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Michael Polanyi and Carl Rogers: a dialogue.


This article first appeared in Volume Twenty Five, Number One of ETC., Spring 1968.


On March 5, 1966, D. Michael Polanyi and Dr. Carl Rogers appeared before the cameras of PROFILE, in the campus studios of San Diego State College. Their conversation turned upon the depersonalization of the individual, scientific systems as impositions on man, the place and value of intuition, responsibility to one's existence, ethical and moral judgments as necessities of science, and the changing course in philosophy.

This paper is the transcript of that televised dialogue. Michael Polanyi is a scientist, teacher, humanitarian, and author of a number of books, among them The Logic of Liberty, The Modern Mind, Its Structure and Prospect, and Personal Knowledge. Educated in Germany, Dr. Polanyi resigned his membership in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut fur Physikalishe Chemie in 1933 and accepted a professorship at the University of Manchester in England. There he remained until 1958, initially teaching physical chemistry, in which he had taken his degrees, but later teaching economic and social theory. From 1959 through 1961 he was Senior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford, where he taught philosophy. Dr. Polanyi is Professor Emeritus at Oxford and is now in residence at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut.

Carl Rogers, currently a resident fellow of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, La Jolla, California, is past president of the American Psychological Association, pioneer in the development of counseling centers, 1964 recipient of the American Humanist of the Year award, and author of numerous articles and books on psychology and human behavior. On Becoming a Person is his latest and most popular book. The most recent of his many contributions to ETC. was Freedom and Commitment, which appeared in the June 1965 issue. In this transcript, a few passages have been reworded slightly to achieve greater clarity and to restore the fluency of the impromptu utterances. The intent of the original statements has, however, been retained in every instance.

--Robert Lee, San Diego State College, 1968

CARL ROGERS: The social sciences today can do things for people, but they also do things to people, in a way. Take, as a simple example, studies of delinquency. We could say with some assurance that a boy who comes from a broken home, who lives in a slum area, who's been rejected by his parents, and so on-that that boy has a high probability of becoming a delinquent. Now, we tend to think about that almost as though the boy were an object. In much the same fashion we would say a steel ball rolling down a slope will proceed at a certain speed and at a certain acceleration. I've engaged in research of that sort myself. I feel it has real usefulness.

Yet it troubles me deeply that we leave out the boy; we leave out the person. The rolling of the ball down the slope is perhaps inevitable, but whether the boy becomes a delinquent--that's not inevitable. There's something in his subjective state-apart from these various external circumstances--that has to do with the question. In other words, I'm concerned that the behavioral sciences are tending to depersonalize the individual and often tending to cause people to feel they are themselves robots, rather than individuals with spontaneity and possibility of responsible action and so on. And I wonder, what's the answer to that dilemma? I certainly would be interested in your reaction to that aspect of what science seems to be doing to people.

MICHAEL POLANYI: Well, this is of course a most exciting question. I don't think we can elucidate it in this conversation, but at least I can bring in something that is burning in me at this moment which has a bearing on it-and also the seriousness of it. I have just written an introduction to a book which will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, and I realized, when I tried to describe what happened, how little is known of the actual starting point. It was a meeting of writers, of Communist writers. One can't repeat that often enough. These were Party members: Communist writers. And in that meeting there occurred a rebellion against the official leadership in which these people claimed, "We are the Party, and we reject the view which you are imposing on us."

Now, what was that view? It was that the minds of people, the thoughts of people, are superstructures of the economic process; and, since the Party controls the socialistic economic process, the thoughts are under the necessary control of the Party. What the audience, these formerly fanatical young writers, claimed was that this is not true-that the truth, and the thought which elucidates the truth, must be an independent factor in public life; it is not a servant of the government, not to be defined as being useful to the government, but has intrinsic power and intrinsic justification.

Now, what did we do about that? That is my point. These people proclaimed this. It was written up; I remember writing about it at that time as the "revolution of truth," but I was not an official voice. Neither am I at this moment. But two years ago, in one of the most distinguished journals in the English language, one of the most authoritative voices of the academic life in America concerned with the study of Soviet affairs gave an account of an article that he had written in 1960, four years earlier. In this article, he had said that the events in the Soviet Union are largely a rebellion in favor of the truth-a fighting for the truth. But when he showed the manuscript to his friends in the great university where he is functioning, they advised him against it. They said, "This is a naive and unscientific way of looking at things." And so he crossed it out. Now he says he regrets it. He thinks there is something in it. And then he goes on to explain why, for the Soviet writers, it was justified to talk about the truth.

