Letter to Michael (1944)

From Karl Polanyi
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[44-47] 49A Hornsey Lane Gdns.N.6.

My dear old M[1]

I gave a lot of thought to your paper trying to find a way of being helpful, but have not been so far successful.

Couldn’t you speak of modern totalitarianism on p. 3. At least Calvin’s Geneva regime or the Saints of Massachusetts would be taken care of. Also reminiscences of Roman Catholic totalitarianism à la Dominican or Jesuit rule in Spain or Paraguay would be then less damaging. Even so Hobbes and Rousseau are awkward customer to fit in.

The trouble is that your argument is note clear. Scientific outlook on p. 2 means the outlook of science on the nature of the universe (properly a subject for metaphysics) while on p. 6 it means the outlook of science on the sources of knowledge (a subject of noetics). In the first case the opposites are naturalism or materialism vs idealism; in the second case: pragmatism vs idealism – unfortunately idealism meaning did ferect things in the two cases. You try to bridge this gap by introducing the term faith for both meanings thus inducing further equivocations. All that can be said is that modern science has shifted its ground towards faith in regard to noetics but remained as agnostic as ever in respect to the nature of the universe. If this is the position, can it be rightfully argued that modern science has established a case for faith in any of its accepted meaning? Personally, I believe that the scientific outlook xxxx man affaires is mistaken, this being true not only of Freud and Pavlov but also of Pierce, Mead, James, Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Dewey and the other giants of the Anglo-Saxon Academy... It is high time we get away from the “scientific age”. But that is not your line of argument.

Your own argument really belongs into a different context, it seems to me. Your redefinition of the sociology of the faith, (the tradition and ideals underlying much of our civilization is certainly valid, and has its great value in elucidating the driving forces of tolerance and liberalism in some of its finest expressions but you should resist the temptation of using this peculiar insight in a highly sloganized fashion to argue purely political points... I still think you should cut the beginning which is much too slow anyhow, and gain space for your own subjects viz., faith, tradition and ideals with somewhat less dragon killing but somewhat more enlightenment of the admittedly benighted contemporaries. You could still keep your slashing attacks on your special dragon but at the same time make sure that the gist of your own creative thought has been put over, whatever the consequences your audience may have drawn from it. (I don’t believe that the reference to Common Law sheds any light on the matter as it now runs, though I know – from collateral readings – that you have a very interesting theory on the subject).

Why not do this? Answer the Continental by pointing out that the very science he bases his ‘politics’ on was a result of tolerance and the belief in ideal values? And mention, in conclusion, that this is the view science itself tends more and more to take of its own nature. This would allow you to be frankly sociological in your arguments and thus to put your ideas in their natural context. Eventually, you would finish up with a reference to science, that is your own field... However, please disregard these remarks completely if they don’t fit in with your true intentions.

The proofs of the book have arrived.

Print seems to improve the style. Kenneth Muir whom I saw in Leeds seems now to think that it should stand as it is... Curtis Brown, the agents are submitting it in a day or two to Macmillans (J.A. Hawgood is writing Daniel Macmillan about it).

Your suggestions about the possibility of an appointment have set me think furiously. Do you not think that I should see the Master about it? He would be interveiwed in regard to my person, also he is very closely connected with Nuffield College? I don’t want to be ‘late’ this time, if I can avoid it. Unfortunately I am not very good at dealing with my own private affairs and feel very much in need of advice.

Should you know of any opening in statistical and planning department of one of our big modern undertakings, I should be very glad if you could introduce Kari with the people. I am rather concerned that if she takes up industry again, she would not only get out of touch with her special field which is statistics, but also over strain herself physically (she had several rather break downs before we returned to this country). She seems to feel in the same way as I do and I know she would be grateful to you for your help. I am keeping in touch with the authorities on her account, but the essential think in this case is to find the proper job oneself privately. Of course, ICI and similar large combines are first preferences. According to Durbin, whom I spoke on the matter, the demand for able people is great. He advised against ‘welfare statistics’ and for ‘statistical plus planning departments. She is taking part-finals in June, but cannot join the forces, since she was born in 1923, which happens to be the banned year... The Karoly movement is making progress. Do tell me what, if anything you learnt at Mannheims... I have arranged with Ignotu Pali for our meeting. Please confirm.

I should have returned your MS before, but thought I might think of something in a day or two...

Antal Fritzi has turned up with the MS of a remarkable study in the field of the history of art. Many years work has gone into a great attempt to prove the dependence of early Florentine painting (styles and schools) from the social outlook of the circle for which the pictures were painted. I am much interested in the attempt, sceptical though I am of his thesis. I am trying to find a publisher for him in the USA. His English publisher – Chatto & Windus – insists on cuttings and less scientific paraphernalia. Americans might be more lenient on this point.

He is very much the same as he was. Only slightly less mad than usually but essentially very kind and human. He has a wonderful English wife, the kind of angel he needed to torment and make happy at the same time. Oh, Ilona is much better again; I am very much relieved, and she is sending her love too.



Editor's Notes

  1. ”My dear old man” is a nickname Karl often uses to speak about Michael


Date: 1944?
Src: Michael Polanyi Papers