Philip Mirowski *
On Playing the Economics Trump Card in the Philosophy of Science: Why It Did Not Work for Michael Polanyi
Philosophy of Science
Volume 64, Issue Supplement
Dec. 1997, S127-S138.
The failure of the attempt by Michael Polanyi to capture the social organization of science by comparing it to the operation of a market bears salutary lessons for modern philosophers of science in their rush to appropriate market models and metaphors. In this case, an initially plausible invisible hand argument ended up as crude propaganda for the uniquely privileged social support of science.
In an era when epistemology is being caught in a renewed tug-of-war between “socialized” and “naturalized” poles, one of the most noteworthy developments of the 1990s has been the self-conscious reintroduction of economic models and metaphors into the philosophy of science. It has become manifest in a variety of ways, ranging from bald appeals to the “marketplace of ideas” to explicit appropriation of rational choice models (Kitcher 1993). The extent to which this phenomenon has been driven by political and cultural upheavals of the recent past cannot be covered here. Rather, this paper focuses upon the remarkable dearth of historical self-consciousness which accompanies the conviction that this development is novel or unprecedented within the community of philosophers of science. In particular, this paper recounts the tale of Michael Polanyi, someone not often acknowledged as a philosopher, yet nonetheless a landmark figure who sought to explain the efficacy of free
* Department of Economics and Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.
inquiry in science by comparing it to the operation of a free market. While this comparison was implicit in many of his writings, he himself made it explicit in his 1962 essay “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory” (Polanyi 1969). Polanyi’s struggles with the market metaphor are worth recounting, if only because so many of his worries are getting replayed in the modern context: questions of the appropriate response to calls for the planning of science in an era of reduced funding and diminished expectations; questions as to the implications of a sociology of knowledge for the public understanding of science; questions about the meaning of objectivity in a world riven by self-interested constructions of the legitimacy and significance of science.
Polanyi is best remembered, if remembered at all, for his advocacy of the tacit character of much knowledge in scientific practice (Holton 1995). This was widely, and correctly, regarded as an attack upon the project of an analytical philosophy of science to render the logic of justification transparent, reliable, and independent of context; but isolated from the rest of Polanyi’s crusade, most commentators conclude it makes little sense on its own. Perhaps the fragmentation of intellectual life into isolated professional specialities is at fault here: treating it as a generic concept does it the disservice of making it both larger and smaller than it really was: larger, in that it was intended by Polanyi as complementary to his more encompassing comparison of science to a free market; and smaller, in that it involved a concerted attempt to reconcile the individual character of knowledge with its intrinsic social nature. Only by venturing outside the narrow ambit of professional philosophy of science do we discover the closest affinities of Polanyi’s “tacit” knowledge were with the project of his fellow mitteleuropaisch economist contemporary and political ally Friedrich von Hayek (1972), who likewise set out to recast the interwar treatment of knowledge and freedom, only with the aim of counteracting what he perceived to be dangerous tendencies in the theory of markets to venture down the road to serfdom.
Both Hayek and Polanyi emerged from their experience of the 1930s haunted by the conviction that scientists and capitalists were vulnerable to movements advocating rationalization and subjugation to state planning, an eventuality which they believed would sap their vitality and stymie their progress. These movements were embodied in the British context in, respectively, Bernal’s “Social Relations of Science” section in the British Association (McGucken 1984), the interventionist turn taken by the Cambridge economics orthodoxy, and the growing strength of socialist parties. Polanyi increasingly harbored the conviction that, far from being merely an external threat, the ultimate source
of this vulnerability lay within the communities of economists and scientists themselves. In a passage more reminiscent of Hayek, Polanyi wrote in his Personal Knowledge, “modern scientism fetters thought as cruelly as ever the church had done. It offers no scope for our most vital beliefs and forces us to disguise them in farcically inadequate terms” (1958, 265).