But what actually it amounts to is that all during these ten years, and in fact all along, the revival of free thought in the Soviet Union as we have interpreted it in our universities, in our press, in broadcasting, and on broadcast interviews-this event is due to changes in the industrial structure in that a more complicated economic system had been set up which required different values and so forth. Now, instead of welcoming this liberation of the human mind, this liberation which really is a confirmation of our ideas, we did our best to play it down, to interpret it in the same kind of mechanistic terms against which they rebelled there, from which they liberated themselves. This is the situation in which we are, because this is a very characteristic event.

DR. ROGERS: It's fascinating to think of it in terms of the Soviet Union as well as our own culture. Certainly in our own culture there is gradually growing a revolt at some deep level. The individual is disturbed at seeing himself as purely the product, whether of strictly determined psychological forces, or economic forces, or cultural forces, or what not. I think that men in various ways are rebelling against that and saying, "I exist, I exist as a person; I do make a difference." In some way we've got to incorporate this newer view into our view of science. At least that's the way it seems to me.

DR. POLANY1: Yes, of course. I am delighted to hear what you say because for the first time somebody supports me in the view that what is happening in the Soviet Union today the great changes which have been taking place there for ten years and more-are similar to the changes which are taking place here for similar reasons. For the unsatisfactory nature of the same mechanistic conception of man eliminates the responsibility of man, doesn't know the place for it, and has no place for the autonomous intrinsic powers of thought in general not only responsibility, but the whole of our actions as thinking and creative meaning. Individuals have no place in the scope of this interpretation.

As to science, we must first of all have a pretty good and new idea about knowledge in general, and then we can come to science and put it right. But first we must have a clear mechanism; and that is, at any rate, what I was trying to establish. A mechanism which, without obscurity and without forcing the issue or the conclusions, brings us a way of seeing, a necessary and adequate way of seeing, which does not reduce man to an aggregate of atoms or even to a mechanism, but gives us straight away an access to him as a person. And when we have that we can, I think, move on a fairly large scale from man to other things and also to history.

DR. ROGERS: I'm particularly impressed with the distinction you draw between knowledge, as the larger field, and science. It perhaps bears on one item that has been a very real puzzle to me. As you know, I'm a therapist, a counselor, and much of my life has been given over to working with individuals who are in some sort of personal or psychological distress. I certainly feel I have been able to be of help to some of them, and if I ask myself what has been the real element which has been helpful, it would seem to be the intimate, dose, mutual subjective relationship, something similar to what Buber describes as "I-thou" relationship. It's that personal experience of relationhsip that seems to be the element that brings about change.

And yet, when trying to do research in psychotherapy, you can study the way in which the verbal behavior changes, you can study the changes in the person's way of perceiving himself, you can study the way his friends perceive him, the changes in such perceptions, you can study all kinds of external cues. And yet, so far as I can see, you can never get to the really essential experience which brought about change. Now, I relate that to what you're saying by thinking, well, perhaps that must remain a part of our knowledge but cannot be a part of our science. I don't know.

DR. POLANYI: I think something of that kind, yes. Perhaps I should make it even clearer. I know how unusual this view is, but I expressed it about ten years ago, actually: I published in Science a piece which was the text of an address, and there I suggested that we should forget about the word "scientific" for ten years. If we could only get away from that, we would see so many possibilities of appreciating knowledge, of appreciating views and explorations, if you'd call them penetrating, revealing, sensitive, true-yes, we would call them true, which is quite an obvious way of describing them. So let's forget about science. That is my suggestion. "Science" itself misdescribes it, in my opinion, very badly, and therefore, when we bring in "science," we usually don't bring in science; we bring the misdescription of science itself. Nothing could be more out of the way and less useful.

DR. ROGERS: It is very interesting indeed to hear someone like you, with such solid scientific training, speak of laying aside the term "science" for the time being. I realize I have approached that same problem, perhaps in a somewhat different way. It has seemed to me that we must enlarge the conception of science to include all kinds of things that currently people leave out of it. For example, I think of the creative intuitions, which are usually thought of as having no part in science-and yet to my way of thinking they're one of the central parts of real science. And I don't know which road is better: to try to include a great deal of the subjective, intuitive, phenomenological in science, or--as you seem to be saying--to reserve the term "science" for the operations that people usually think of in doing science, and concentrate on knowledge as a larger sphere.

DR. POLANYI: Yes, let us not attribute particular merit to something by saying, "This is scientific." Let's describe its value and its reliability, its penetration, and so on, in other terms; and the example which you mentioned is very much to the point; namely, creativity. Now, creativity leads a very precarious existence because the supposed methods of science cannot deal with it. They can't do anything about it, and therefore the theory which science makes of itself tries to exclude it. It says, "This is just psychology or sociology or something which doesn't belong to us. It's not logic." I think that all this is unnecessary and actually misleading.

