Michael Polanyi & Tacit Knowledge
October 7, 2003 8:59 AM   Subscribe

We can know more than we can tell. Consider The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi. The Tacit Knowledge and Intuition Website has one take on Polanyi's concept of tacit knowing. Karl Erik Sveiby also has an interesting page in Tacit Knowledge and provides you the opportunity to Test Your Tacit Knowledge. Tacit knowledge and Implicit learning provides yet another view. I don't pretend to understand much of this and yet I feel the concept has merit--ah, as Wittgenstein observed, Of that of which we can not speak, we must be silent.
If you know what I mean... *rolls eyes*
posted by y2karl (13 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by soyjoy at 9:21 AM on October 7, 2003

The ability to be aware of where all your body parts are (i.e the nose touching experiment) is often refered to as the sixth sense. As for Mr Polanyi, sounds like he is trying to define the Eureka moment, but his statement that there is no scientific method that can be transmitted as a logical and rigourous method to be learned in textbooks seems way off the mark. Lots of scholars from ancient to modern times have worked solely from manuscripts and textbooks.
posted by zeoslap at 9:24 AM on October 7, 2003

Well, for a fact, if you can learn play guitar or dance ballet from manuscripts ancient or modern, you can learn a hell of a lot faster if someone shows you how. You don't see written instructions for How To Ride A Bicycle and yet one person can help another to learn the skill.

Perhaps Polanyi conflates categories of knowledge but his contention that there is much we know and communicate which is connotative and implicit as opposed to denotative and explicit has much truth to it. Many of the words in my vocabulary were learned unconsciously while reading from context and inference, not by looking up their definitions in a dictionary. Knowledge is a category far larger than language can contain.
posted by y2karl at 10:10 AM on October 7, 2003

Tacit knowledge is not about what is in text books it is about knowing how to reach up and open the text book while watching a pretty girl walking by the window. It is also about such forms of knowledge as how to ride a bike or touch the end of my nose with my eyes shut. But what makes it interesting to me is that it also makes me react in a particular way that may or may not be relevant to a situation just because it is similar in some way to a past, forgotten experience, such as for instance, I am walking down a dark street late at night, and a shadow moves up ahead. My body shifts into fight or flight mode before I have consciously taken in any awareness of impending threat. As I continue to cautiously approach I see that it was only a shrub caught in a gust of wind and my body relaxes again. I wonder how often this sort of tacit knowledge guides our behavior and leads into less than intelligent responses.
posted by donfactor at 10:11 AM on October 7, 2003

> We can know more than we can tell.

Well, duh. If you don't grant this then you're obliged to say of a creature such as an orangutan that can tell you nothing at all, that it therefore must know nothing at all.
posted by jfuller at 10:28 AM on October 7, 2003

The ability to be aware of where all your body parts are (i.e the nose touching experiment) is often refered to as the sixth sense.

It's also called "proprioception." Oliver Sacks' book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, has a story called "The Disembodied Lady" about a woman who loses her proprioception.

Thanks for the links, y2karl. This is one of those posts of yours that I'll be enjoying for some time.
posted by homunculus at 11:15 AM on October 7, 2003

I've been vaguely interested in how this sort of phenomenon appears to be happing with the Internet as it matures. HTTP sits atop TCP/IP. XML-RPC sits atop HTTP and eventually we have Star Trek.

All of this makes me feel better because even on the Enterprise someone will have to know how DNS works and by then all the "young whipper snappers" will have forgotten and I will be free to consult and do syntheroin on the holodeck.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:21 AM on October 7, 2003

Another great post, Karl. Polyani is always challenging. I used to read him a lot back when I was a student. I'm ashamed to say I'd sort of forgotten him. Your reminder was consequently very well received.

He was, of course, a trouble-maker, like all worthwhile scholars.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:37 AM on October 7, 2003

homunculus mentions proprioception, an important aspect of tacit knowledge, but an interesting question arises: Do we have anything like a proproception of thought? Or for that matter, feeling? I mean, is there a way that we can tell when we are reacting to something that only seems real because it resembles something that we imbibed tacitly in the past? I ask this primarily because there is research that shows that our brain senses stimuli and directs our body to react about 100 milliseconds before we consciously know anything about it? In other words, we often react to our reactions and not initially to whatever stimulated them. The upside of this is that tennis players, for example can return 100 mph serves, the downside might be the cause of a lot of the conflict in the world.
posted by donfactor at 3:41 PM on October 7, 2003

Well, from two past posts, here are some angles. First, Antonio Damasio and then, John McCrone's GOING INSIDE
the neuronaut's guide to the science of consciousness
, from here, address these things, at least in part. All this stuff, that is what pitifully little I actually comprehend, is so the Thirteen Blind Wise Men and The Elephant to me.

I found out about Polanyi when talking to someone at work--I was saying something about how much of what happened in social situations was silent--you know, you're at a party and someone says something gauche or inappropriate and everyone rolls their eyes at each other. And then later, people will bring it up and roll their eyes again. I was trying to describe something I thought about--how much we communicate outside of language and she said, Oh, you must read Karl Polanyi... Well, he's talking about something different but interesting on its own.

Paralanguage ha something to do with what I was talking about then, I think. It's certainly something I think about--we express so much in the tone and amplitude of our voices. And then there are facial expressions. The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs, & Body Language Cues is about that. (We had a post about that and I wnated to give the poster props for it but it can't be retrieved. There's posts of mine I can't retrieve, post of others, and links in the comments to them, and they can't be acceseed anymore. That annoys me so--we lose that stuff and that's it--this place is a library of information and we are losing volumes all over. I hate that so much.)

You can convey these nuances in text but it takes a lot of words and in its high form is known as literature. It's so hard to convey sarcasm or irony in comments here or in email--it's so easy to read things into what someone has written or miss what they really meant to say. I am constantly amazed how we can make so much or so little out of what each other says here. There is so much confusion.
posted by y2karl at 12:28 AM on October 8, 2003

y2karl, Thanks for the link to the Dictionary of Gestures, Signs and Body Language Cues. Terrific. I might recommend the final entry, 'zygomatic smile' and the sub-heading, media. Well worth reading especially in light of the recent events in California and prospects for the future.
posted by donfactor at 3:30 AM on October 8, 2003

I pray that I live long enough to grok Polanyi. I was introduced to him via Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing: The Life and Thought of Michael Polanyi, by Mars Hill Audio. I was inspired to buy Personal Knowledge Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy and read it. I predict that Polanyi will endure as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. I like him so much I started a Wikipedia article about him.
posted by tbc at 11:48 PM on October 8, 2003

Thanks to y2karl et al. for the links and the discussion ... plenty to return to here over the coming days. I'm just trying to get the hang of Polanyi at then moment so this is very useful for me.
posted by carter at 8:02 AM on October 9, 2003

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