It seems that Polanyi sought the etiology of the malady he believed he had identified in the essential instability of Cartesian doubt; this brief summary of his views is distilled from Prosch (1986) and my own reading of his work. While he acknowledged the necessity of doubt to emancipate scientific inquiry from religious dogma in the 17th century, the success of skepticism in eliminating religious authority had done nothing to abate the moral fervor which had accompanied it. Indeed, Polanyi asserted that withering skepticism combined with moral enthusiasm had tended to become fused together in the Enlightenment image of the scientist, the bearer of the rationalist ideal of the perfect secular society. This ideal was predicated upon a presumption of unrestrained autonomous individualism which could only flourish within an environment of absolute freedom and equality, a benchmark against which actual social relations could only appear as pale and inadequate approximations. This intractable and inevitable discrepancy, often experienced in adolescence as a debunking of pious verities, then gave rise to an amoral individualism, asserting the rights of the truly free and creative individual as against the claims of a corrupt and hypocritical society, or as Polanyi put it, “the chisel of nihilism driven by the hammer of social conscience” (1974, 44). While Polanyi asserted that this “moral inversion” assumed many forms, and deployed his diagnosis to attack a range of various intellectual movements from Freudianism to Marxism to cybernetics, it is important to get past his oft-noted propensity to moralize in order to extract the core implications of his stance for epistemology and economics, since it is these which governed his use of the market metaphor for science.
Polanyi sought to indict the Viennese positivists in philosophy and (less expectedly) the utilitarians in economics with being prime vectors of “moral inversion” in their respective fields; and as such, witting or no, they were the thin end of the wedge for the incursion of the social planners with their contempt for freedom. Insofar as scientists tried to justify their activities on positivist grounds (or economists on utilitarian grounds), they set up a field of cognitive dissonance and reflexive contradictions so devastating that the only escape appeared to be the reimposition of rationality by means of a Romanticist transcendence, be it through either revolution or capitulation to “nature.” As Polanyi insisted, “the freedom of science cannot be defended today on the basis
of a positivist conception of science... Totalitarianism is a much truer embodiment of such a program than a free society” (1974, 64). The task was to understand how a seemingly reasonable quest to buttress individual rationality by fortifying it against rational doubt would end up making it impossible for an individual to exercise any agency at all.
Polanyi was convinced that no productive scientist wanted the kind of apodictic impersonal certainty that the positivists or their offspring had portrayed them as wanting. “To think of scientific workers cheerfully trying this and trying that, calmly changing course at each failure, is a caricature of a pursuit that consumes a man’s whole person” (Polanyi and Prosch 1975, 60). Rather than impersonal certainty, what a scientist operating at the very frontiers of the known desperately needed was personal commitment. In a working laboratory, he was fond of saying, one finds the laws of nature contradicted every hour (1946, 17); well before Kuhn or Collins he pointed out that skepticism is trained on “the facts” more frequently in science than on “hypotheses” or theories or metaphysics. Without a personal commitment to the validity of a whole range of instruments, theories, and practices, no scientist would have any grounds upon which to discover novel entities or hypotheses and imagine their consequences. His deftly chosen example of Einstein’s reactions to empirical disconfirmations of the theory of special relativity (Holton 1995) was calculated to shock his audience out of their complacency about the hardness of the facts versus the nebulousness of metaphysical principles.
The cumulative intention of all these observations was not to undermine empiricism as a philosophical doctrine so much as to demolish the positivist notion of “objectivity” as an impersonal reliance on facts to guide scientific inquiry. Polanyi regarded the positivist quest for foolproof algorithms for scientific inquiry as a prime example of Enlightenment moral fervor running rabidly out of control: in their avowed interests of protecting personal freedom of inquiry and improving upon an imperfect quotidian reality, the positivists had neutralized all human agency and individuality indispensable to science, leaving behind nothing but a machine-like rationality. For Polanyi, the siren song of “cognitive science” was the prelude to a totalitarian science, since a process of inquiry which could be programmed could also be planned, and this played directly into the hands of the Bernalists and their calls for more accountability in science.
