Father Holloway and Professor Polanyi

Father Holloway and Professor Polanyi

Simon Heans explores the work of Fr Edward Holloway and philosopher Michael Polyani  and discovers some interesting areas of convergence

In one of the notes he wrote to the memoir prepared by his mother Agnes, Fr Holloway tells the story being stopped from doing a doctorate by his tutor at seminary. The latter informed Bishop Amigo that although his pupil’s ‘heart was entirely in the right place… he was not so sure of my head.’ Holloway goes on to recount another experience of rejection following Vatican II ‘for refusing to go along with the New Theology and publicly rebuking bishops for their rave reviews of Hans Kung and others’ adding ruefully, ‘I never did win.’

In this article, I want to look at some of the themes of Fr Holloway’s writings in the light of the ideas of another original and controversial thinker who has often been dismissed as a maverick, the Hungarian scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891– 1976). Although his Jewish parents had him baptised as a Catholic in pre-war Budapest, he seems never to have practised the faith. However, as a philosopher of science his ideas bear a remarkable resemblance to those expounded by Fr Holloway. This is perhaps not so surprising since in his great work, Personal Knowledge, he tells us that ‘we must now go back to St Augustine to restore the balance of our cognitive powers.’


Personal Knowledge is subtitled Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. But what is the critical philosophy Polanyi wants us to go beyond? He answers by quoting John Lo>How well-grounded and great soever the assurance of faith may be wherewith it is received; but faith is still not knowledge; persuasion and not certainty. This is the highest the nature of things will permit us to go in matters of revealed religion, which are therefore called maters of faith; a persuasion of our own minds, short of knowledge, is the result that determines us in such truths. (PK, 266)


The status of religious belief in the critical philosophy of which Locke was one of the first exponents is explained by Polanyi by analogy with the modern English constitution which Locke played an important role in shaping:

If divine revelation continues to be venerated, its functions – like those of the Kings and Lords of England are gradually reduced to that of being honoured on ceremonial occasions. All real power goes to the nominally Lower House of objectively demonstrable assertions. … demonstrable assertions. (ibid,)

Although Polanyi is generous in his praise of ‘the critical movement in philosophy’ describing it as having ‘enriched us mentally and morally to an extent unrivalled by any period of similar duration’, he now wishes to call time on it and, somewhat paradoxically, awarding St Augustine the accolade of ‘inaugurating for the first time a post-critical philosophy.’

The Age of Augustine, roughly speaking the Middle Ages, was also a reference point for Fr Holloway in Catholicism - and for the same reason. Part One is entitled The Crumbling of the City of God, and the primary disintegrative force is science as presented by Locke and other more recent representatives of Polanyi’s critical philosophy movement. In the first draft of Catholicism, now published thanks to Fr Nesbitt as Matter and Mind, we find a fuller discussion than Catholicism offers of Fr Holloway’s view of this philosophical movement and its challenge to Christian belief. He calls it ‘the philosophy of Scientific Positivism’ (M & M) and says that it stands for ‘the government of life by the principles and factual findings of the human mind.’ Polanyi places this idea in historical context: ‘when the supernatural authority of laws, churches and sacred texts had waned or collapsed, man tried to avoid the emptiness of mere self-assertion by establishing over himself the authority of experience and reason.’



Despite his encomium upon ‘the critical movement in philosophy’ already quoted, Polanyi clearly thinks it is now a monster. He tells us ‘that modern scientism… offers no scope for our most vital beliefs and it forces us to disguise them in farcically inadequate terms.’ Fr Holloway makes the same point: ‘Scientific Positivism has no criterion of intellectual and moral values, because these are not subject to experimental analysis and verification.’ Polanyi experienced at first hand the moral and political destruction unleashed by Scientific Positivism both as a refugee from Nazism and in his contacts with scientists in the Soviet Union during the Lysenko era. As he records, ‘Ideologies framed in these terms have enlisted man’s highest aspirations in the service of soul-destroying tyrannies.’ Fr Holloway of course also lived through the same period. He takes the same view of them as Polanyi: they are rooted in Scientific Positivism: ‘In either case we have a monistic philosophy which includes everything within an order of scientific empiricism.’  (M &M 54) And the plant that grows from these roots is moral and political nihilism, Polanyi’s ‘emptiness of mere self-assertion’. Like Polanyi, Fr Holloway sees that ‘the paradox of all these totalitarian philosophies is that they emanate from the minds of individuals, and their intrinsic certainty does not therefore transcend the individual and limited minds from which they proceed.’ Their reality is ‘empty self-assertion:

What a farce is all this unctuous adulation of Marx, or of Lenin… They are men like any other men, and they have not attained to their present position as apostles of the communist State by the sheer force of their mild, pacific, self-abnegating temperaments. (M & M, 55)

Fr Nesbitt tells us that he omitted some sections on Marxism from the published text of Matter and Mind. One can understand why since it no longer exerts the hold over minds which it once did. But if he and Polanyi are right about nihilism (Polanyi’s ‘empty self-assertion’) being at the heart of the mentality of a culture dominated by Scientific Positivism then its occurrence is obviously not dependent on the specific form of the doctrine, be it Marxist, Fascist or whatever, in which it is expressed. In fact, the form closest to its spirit will not be doctrinal since any doctrine makes, at least in theory, a claim to general, perhaps even universal, applicability. No Marxist, for example, would be comfortable saying that his values are only an expression of his individual personality. To make this move is to go from Modernist discourses such as Marxism to Post-Modernism. But, as we have seen, this next step is the working out of the nihilistic and egotistical logic of scientism or ‘critical philosophy’. In both Matter and Mind and Catholicism, Fr Holloway calls the phenomenon of Post-Modernism by a different name: Agnosticism. As he says, ‘the essence of Agnosticism is that “you cannot prove it”.’ He goes on to give an example of Agnosticism in action citing ‘an eminent critic and writer defending homosexual practices’ in terms of a claim that there are ‘” many normalcies of love”’. Of course, the debate has moved on from action (what homosexuals do) to being (what some suppose themselves to be) as Transgenderism has entered the public square. However, the philosophical substance of this rhetoric is the same as Homosexualism: Scientific Positivism. ‘The only certitudes’, Fr Holloway writes, ‘are the empirical working of the mathematical sciences of matter.’ Thus, as he puts it, ‘There are no certainties of natural reason in the Agnostic culture, because every man is his own arbiter of what is “nature” and what is “reason” and death ends for all and for ever the tiresome debate.’ (C, 13)

The same aim

Fr Holloway and Professor Polanyi had the same aim. Their mission was to replace the false understanding of science represented by Locke and his allies. It has not yet been completed. Nearly fifty years ago Fr Holloway wrote that, ‘The mentality of the priesthood, both Catholic and non-Catholic is formed in a tradition which is too exclusively that of the arts and classics.’ But his solution is not ‘more science and better science’ as the Head of Physics at a school where I once taught averred during a staff meeting. No, his answer is ‘more philosophy and better philosophy’. Fr Holloway writes: ‘What they need is not an inventory of unrelated items of the physical sciences, but a philosophy of science which is also their philosophy of being’. (C, 31) In the space remaining to me, I want to suggest that, in their different ways, Fr Holloway and Professor Polanyi provide just such a philosophy.



