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Michael Polanyi, Edward Shils, Karl Mannheim, tradition, ideology, Louis Wirth, University of Chicago


Edward Shils began as a sociologist under the close mentorship of Louis Wirth, with whom he collaborated on the translation of Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia. After 1940, however, Shils’ career, which had been focused on topics in sociology, notably the class and occupational structure of cities and on German Sociological Theory, took an apparent turn, which in 1946 led him into a relationship with Michael Polanyi, a half-time appointment at the London School of Economics, and a new intellectual direction. Part of the biographical background to this was personal: his relationship with Wirth ended, and with it his expectation of a Ph.D. and his role in the Sociology Department. Yet his new direction had Chicago roots in his work on Mannheim, and his relation to Frank Knight and the planning disputes of the 1930s and 40s.

Richard Moodey’s fascinating discussion (2012) needs no addition, but it might be useful to say something about Edward Shils’ personal trajectory that adds to his autobiography, and is relevant, though in obscure ways, to his motivations in relation both to Parsons and Polanyi. The story of Shils’ relation to Talcott Parsons is still unwritten, and may never be fully understood. Clearly there was a moment of intellectual excitement during the creation of the general theory of action. Shils’ own account of their work together captures some of this. But there is a biographical background to Shils’ (however brief) enthusiasm that sheds some small light on the relation of Shils and Polanyi and on Shils’ unusual and indeed frenetic efforts to connect to the larger intellectual community, represented for him by Polanyi, and on the specific form that this took.

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Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, v. 39, issue 3, p. 43-51

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