George Pólya and the Heuristic Tradition
Fascination with Genius in Central Europe

Tibor Frank

Fin-de-siècle Hungary‘s new generation was brought up and intrigued by the phenomenon of genius and the delusive nature of scientific discovery and problem solving. Dontemporary Europe was fascinated and, indeed, thrilled by genius, and the subject seemed particularly relevant in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, well before World War I. Cesare Lomboroso‘s landmark study on genius and insanity (Genio e follia, 1864) was translated into German in 1887; his L‘uomo di genio in rapporto alla psichiatria (1889), in 1890. Hermann Trück published a highly successful study on genius in 1896 in Berlin, Albert Reibmayer described talent and genius in Munich in 1908 in two volumes, and Wilhelm Ostwald studied the biology of genius in Leipzig, 1910. Ernst Kretschmer published his 1919 university lectures on genius in 1929, shortly after the appearance of W. Lange-Eichbaum‘s volume on genius and madness[1]. Research in Germany obviously influenced, or at least coincided with, Lewis M. Terman‘s Stanford studies on genius. Actually, both the German and the American studies on intelligence were based largely on the French Binet-Simon intelligence test, which was adapted for the needs of several countries (e.g. the Stanford-Binet Scale developed by Termen in teh U.S., as well as Bobertag in Germany, Jadeerholm in Sweden, Mátyás Éltes in Hungary). Considerable interest was shown in the subject in contemporary Hungary, as indicated by Henriette von Szirmay-Pulszky‘s study of genius and insanity among Hungarian intellectuals[2], as well as József Somogyi‘s book on talent and eugenics[3]. Psychologist Géza Révész studied talent and genius through his entire career, culminating in his 1952 book on Talent und Genie[4].

To be sure, Central Europe was dazzled and perpelexed by the secrets of the mind and its workings, and the processes of understanding/knowing, intuition/perpection, intelligence/intellect came to be recognized as central issues in the sciences and humanities of German-speaking Europe. In 1935 Karl Duncker of the University of Berlin provided a summary of the psychology of productive thinking[5]. To those trained by the German literature on the subject, including several generations of Hungarian scientists and scholars, the plethora of work done on productive thinking in German provided copious introductions into the theory of knowledge, the biology of talent, ant the philosophy of problem solving. Much of the interest in the theory of knowledge and of knowing was generated in Vienna, where philosophers such as Professors Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann contributed significantly to the development of a scientific interpretation of the workings of the mind. Mach‘s main concern was the relationship between everyday thinking and scientific reasoning[6]. Franz Brentano and his students, Kasimir Twardowski and Christian von Ehrenfels, were active in the field of phenomenology and knowledge, and had an important role in the philosophical study of the language[7]. From Vienna, these new ideas and trends spread quickly to Budapest.

Mach‘s work had considerable influence on contemporary European philosopheers and scientists such as the English Sir Oliver Lodge and Karl Pearson, the Russian A. Bogdanov, and the Austrian Friedrich Adler, the assassin of Austrian Prime Minister Count Karl von Stürgkh. These works became a target of vicious critical attack by V. I. Lenin in his defense of Marxism in 1908 for „the old absurdity of philosophical subjective idealism”[8]. It is remarkable how the anti-Marxist, non-Marxist, pseudo-Marxist scholarship, and particularly Ernst Mach‘s work, influenced the philosophical tradition in Central Europe, including Germany, Austria and Hungary[9]. Apart from the actual content of Mach‘s studies, their philosophical and political implications were also relevant in the region, making a lasting impact on liberal thinkers who endeavored to maintain an anti-totalitarian stance in an age of political and doctrinal dictatorships. Albert Einstein extensively used Mach‘s epistemology and physics, including „Mach‘s Principle”, in his theory of general realitivity[10].

The anti-Marxian roots of liberal thought contributed to the estrangement of Hungarian émigré scholars and scientists such as Michael Polanyi and Oscar Jászi after the Soviet takeover of 1945 and contributed in turn to their anti-Societ attitudes. Apart from directly political reasons, this framework may be helpful in understanding the seemingly unconditional support given to the U.S. military and to NATO during the Cold War period by scientists such as John von Neumann, Theodore von Kármán, Karl Mannheim and most notably Edward Teller. The philosophical underprinnings of the antitotalitarian politics of Hungary‘s émigré professional can thus be traced back to the traditional idealistic approach to science in Central Europe, and the corresponding Weltanschauung, a legacy amanating from Berkeley through Einstein.

The notion of a new type of learning, utilizing problem solving and the heuristic method came to be proposed by European immigrant scientists and mathematicians, several of them Hungarians. By the end of World War I, young Karl Mannheim had already written his doctoral dissertation in Budapest on the structural analysis of the theory of knowledge. The dissertation became well-known after being published in Grman in 1922 as Die Strukturanalyse der Erkenntnistheorie. Mannheim drew heavily on the work of the Hungarian philosopher Béla Zalai, who, though largely forgotten today, was instrumental in presenting the question of systematization as a central issue in Hungarian philosophy. In 1918 Mannheim referred to a 1911 article by Zalai on the problem of philosophical systematization[11].