Here we are finally prepared to appreciate the true significance of Polanyi’s tag line, “tacit knowledge.” By insisting that the scientist knows more than she could ever explicitly recount, Polanyi was not appealing to Zeitgeist or anything remotely approaching a sociology of knowledge; given his disdain for Freudianism, he was not gesturing
towards the unconscious. Rather, the existence of tacit knowledge was a necessary prerequisite to an appreciation of the indispensability of individual agency in successful science. The legitimacy of passionate commitment to entities or theories which were only imperfectly known and inadequately articulated was, he asserted, the only way that novelty and innovation could be incorporated into science; and moreover, it was the primary legitimate outlet for moral fervor in what was widely misunderstood as a “value-free” rationalist enterprise. Without open acknowledgement of the tacit component of knowledge, there could be no personal responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions as a scientist. Unrestrained instrumentalism would lead to uncontrolled proliferation of cynical exercises consisting of barely concealed wish fulfillment (or worse, fraud); while conversely, robotic conformity to rigid rules would strangle all motivation to participate in the inquiry (1946, 27). Tacit knowledge was the means by which scientists were enabled to navigate between the Scylla of luxuriant extravagant speculation and the Charybdis of rote slavish imitation.
Yet tacit knowledge also served a political function, one which Polanyi acknowledged could be traced back to a Burkean conservatism (1958, 54), used in a similar way by Hayek (1972) in his later economics. For Polanyi, tacit knowledge was not something inbred or picked up in passing, since that could not then account for the special progressive character of the scientific enterprise. Instead, the continuity of science should be traced to the transmission of tacit knowledge across the generations. This conveyance of something which by definition could not be adequately codified and transmitted might seem an oxymoron, but Polanyi sought to turn this objection into a centerpiece of his definition of the scientific enterprise by associating it with the master/apprentice relationship through which the neophyte becomes initiated into membership in the scientific community. Far from being an “open society” which revels in unrestrained criticism, the politics of tacit knowledge dictates that criticism be muted and restrained by the very process whereby one comes to understand how science is done. Hence this conception of tacit knowledge became the lynchpin of the argument that scientific research could not be centrally planned. Since tacit knowledge was intrinsically dispersed throughout the community, and could only be passed along piecemeal through a socialization process inculcating a particular personal commitment, there could never be any effective rationalization or codification of the process of research.
Perhaps it becomes clearer in hindsight why Polanyi’s fiercest critics were the Popperians, even though their political positions vis-à-vis market organization were very close. Whilst the Popperians paid lip-service to tradition, they were predisposed to a libertarian conception of “free-
dom from” any binding commitments to any social organization; it is noteworthy that this led many, including Popper himself (see Caldwell 1991), to defend the utilitarian tradition and neoclassical economics. For Polanyi, by contrast, utilitarianism was the economic equivalent of positivism, since it produced a similar distortion of the ideal of human freedom. The fundamental flaw was its treatment of individual rationality as autonomous from all social commitments and determinations, predicated upon an individual knowledge-processing capacity that neither did nor ever could exist. In his opposition to utilitarian social theory, Polanyi was remakably consistent throughout his career; he expressed it unequivocally in his early economic writings, as well as in his later epistemological work on science. Since utilitarianism denied tacit knowledge (Polanyi 1958, 142), it produced a twisted conception of the real efficacy of market operations, which was not to maximize individual welfare, but rather to coordinate the dispersed and inchoate knowledge of the transactors.
In effect, utilitarianism was the projection of the Enlightenment image of autonomous knowledge onto society, which then insisted upon the recasting of society in its own terms. The ideal of machine rationality had indeed been made quite explicit in the historical development of neoclassical economics, with its concerted imitation of rational mechanics in the actual mathematics of utilitarianism (Mirowski 1989). Although his opposition was partially rooted in hostility to an algorithmic rationality, Polanyi also remained adamantly opposed to any and all attempts to justify science along utilitarian ideals. It was his recognition that the standard defense of the public funding of pure science - namely, a necessary way station to arrive at technological benefits - had been the primary argument in favor of J. D. Bernal’s science planning movement (McGucken 1984) that hardened his opposition to utilitarianism in all its manifestations, be they in economics or in the philosophy of science.
The comparison of the social structures of science to the operation of a market, just as in the comparison of the transmission of cultural entities to natural selection, bears no necessary content or implications in and of itself. It is only with the unpacking of the metaphors within the home and target domains that one comes to realize the network of claims and assertions that are freighted within any such comparison. Michael Polanyi had been implicitly comparing the operations of science to the market since the later 1930s, although it would invariably appear in some subordinate illustrative role, more rhetorical flourish than serious thesis. Over the course of the 1950s, however, the similarities between his convic-
tions about the economy and about science were coming increasingly into focus in his own mind, but he kept them primarily to himself and a small circle of confidants, until roughly about 1961.