In the final section of Part One of Catholicism, Fr Holloway writes that Evolution is the ‘The universal idea which is critical for Christian thinking today’. If the Age of Locke, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gave us critical philosophy or Scientific Positivism, then the Age of Darwin, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has given us Evolution. Both double as philosophies of science and being purporting to tell us what is true and real. We have seen that the first is problematic for Christian faith because it relegates faith to the realm of what, at best, may be true and real. Fr Holloway identifies a similar problem with Darwinism:

It was claimed that the mind which meditates the concept of evolution profoundly will find that nothing is left uncounted for… This can be done, the nervous system organised into the brain, the functions of the glands, the influence of the subconscious mind etc., all this and anything else one cares to add in qualification can take over the role of the so-called ‘spiritual in the personality of man. If God cannot be directly disproved… He can be shown to be at least entirely redundant.   (C, 36)



Despite this recognition that the philosophical presentation of Evolution has often been anti-Christian, as we know, Fr Holloway does not dispute the fact of it: ‘In the matter of Evolution the factual proof came tumbling in from every science of matter as the years passed.’ But before expressing this belief, Fr Holloway makes a general remark about the nature of scientific knowledge which may serve as an introduction to Polanyi’s refutation of Scientific Positivism and his proposal that science is Personal Knowledge: ‘It is most significant that here, as so very often in the discoveries of science, it was not the inductive data which was the real beginning of the breakthrough in knowledge, but a deductive vision glimpsed through scanty data which thrilled and excited the mind… from then on the hunt is up for the clues and the final proof.’ (ibid.,37)

In her excellent introduction to Polanyi’s thought, Michael Polanyi, Drusilla Scott cites Polanyi’s own story of how he got his PhD:

The Professor of Mathematical Physics, to whom the paper was assigned, had never heard of my subject matter. He studied my work for a bit and then asked me to explain a curious point; my result seemed correct but its derivation faulty. Admitting my mistake, I said that surely one first draws one’s conclusions and then puts their derivation right. The professor just stared at me.  (MP, 2)

The Copernican revolution

Scott comments that ‘later in life a number of philosophers may have shared the professor’s emotions.’

Perhaps it was awareness of those feelings that persuaded Polanyi to begin Personal Knowledge with a discussion of the Copernican revolution. The Scientific Positivist account alleges that Copernicus was replacing a subjective view of the world in which man is at the centre with an objective one in which man is put in his place as just another and very recent arrival in the cosmos. Polanyi replies:

What is the true lesson of the Copernican revolution? Why did Copernicus exchange his actual terrestrial station for an imaginary solar standpoint? The only justification for this lay in the greater intellectual satisfaction he derived from the celestial panorama as seen from the sun instead of the earth. Copernicus gave preference to man’s delight in abstract theory, at the price of rejecting the evidence of our senses, which presents us with the irrefutable fact of the sun, the moon and the stars rising daily in the east to travel across the sky towards their setting in the west. In a literal sense, therefore, the Copernican system was as anthropocentric as the Ptolemaic view, the difference being merely that it preferred to satisfy a different human affection. (PK, 3)


In Fr Holloway’s words, the mind of Copernicus was ‘thrilled and excited’ by the ‘deductive vision’ offered by his heliocentric cosmology. If, Polanyi insists, Copernicus had followed the procedures of ‘critical philosophy’ and reasoned from his experience of the world, he would not have reached his conclusions about planetary motion.

Polanyi makes the same point about Einstein’s discovery of relativity. He corrects an error which he says ‘can be found in every text book of physics’ (He is writing in 1958: I wonder if it still appears.) It is that Einstein put forward relativity in 1905 ‘in order to account for the negative result of the Mitchelson-Morley experiment, carried out in Cleveland eighteen years earlier, in 1887.’  Not so, says Polanyi. He quotes Einstein’s own autobiography to show that Einstein had already formulated the problem of relativity at the age of sixteen and solved it ten years later without reference to this experiment or any other. He goes on to tell us that, ‘To make sure of this I addressed an enquiry to the late Professor Einstein, who confirmed the fact that “the Mitchelson-Morley experiment had a negligible effect on the discovery of relativity”.’ Thus Polanyi concludes that, ‘When Einstein discovered rationality in nature, unaided by any observation that had not been available for at least fifty years before, our positivistic textbooks promptly covered up the scandal by an appropriately embellished account of his discovery.’ (PK, 10. 11)