In a related field, heuristics was suggested as a „tactics of problem solving”, „an interdisciplinary no man‘s land which could be claimed by scientists and philosophers, logicians and psychologists, educationalists and computer experts”[12]. Fascionation with the subject among émigré Hungarians is probably best demonstrated by three impoprtant books by author Arthur Koestler. Sharing the background of many of the Hungarian scientists in exile, Koestler was intrigued by the „act of creation” for a long time after World War II (Insight and Outlook, 1949; The Sleepwalkers, 1959; The Act of Creation, 1964). While working on his books, Koestler regularly consulted some of his illustrious Hungarian friends in England such as Nobel Laureate Dennis Gabor or Michael Polanyi and once went to Stanford specifically to discuss the matter with George Pólya[13]. The tradition of heuristics is deeply European, going back to antiquity (Euclid, Pappus and Proclus) and to forerunners of modern Western thought such as Descartes and Leibniz. Heuristic thinking reached the Habsburg Empire relatively early where it became part of Bernar Bolzano‘s philosophy: his Wissenschaftslehre (1837) already contained an extensive chapter on „Erfindungskunst”, meaning heuristics. Through the questionable services of his disciple Robert Zimmermann, who possibly plagiarized much of Bolzano‘s original book and published many of his master‘s ideas under his own name in a popular and widespread textbook called Philosophische Propädeutik (1853). These ideas reached a wide audience, and Erfindungskunst became an integral part of the philosophical canon of the Habsburg Monarchy just before the great generation of scientists and scholars was about to be born[14].

The American Origins of Problem Solving

The Origins of problem solving as a way of thinking particularly associated with the American heritage go back to the pioneering spirit of the frontier times. Its value was first recognized as a necessity for the development of tactics and strategies that the American people could use to perform their daily tasks in creating the United States, and their own lives in the new countra.

The first serious American psychologist to emphasize learning as the definition of intelligence was Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949), who in a 1921 symposium defined intelligence as the ability to give good responses to questions[15]. The concept of learning took on practical characteristics in regard to problem solving as pertaining not only to survival in the harsh circumstances of the frontier, but also to the newly emerging American tradition of self-help and success. This became an ideal upheld by subsequent generations of American social scientists, authors and businessmen throughout the latter half of the 19th century. The doctrine of self-help and success became, indeed, an American myth and this dream „penetrated, in some guise, every major activity of the period: the new immigration, the rise of socialism, the agrarian revolution (and the exodus of country boys and girls to the city), the march of technology, the growth of corporate business and labor unionism, and more”[16].

In a pioneering inquiry into the nature of problems and the solutions to a problem, Michael Polanyi defined one of the most crucial questions of his generation: „To recognize a problem which can be solved and is worth wolving is in fact a discovery in its own right”. Declaring this as the creed of his generation in his 1957 article for The British Journal the Philosophy of Science[17], Polanyi spoke for, and spoke of his generation when discussing originality and invention, discovery and heuristic act, investigation and problem solving. The interpretative frame of the educated mind is ever ready to mett somewhat novel experiences and to deal with them in a somewhat novel manner. But genius makes contact with reality on an exceptionally wide range: by seeing problems and reaching out to hidden possibilities for solving them, far beyond the anticipatory powers of current conceptions. Moreover, by deploying such powers in an exceptional measure-far surpassing our own as onlookers-the work of genius offers us a massive demonstration of a creativity which can never be explained in other terms nor taken unquestioningly for granted[18].

Next part


1. Cesare Lombroso, Genie und Irrsin (Übersetzt von A. Courth; Leipzig: Reclam, 1887), Hermann Türck Der geniale Mensch (7. Aufl., Berlin: Dümmlers, 1910),

Dr. Albert Reibmayr, Die Entwicklungsgeschichte des Talentes und Genies, Vols. I-II (München: J. F. Lehmanns, 1908), Wilhelm Ostwald, Grosse Männer (Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft m.b.H., 1910), W. Lange-Eichbaum, Genie, Irrsinn und Ruhm(München: Ernst Reinhardt, 1928), Ernst Kretschmer, Geniale Menschen (2. Aufl. Berlin: Julius Springer, 1931), W. Lange-Eichbaum, Das Genie-Problem (München: Ernst Reinhardt, 1931).