The reasons for this change of heart probably were bound up with the reactions to his major book, Personal Knowledge, which had appeared in 1958, and a subsequent confrontation with Thomas Kuhn at Oxford in July 1961. In the book, Polanyi had sometimes referred to his own project as an “invitation to dogmatism” (p. 268), and Kuhn had taken up the gauntlet in a paper which attempted to assimilate components of Polanyi’s theses to his own discussions of “normal science” in his soon-to-appear Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1963, see also 1970, 44, n. 1). Polanyi was not at all happy with Kuhn’s interpretation of his work. As he wrote to Gerald Holton: “I criticized Tom Kuhn for not taking up the epistemological difficulties arising from the acknowledgment of dogmatism as he called it. Personal Knowledge was of course principally concerned with an attempt to answer this question.” 1
For modern enthusiasts for an “economics of science,” Polanyi’s “Republic of Science” (1969) is a ringing manifesto, with all its talk of “invisible hands” (p. 51) and scientific organization which “works according to economic principles similar to those by which the production of material goods is regulated” (p. 49). Yet for those who bother to read it with some care, the overriding impression is of someone taking away with a less obtrusive though still visible hand what he has just given with the other. Rather than concertedly exploring the ways in which economics characterized market organization and operations, Polanyi instead hinted at a more general theory of coordination: “I am suggesting, in fact, that the coordinating functions of the market are but a special case of coordination by mutual adjustment. In the case of science, adjustment takes place by taking note of the published results of other scientists; while in the case of the market, mutual adjustment is mediated through a system of prices” (Polanyi 1969, 52). Yet, of course, the act of formal acknowledgment of published scientific work does not look very similar to a price system, so the analogy begins to sputter even before it has left the ground. This became painfully apparent as Polanyi embarked upon his discussion of valuation in science, as a segue into his defense of scientific freedom.
He began the discussion in a seemingly familiar way, portraying the scientist as making an optimal choice of problem given his “limited stock of intellectual and material resources.” Yet, clearly apprehensive at the implicit utilitarian drift, and unwilling to acknowledge what was
1. Polanyi to Gerald Holton, dated 11/12/63, in Polanyi, unpublished, box 6, folder 4.
by then the microeconomic orthodoxy, he immediately shifted the grounds of the valuation to “professional standards” and the “authority of scientific opinion.” If these standards or authority were merely algorithmic rules within which the individual choice had to be made, then one could treat them as a laundry list of utilitarian constraints; however, that would be an anathema to Polanyi. As in more modern authors like Philip Kitcher (1993), Polanyi decided to recast scientific valuation itself as a problem of authority, but a species of authority which does not encroach upon the necessary freedom to choose. Since “no single scientist has a sound understanding of more than a tiny fraction of the total domain of science,” the legitimacy of any valuation was sorely in need of justification; Polanyi imagined the problem could be solved if legitimacy of valuations would monotonically fall off as a function of the “distance” of the subject matter from that of the speciality of the scientist at ground zero of the gradient. If we imagine a collection of scientists arrayed on a grid of specializations, then their individual authorities would overlap; Polanyi then simply asserts these overlapping valuations would also become reconciled into a coherent transpersonal professional opinion, though without specifying precisely how this would come about.  This monolithic and internally coherent “scientific opinion” not only is able to evaluate individual endeavors with pinpoint precision, but Polanyi then treats it as akin to utiliarianism in its posited ability to direct efficient resource allocation: “Such is in fact the principle which underlies the rational distribution of grants for the pursuit of research... So long as each allocation follows the guidance of scientific opinion, by giving preference to the most promising scientists and subjects, the distribution of grants will automatically yield the maximum advantage for the advancement of science as a whole” (p. 57).