DR. ROGERS: Would it be too big a question to ask your view of science? How do you see science as separate from this larger sphere of knowledge?

DR. POLANYI: I think there are forms of science. As you probably know, I think that certain forms of science, like the put it a little less rudely-impaired by harking back to the supposed methods of science. So this is probably fairly widespread. I think in sociology you have similar influences. You see sociologists claiming that they can describe, in fact account for and explain, all human activities in society without being concerned with right or wrong. That's absurd, because it's quite obvious that the sociologists themselves probably can't explain their own actions without considering that what they thought was right or wrong. Why should it be different for others whom they are describing, whom they are explaining?

At this moment there are great involved issues, and there have been for the last few years in the United States. And in confronting these issues many people were moved very effectively by questions of right and wrong. So, if there were no difference between right and wrong, these would be merely elusive claims that they would be making. Obviously, this is completely degrading what is going on.

And so one could go on. One could speak of the description, the explanation of contemporary affairs, of which I spoke right at the beginning, which is part of our way of writing history. It has not always been the case. In the eighteenth century people wrote history and the great historians at that time believed that it was something which was leading to progress through enlightenment and leading to disasters, to errors, or to follies. In other words, human beings, as we know them, still existed as agents in history, as agents responsible for the improvement of the human condition and also responsible for disasters.

DR. ROGERS: It seems to me that many behavioral scientists today are fearful of bringing in the issue of right and wrong. I have a pipe dream that would really revolve around an initial ethical decision. It seems to me, for example, that there is building up in the behavioral sciences some knowledge of how to deal with interpersonal tensions and tensions between groups. It seems to me that, as behavioral scientists, we have an ethical responsibility to try to use that knowledge in ways that might be effective in helping the present racial and national and international situations. I've sometimes dreamed of sort of an interdisciplinary Manhattan Project where the reduction of psychological tension would be the subject-where you could get together the best minds, the best knowledge in this field, and begin to utilize it both ethically and, I hope, effectively in resolving some of the world tensions. Now, this emphasis is a little different from what you were giving it, but it seems to fit in: Unless scientists regard themselves as having an ethical responsibility, they are not likely to engage in some activities that might have social usefulness.

DR. POLANYI: Yes, they actually missed, I think, the essence of most of the things that are important in the world by doing so. But I'm not sure that I quite follow you, about first observing tension, and then dealing with it from the moral point of view. I think that the study of tensions as such is already tainted by a neutrality which is misleading, because, you see, there will be difficulties the moment you apply the reduction of tension to places. Let's say you are dealing with the revolutionary movements, or the underground against Hitler--well, you surely are in favor, not of reducing tension there but, on the contrary, of increasing tension.

So these are colorless or neutral terms: They have already a tendency to mislead and to curtail our scope, and perhaps it's difficult then to bring in succession to this the moral point of view. But, of course, I'm rather skeptical about the difficulties. I'm very anxious to hear what hopes you have. But I see the difficulties as very great.

DR. ROGERS: Well, I think I would agree with the point you've made, that just reduction of tension itself would not necessarily in all situations be even an ethical goal. And I suppose, with what we do know, we do have the kind of skills that can operate to produce more constructive harmony in groups that are very much in opposition to each other. Now, I can see ways in which that knowledge might be used in a neutral or not very responsible, fashion. I guess what you're driving me back to is the realization that at the basis of anything a scientist undertakes is, first of all, an ethical and moral value judgment that he makes.

DR. POLANYI: Value judgments are ubiquitous--they are ubiquitous even in the exact sciences, but one can forget about them there, perhaps, if one wants to. They need not be acknowledged every moment. But I think, referring back to the kind of thing I was talking about right at the beginning, that to secure the possibility of an authentic image and interpretation of man, of living beings, of man and of the universe, is first of all to be continuously involved in value judgments. Now, this is something which of course is today frowned upon, and that we must break down-but it is not easy going from there on, either. It is a very big task. It is almost a task of building up, in some respects, a new culture in opposition to 300 years of brilliant progress achieved by another method--by the method of reducing things to elements, which are inadequate.

DR. ROGERS: I've always realized that your thinking was revolutionary in its scope, but I guess I'd never realized quite how much that's true, because really to achieve the kind of thing you're talking about right now would mean a drastic alteration in point of view, not only on the part of scientists, but on the part of a culture which supports science.

DR. POLANYI: I think that is true, but of course we are supported by a movement which has been going on for some time. It has been going on well, Kierkegaard could be mentioned, and we could have talked about Dostoevsky; we could have talked about a number of philosophers who, at the end of the nineteenth century, had started movements which now are becoming popular here, like the phenomenological movement. I think that all this is one great effort of the fortunate changing course in philosophy.
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Title Annotation:FROM THE VAULT
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Discussion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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