At the beginning of this article, I quoted Polanyi’s belief that it is necessary to return to St Augustine ‘to restore the balance of our cognitive powers.’ Augustine taught, Polanyi explains, ‘that all knowledge was the gift of grace, for which we must strive under the guidance of antecedent belief: nisi crederitis, non intelligis.’ As we have seen, Polanyi uses the term ‘rationality in nature’ as a synonym for Einstein’s theory of relativity. Here the philosopher of science is translating the language of the scientist into the idiom of universality in which he deals. And this is exactly what Fr Holloway does also by coining the phrase familiar to readers of this magazine: The Unity-Law of Control and Direction. This ‘rationality in nature’ is an ‘antecedent belief’. logically prior to the actual business of scientific investigation because, in Polanyi’s words, it is ‘a higher power that reveals to us knowledge lying beyond the range of observation and reason’. It is the premise from which all scientific research proceeds. And it is more than a premise. Polanyi clearly agrees with St Augustine that it is ‘a gift of grace’. Polanyi’s programme for rebalancing human thinking turns out to be theological as well as philosophical. He urges us to ‘recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge’ and insists that scientific research is carried on only within ‘a fiduciary framework’. (PK, 266)


Dogma and practices

Parts One to Three of Personal Knowledge expounds the dogmas and practices of this world of scientific faith. In these pages, we find his philosophy of science as Personal Knowledge involving, inter alia, Articulation, Commitment, Conviviality, Tacit Assent and Intellectual Passions. Part Four (entitled Knowing and Being) moves from philosophy of science (what Man knows) to philosophy of being (what Man is). Here Polanyi, like Fr Holloway, outlines an evolutionary philosophy of human being. In the final chapter of Personal Knowledge, The Rise of Man, Polanyi tells us that, ‘We must face the fact that life has actually arisen from inanimate matter, and that human beings… have evolved from the parental zygote in which each of us had his individual origins.’ However, despite this firm affirmation of the existence of evolution, Polanyi rejects the theory of Natural Selection. He argues that it ‘necessarily overlooks the fact that the consecutive steps of a long evolutionary process – like the rise of human consciousness – cannot be determined merely by their adaptive advantage, since these advantages these advantages form part of such progress only in so far as they prove adaptive in a peculiar way, namely along the lines of a continuous evolutionary achievement.’ (PK, 385 emphasis original) Fr Holloway makes the same point as follows: ‘Environment may favour or may destroy the life mechanism… but an intrinsic modification of pattern-of-being from the invisible cell to the primates is something quite beyond that.’ (M&M, 100) Polanyi adds that ‘the ordering principle underlying such a persistent creative trend is necessarily overlooked or denied by the theory of natural selection’. And Polanyi has already explained this ‘ordering principle’ in terms which parallel Fr Holloway’s Law of Control and Direction.

Bringing it together

This article has sought to bring together the thought of Professor Polanyi and Fr Holloway to highlight the similarity of their concerns. However, I end by drawing attention to a difference between them. In the paragraph above Polanyi seems to regard human consciousness as simply the product of the evolutionary process whereas its terminus ad quem for Fr Holloway is the primates. Polanyi accounts for human consciousness in the manner of Teilhard de Chardin. ‘Our race as a whole’, he writes, achieved such personhood by creating its own noosphere’. As we know, Fr Holloway was a trenchant critic of Teilhard. Pace Professor Polanyi, human personhood for Fr Holloway is, in accordance with the Law of Control and Direction, the creation of God not humanity. Nevertheless, there is one further similarity which should be recorded. In the last paragraph of Personal Knowledge, Polanyi describes evolutionary history as ‘the strivings of a myriad centres that have taken the risks of living and believing’ all seeking to make ‘some progress of their own towards an unthinkable consummation.’ He ends his book with the comment, ‘And that is also, I believe, how a Christian is placed when worshipping God’. And here is Fr Holloway, ‘Our knowing is yearning towards more… the end of the search is actually for the Wisdom who is God.’ (C, 105)




Simon Heans

Faith Magazine

November - December 2017