However much Polanyi’s language seems to parallel that of neoclassical economics, it should be apparent by this point that he has moved very far away from its content. The “advancement of science”
2. “Each link in these chains and networks will establish agreement between the valuations made by scientists overlooking the same overlapping fields, and so, from one overlapping neighborhood to another, agreement will be established on the valuation of scientific merit throughout all the domains of science” (1969, 55—56). It is worthwhile to note here that Philip Kitcher attempts to appropriate Polanyi’s conception of overlapping authority to his own conception of “rational authority functions” (Kitcher 1993, 320, n. 15). In light of this revival of utilitarianism, one notes the passage immediately subsequent to that quoted above: “Scientific opinion is an opinion not held by any single human mind, but one which, split into thousands of fragments, is held by a multitude of individuals, each of whom endorses the opinion of the other at second hand...” (Polanyi 1969, 56).
is not coterminous with the welfare of the individual scientists involved; their cognitive and computational capacities are not those of the utilitarian rational agent. Indeed, the advancement of science is not concerned with public welfare at all, which is the primary thesis of the second half of the article. Polanyi sought to displace utilitarianism by positing a kind of supra-personal valuation function which is apparently reflexive, transitive, and complete, although how controversies, misunderstandings and intransitivities are ironed out in the process of aggregation is nowhere explicated. The orthodox market theory works in terms of competition and a transpersonal value index like money, a combination which (in theory) should allow individual actors to express their individually divergent valuations as a process of commensurate social valuation; but in Polanyi’s case, all the evaluative action happens before the resources get distributed and in the absence of any tokens of valuation. The fact that this scenario does not work in terms of a rationalist or instrumentalist valuation scheme is admitted later in the article: “The authority of science is essentially traditional” (Polanyi 1969, 66).
It is striking that Polanyi does not once make reference to the key concept of tacit knowledge anywhere in “The Republic of Science.” Although this was treated as the centerpiece of his books both before and after the 1962 article, here it is absent, replaced by the quasi-economistic language quoted above. In one sense, this was unfortunate, since elaboration of the psychological character of tacit knowledge could at least have provided reasons (satisfying or no, described above) for the necessity of a system of traditional authoritarian hierarchy. In their absence, and parachuted into the middle of a seemingly neoclassical market metaphor, the cognitive dissonance of a rigid authoritarian hierarchy superimposed on a “naturally” self-optimizing market could not be banished by any amount of citation of Burke and Paine. The man who had once sneered at Bernal’s glib appeal to “freedom as the understanding of necessity” ( 1975, 23) had now come to resemble the very thing he had once despised. But in another sense, the replacement of tacit knowledge by the market metaphor was probably intentional, the better to contrast one vision of the Good Society with a threatening rival which belonged to Thomas Kuhn.
Kuhn, as is well known, had portrayed “normal science” as a regime of dogmatic belief. Polanyi had glossed his Personal Knowledge as an “invitation to dogmatism.” Kuhn wrote about the functions of commitment on the part of the working scientist; commitment was the keystone of Polanyi’s understanding of science. And yet, when all was said and done, Polanyi wanted to put as much distance between himself and Kuhn’s paradigms and revolutions as he could muster: but how?
Since the disagreement was primarily over the appropriate social theory analogy, why not displace Kuhn’s political metaphor with an economic one? After all, market conceptions of order were one class of locutions that Kuhn had never remotely entertained; nor had he shown much interest in the history of social theory. Polanyi, on the other hand, had been meditating about the nature of the merits of the market for over three decades; the long apprenticeship had convinced him that the market metaphor was ideal to telegraph precisely the ways in which Kuhn had misrepresented the nature of personal freedom in his narrative. This explains the final section of the paper, which expounds a vision of freedom which “has no bearing on the right of men to do as they please; but assures them the right to speak the truth as they know it” (Polanyi 1969).
In Polanyi’s own mind, therefore, he was not tying his system to any particular social science; rather, he was expostulating a generic theory of the self-organization of free societies (p. 69). He did not want a politics of science, or an economics of science, and most definitively, not a sociology of science. What Polanyi wanted was a society willingly subordinate to the scientific community because that body was the finest instantiation of a politically unified corporate entity dedicated to consensual objectives, whereas the actual state could only be a pale imitation for those who were not privileged to live the life of the scientist. The “Republic of Science” was quite literally that: imperium in imperio, a closed corporate entity situated within the larger commonwealth, the latter obligated to provide certain support services to it, but incapable of aspiring to the same level of clarity in objectives and political cohesion.
