Respect and Empathy as Method in the Social Science Writings of Michael Polanyi

25 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2008 Last revised: 6 Jul 2009

Date Written: June 24, 2008


In the face of what may seem to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary in the world, Michael Polanyi's writings on human nature entail a theory of respect as a natural human passion. That is, human beings have both an innate sense of respect for one another, and an innate need to feel respected by other people. We will defend this thesis in this essay. Polanyi's theory of respect, of course, has implications for what is traditionally known as "normative social theory," or theories as to how societies ought to organize themselves. We will show that Polanyi's opinion on this matter is consistent with his theory of natural respect. While social science methodology has traditionally been regarded as striving for "value neutrality," we will show that Polanyi's social science methodology is shaped to its core by the principle of respect. Respect guides social research, even as this is denied by those working in the dominant paradigm for social, and political, science. We will argue that the materials needed to formulate a general method for a Polanyian normative social science already exist in Polanyi's writings. For Polanyi, a method consists of a set of "rules of art," or "maxims." "Maxims are rules, the correct application of which is part of the art which they govern." (Personal Knowledge 31) The interpretation and application of methodological "rules" is always a personal act, depending on the education, skill, and other personal qualities of the person. (Personal Knowledge 123) Thus, Polanyi does not preclude the possibility of a method for social science, but only warns his readers not to expect a mechanical application of that method's maxims. What then would the maxims, or rules of art, be for a Polanyian social science? One maxim is that "indwelling, or empathy, is the proper means of knowing man and the humanities." (Tacit Dimension16) We will examine The Study of Man as a model method for social science. There, Polanyi advises social scientists that a "balanced respect for man" is a methodological necessity. (Study of Man 89).

Keywords: Normative social science, Michael Polanyi, paradigm revolution

Suggested Citation

Kelleher, William J., Respect and Empathy as Method in the Social Science Writings of Michael Polanyi (June 24, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

William J. Kelleher (Contact Author)

The Empathic Science Institute ( email )

2158 La Canada Crest Dr. ste 4
La Canada, CA 91011
United States

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