2. H. Von Szirmay-Pulszky, Genie und Irrsinn im Ungarischen Geistesleben (Müchen: Ernst Reinhardt, 1935)

3. Dr. József Somogyi, Tehetség és eugenika. A tehetség biológiai, pszichológiai és szociológiai vizsgálata (Budapest: Eggenberger, 1934)

4. Géza Révész, Das frühzeitige Auftreten der Begabung und ihre Erkennung (Leipzig, 1921), The Psychology of a Musical Prodigy (London, 1925), Das Schöpferisch-Persönliche und das Kollektive in ihrem kulturhistorischen Zusammenhang (Tübingen, 1933), Talent und Genie (Bern, 1952)

5. Dr. Karl Duncker, Zur Psychologie des produktiven Denkens (Berlin: Julius Springer, 1935)

6. Ernst Mach, Erkenntnis und Irrtum. Skizzen zur Psychologie der Forschung (2nd ed. Leipzig: Barth, 1906), p. XI.

7. Peter Weibel, „Das Goldene Quadrupel: Physik, Philosophie, Erkenntnistheorie, Sprachkritik. Die Schwelle des 20. Jahrhunderts: Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung in Wien um 1900”, in: Wien um 1900. Kunst und Kultur (Wien-München: Christian Brandstätter, 1985), 407-418; J.C. Nyíri, „Ehrenfels und Masaryk: Überlegungen an der Peripherie der Geschichte”. In. Am Rande Europas. Studien zur österreichisch-ungarischen Philosophiegeschichte (Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 1988), pp. 40-67.

8. V. I. Lenin, Materialism an Empirio-Criticism. Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy (1st ed. 1908; London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1950), p. 93.

9. Péter Hanák, „Ernst Mach und die Position des Phänomenalismus in der Wissenschaftsgeschichte”, in Europa um 1900 (Berlin, 1989), pp. 265-282.

10. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990), Vol. 7. p. 631; cf. Albert Einstein, „Principles of Research”, Address before the Physical Society in Berlin, 1918; „Geometry and Experience”, Lecture before the Prussian Academy of Sciences, January 27, 2921; „On the Theory of Relativity”, Lecture at King‘s College in London, 1921; „Physics and Reality”, The Journal of the Franklin Institute, Vol. 221, No. 3, March 1936, republished in Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Bonanza Books, 1954) pp. 227, 239, 248, 303.

11. Karl Mannheim, Die Strukturanalyse der Erkenntnistheorie, Kant-Studien, Ergänzungband, No. 57, Berlin, 1922. (Hungarian original: Az ismeretelmélet szerkezeti elemzése, Athenaeum, 1918); Béla Zalai, „A filozófiai rendszerezés problémái”, [The Problem of Philosophical Systematization] A Szellem, 1911, No. 2, pp. 159-186; Vilmos Szilasi, A tudati rendszerezés elméletérõl. Bevezetés [On the Theory of Systematization of the Mind. Introduction] Cf. Otto Beöthy, „Zalai Béla (1882-1915). Egy pálya emlékezete”, [Béla Zalai (1882-1915). The Memory of a Life], in: Endre Kiss and Kristóf János Nyíri, eds., A magyar filozófiai gondolkodás a századelõn [Hungarian Philosophy at the Turn of the Century] (Budapest: Kossuth, 1977), pp. 228-231.

12. George Polya, „Methodology or Heuristics, Strategy or Tactics?” Archives de Philosophie, Tome 34, Cahier 4, Octobre-Décembre 1971, pp. 623-629, quote p. 624.

13. Arthur Koestler, Insight and Outlook: An Inquiry into the Common Foundations of Science, Art and Social Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1949); The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man‘s Changing Vision of the Universe (New York: Grosser & Dunlap, 1959); The Act of Creation (New York: Macmillan, 1964). Cf. M[enachen] M. Schiffer, „George Polya, 1887-1985”, George Polya Papers, SC 337, 87-034, Box 1, Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, CA; cf. Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, op. cit. p. 23; Béla Hidegkuti, „Arthur Koestler and Michael Polanyi: Two Hungarian Minds in Partnership in Britain”, Polanyiana, Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 1-81.

14. Eduard Wienter, Hrg., Robert Zimmermanns Philosphische Propädeutik und die Vorlagen aus der Wissenschaftslehre Bernard Bolzanos. Eine Documentation zur Geschichte des Denkens und der Erziehung in der Donaumonarchie (Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1975), pp. 7-36. Cf. Bernard Bolzanos Wissenschaftslehre: Versuch einer ausführlichen und grösstenheils neuen Darstellung der Logik mit steter Rücksicht auf deren bisherige Bearbeiter (Sulzbach: J. E. v. Seidel, 1837)

15. R[obert] J. St[ernberg], „Human Intelligence”, The New Encyclopaedia Britennica (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990), Vol. 21, p. 710. Cf. Donald O. Hebb, Textbook of Psychology (Philadelphia-London-Toronto: W.B. Saunders, 1972)

16. Kermit Vanderbilt, „The Gospel of Self-Help and Success in the Gilded Age”, in Robert Allen Skotheim, Michael McGiffert, eds., American Social Thought: Sources and Interpretations, Vol. II: Since the Civil War (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1972), p. 6.

17. Michael Polanyi, „Problem Solving”, The british Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. VIII. No. 30. August 1957, pp. 89-103; quote p. 89.

18. Polanyi, Problem Solving, op. cit. pp. 93-94.

Next part Back to Contents

Polanyiana Volume 6, Number 2, 1997