Harry Prosch, Polanyi’s collaborator in the waning years of his career, reports that Polanyi believed his crusade for freedom a failure (1986, 203-204); moreover, Prosch thinks Polanyi’s attempt to compare science to a market was a “basic error” (p. 287). I concur. There was something fundamentally self-defeating about Polanyi’s attempt to use the language of economics to gesture towards his own personal conception of market organization, even though he was fully aware that his personal image of a market was at odds with the orthodox view promulgated in economics. This same problem bedevils modern appropriations of economic models by philosophers of science. It should have been obvious to someone touting the presumption of a legitimate dominant consensus within science that if his market metaphor would be understood at all, in his own era it would be embraced as a neoclassical economics of science. Worse, by Polanyi’s own criteria, he could be accused of coming to resemble everything that he had denounced as characteristic of the “moral inversion” of the En-
lightenment project: namely, by trumpeting the existence of ideal rational agents called “scientists” and setting them above the debased denizens of quotidian reality, he put out the welcome mat for political movements seeking to revamp that very same society in his ideal image of the Republic of Science - a world of a single supra-personal Valuation. The parallels to the Marxian silence on the structure of operational socialism were too close for comfort. The road to serfdom is indeed paved with good intentions.
Should this diagnosis seem too harsh, one need only consult another major address he delivered essentially at the same time, though curiously one never reprinted in any of his essay collections. In the lecture, “Science: Academic and Industrial,” he reveals how a paean to liberty undergoes inversion to become an exclusionary taunt. As part of his campaign to uncouple the support of science from any of its putative utilitarian byproducts, he makes one of the strongest distinctions between pure science and technology found anywhere in the entire literature on the philosophy and sociology of science. In effect, “technology” is associated with any research that is subject to any form of economic valuation, while pure science is entirely independent of any “change in the current relative value of things” (1961, 404). A world of such stark contrasts would be hard to capture in black and white, but Polanyi clearly signals his intention to resolve all hard cases unambiguously into one category or the other. The reason for this Solomonic judgment is that “pure science” and only pure science should inhabit the universities, while “industry” will need to pick up the tab for the rest. Not only are the moneylenders to be driven from the temple; Polanyi then goes to the extraordinary length of assimilating the humanities to “technology,” as a prelude of excluding them likewise from the groves of academe.  A more bald power play to exile all economic competitors of the natural sciences from public support in the universities on the a priori unsubstantiated ground that only the natural science communities can deliver “progress,” while simultaneously de-
3. “Nature is given to man ready-made; we may try to elucidate it, but we cannot improve it. But language, literature, history, politics, law and religion, as well as economic and social life, are constantly on the move, and they are advanced by poets, playwrights, novelists, politicians, preachers, journalists and all kinds of other, non-scholarly, writers. These are the primary initiators of cultural change, rather than the Faculties of Arts...
We may conclude that the profound distinction between science and technology is but an instance of the difference between the study of nature on the one hand and the study of human activities and the products of human activities, on the other. The universities cannot be the main source of progress either in humanistic or in material culture, as they are in the natural sciences” (Polanyi 1961, 406).
nying they be subject to any utilitarian cost/benefit calculus, can scarcely be imagined. Not only would the simple freedom of intellectuals to pursue their inquiries into topics of concern be curtailed, but the irony of a proposal to banish the philosophers and economists from academe by someone who had himself held a personal chair in “social studies” at Manchester from 1948-58 could hardly be lost on his audience.
While there is very little consensus on the exact meaning and reference of the term “scientism,” I believe a least common denominator has presented itself in this instance. Scientism here denotes the overweening confidence and chauvinism on the part of those inducted into a natural science - or its fellow travelers - that their own local culture represents everything that is noble, rational, and efficacious about the human race; and further, anything less than abject tribute and total capitulation to this position (which includes copious and unquestioned economic support) on the part of those without passports from the culture in question should be met with scorn, ridicule, and contempt. It is the chisel of naturalism driven by the hammer of self-interest.
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