intelligent design can be developed as a scientific theory in its own right and because the scientific community is primarily interested in doing science rather than in integrating science and faith.
Brilliantly summarized this way:

Ivan Pavlov and Teilhard de Chardin

Everything revolves around that approach wherein curiosity is paramount. Then, to achieve meaningful results in science, ambition, tenacity and integrity are indispensable. Especially the latter of those three.

While studying psychology of course I learned about Pavlov’s experiments.
Unlike Polanyi we did not learn about his contribution to the debate on scientific theory, however. Personal Knowledge quotes Pavlov in the long chapter V:

A great way to emphasize the importance of those factors ambition and tenacity.
Unfortunately, in science today we face a horrible challenge concerning the most important one: integrity. It seems 97% of scientists produce results that their sponsors want to hear. Personal Knowledge is not explicit about that problem. There is little doubt that that problem has also grown much larger today.

Like Polanyi, when I was young I was delighted to discover the work of Teilhard de Chardin. A committed Christian but also a scientist of great integrity and creator of the concept of the noosphere.
Early this century, when the enormous potential of the Internet and the blogosphere (!) began to come into view, but long before facebook, twitter and the like existed, I devoted a laudatory blog post to De Chardin and that concept.

Religion, evolution and ‘Acceptance of Calling

Chapter 10, named ‘Commitment ‘ is the last chapter of part three of Personal Knowledge (‘The Justification of Personal Knowledge’). The chapter has a paragraph (number 10) titled ‘Acceptance of calling‘; At first glance, a bit disturbing. The way Polanyi further fleshes out this vocation does take away that disquiet:

p 389 Personal Knowledge

Here ‘calling’ is definitely not defiled with humanized images of a god as far as I am concerned.

That even when it comes to evolution with Polanyi curiosity is paramount, that strong desire to fully comprehend the subject, is very nicely illustrated in a snippet about worms:

p 388 Personal Knowledge

Perfect sixth fingers

When it comes to genetics, Brazil’s De Silva family is perhaps the most intriguing family in world history. Quite a few babies -about one in four hundred- are born with extra fingers and/or toes. They are considered troublesome deformities by medics and non-medics alike. And rightly so.
My interest in this subject was once triggered by the extraordinary American blues guitarist with the stage name Hound Dog Taylor. One of the two extra fingers he had, he cut off his hand himself in a drunken stupor!

None of the (fourteen) members in this twelve-fingered family fret about that! Those extra fingers are not on the side of the little finger, but between their thumb and index finger, and they function excellently. They have their own metacarpal bones and they are independently controlled. They are even superior compared to ordinary little fingers: in fact, their functioning is somewhat dependent on that of the adjacent ring finger. Potentially, the Da Silvas are better piano players than us 10-fingered folks. A piano teacher of one of them in an interview told that she was actually a bit jealous!

It actually seems a bit strange to not study the hands of this family in some (Intelligent) ‘Design’ context.

‘Self domestication’?

Polanyi rightly emphasizes the major difference between humans and (other) animals. Unfortunately, he pays no attention to the domestication of animal species in historical let alone evolutionary context.

The narrative about dog species that took the initiative, so to speak, to coexist with humans is somewhat more familiar, but a somewhat similar and even more imaginative trend in the behavior of wild elephants somewhat less so.

There are quite a few videos circulating these days in which elephants who have been receiving help from humans seem to thank them for it.

But there are also cases showing that elephants know that the “species” of humans consists of at least two “sub-species”: one malicious and one helpful.
The people at the DWST organization overwhelmingly belong to that second subspecies and report on it in detail.

Plant behaviour

Yet another completely different subject that I think qualifies to be studied in a context of (intelligent) ‘design’ is plant behavior. Thanks in part to experiments with the house plant Monstera Deliciosa in my own living room, I discovered that only in the 21st century has plant behavior become the subject of serious scientific study!

Have my experiments proven anything about the behavior of this plant species?
Of course not. I described these developments just to emphasize that serious science starts with observations. 
It was nice to get some confirmation from a Wageningen graduate. Indeed: irrefutably processing and transmission of information takes place in plants too.

ReturnIng to the paragraph with the intriguing title, “Is Evolution an Achievement?” the combination of the above examples makes me wonder: could more be achieved if we understood more about evolution?

And yes, I realise especially my last example could somehow lead to an itsy, bitsy, teenie, weenie partial rehabilitation of Lysenko!

The images above this blog post are cutouts of the cover of this book.


  1. For a used copy, you have to spend hundreds of dollars.
  2. Extremely diverse in the sense of political opinions!
    One of the women in the group volunteered to shoot the prime minister of the Kingdom Hungary István Tisza. In 1917! The same woman later married his brother.
    She definitely did contribute to the defeat of nazi-Germany BTW.
    I admit: I immediately wonder if books are written about this student organization.
  3. In passing, Polanyi mentions that Einstein had come up with the idea of the theory of relativity when he was only 16 years old. Actually, a very nice (though not explicit) illustration of the book’s central thesis: The top scientist of integrity knows more than he can tell. Literally!
  4. A staggeringly honest story about that can be found at the ‘Socialist Worker’ the magazine of an organization that glorifies both Lenin and Trotsky …
    That hero of many radical world reformers, had a sympathetic looking reason for his advocacy of that strategic choice to gain positions of power in all kinds of institutions: he was against the then emerging terror of groups like the Rote Armee Fraktion, also called Baader Meinhof group. But this was a strategic choice. He named his eldest son Che: after the notorious, racist murderer Guevara. Another son is active for the German Grünen. If you like horror, I recommend the wikipedia page about the mother of those children.
  5. For those who wish to delve further into this issues: The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees , by Andrew R. Holloran. The chapter that deals most directly with that horrific experiment can be read in its entirety here.
  6. Only after I started painting myself I found out that ‘Impressionism‘ was at first an expression of contempt for that art form! Although I have long been an admirer of the musical genius Frank Zappa, I only very recently discovered the performance of “King Kong” in London, with the 1968 formation of the Mothers of Invention. To this day, many don’t even want to try listening to it! Link to one of my paintings with Zappa.
  7. Bukharin was the predessor of the infamous Molotov (Ribbentrop-Molotov pact).
    Luckily some contemporary communists are completely open in reporting the obvious and boundless hatred between the various communist sub-currents. Here an example of some ‘Spartacus’-comment.
  8. SA, Ermolaev AI, Kolchinsky EI. Lysenkoism Against Genetics: The Meeting of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences of August 1948, Its Background, Causes, and Aftermath.
    Genetics. 2019 May;212(1):1-12. doi: 10.1534/genetics.118.301413. PMID: 31053614; PMCID: PMC6499510.
    Here you can read the complete article without log in
  9. More on the horrible underestimation of the still existing power of Leninist thought. Observing attempts to fight freedom of expression about women’s rights.
  10. Pathological arrogance even sometimes manifests itself as unwillingness to accept the finitude of one’s own life. In the 21st century, for the first time in history, there are those who want to “invest” in merging humans and “machines” to actually realize immortality.
    I wrote more on that subject here.
  11. In the Netherlands that current is even stronger. What is striking is that in this, Catholics go further than Protestants in relativizing their own faith: this goes so far as to put the “rights” of students with explicitly Muslim backgrounds above everything else.
  12. Yes: plural. I made a bible-reading video about the two, maybe three stories about the creation of men and women in Genesis.


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