The Poetics of Thought

The Explicit

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on November 19, 2009

The term ‘explicit’ which Polanyi uses within his epistemological system has a range of applications outside of that usage.  In popular culture it has come to mean sexually provocative or, when applied to rap music for example, to mean containing uncensored and possibly offensive speech.  As far as the origins of the term go, whilst they may appear to lie elsewhere, they do suggest a continuity which embraces these contemporary vernacular uses and Polanyi’s application of the word to a form of knowledge.  Explicit comes from the Latin explicitus which translates as ‘to unfold’ or ‘to roll out’ (Hoad, 1986), and traces of the plicitus can be found in the modern usage plait of hair or plywood.  As noted in the same source, the words explicitus est liber could often be found at the end of medieval manuscripts where today we might find The End. The location of this sentence at the end of piece of writing makes literal and appropriate sense when that writing takes the form of a scroll, which is where one would originally find them.  In arriving at that point of the writing, the ‘explication’, one had literally unrolled the knowledge into the world and hence made it ‘explicit’.   The examples of modern usage in sexually-loaded images or potentially-offensive language can be seen to follow that tradition in metaphorical form.  The pornographic picture is explicitly provocative because it does not lie dormant on the page, but is felt to unfurl across the space between image and viewer and seems to touch his passions directly.  The obscenities and violence found in the lyrics to some music may, in this sense, be thought of as the unfolding of an arm and the throwing of a punch out at the listener.     The explicit knowledge of Polanyi shows a family resemblance to these metaphorical instantiations, and indeed to a raft of other uses, all of which link some work of the intellect to an outgoing occupation of space.

Walter Ong includes this term amongst those which he saw as relating knowing not only to the occupation of space, but also to vision, ‘when knowledge is likened to sight it becomes pretty exclusively a matter of explanation or explication, a laying out on a surface, perhaps in chart-like form, or an unfolding, to present maximum exteriority’ (Ong, 1977: 123).  There is the sense that the knowing which can be described, articulated, proposed, and declared, has extended itself outward from the person of the speaker, carving a clear path through space such that it stands as an object at the end of that path.

The close allegiance of the notion of the explicit is thoroughly exploited in Rebecca Schneider’s ‘The Explicit Body in Performance’(1997).  As part of a series of closely argued propositions about, particularly, the status and objectification of women in relation to body-based arts practice she says that:

Habits of perspectival vision have emblematically placed the female body at the vanishing point even as the primary scene or landscape of representation is feminized. … I argue that certain tenets of pespectival vision, particular the removed, invisible viewer, are still very much at play even in so-called antiocular economies of vision. (1997: 7)

I would not wish to unpack this paragraph in its entirety in terms of the various conceptual metaphors of space that it draws upon and which allow it to make a certain kind of sense; What we might note at this point is that the term explicit is clearly being adopted because of its implication of an unfolding across (possibly contested) space.  This application of the schema is used by Schneider along with a set of understandings concerning the politics of space, gaze, and objects.

We can see from these examples of other usage that Polanyi’s choice of the term ‘explicit’ to indicate a form of knowledge places it within the range of a particular set of metaphors and inferences.  In each case the explicit is that which is out there in the open, in plain sight and the light that sight requires.  It is laid out before us and stands apart from us.

HOAD, T. F. (1986) The Concise Oxford dictionary of English etymology, Oxford, Clarendon.


ONG, W. J. (1977) “I See What You Say”: Sense Analogues for Intellect. IN ONG, W. J. (Ed.) Interfaces of the word:Studies in the evolution of consciousness and culture. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press.

SCHNEIDER, R. (1997) The explicit body in performance, London; New York, Routledge.

The Tacit Dimension

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on November 16, 2009

Leanard and Sensiper, writing on the role of ‘tacit knowledge’ in group innovation make the following claim:

Knowledge exists on a spectrum.  At one extreme, it is almost completely tacit, that is semiconscious and unconscious knowledge held in people’s heads and bodies.  At the other end of the spectrum, knowledge is almost completely explicit or codified, structured and accessible to people other than the individuals originating it.  Most knowledge of course exists between the extremes.  Explicit elements are objective, rational and created in the ‘then and there’, while the tacit elements are subjective experiential and created in the ‘here and now’. (1998: 113)

These terms, ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’ come from the writings of Michael Polanyi and signify types of knowing which it may be informative to relate to the overall schema informing this essay.  In Polanyi’s terms, explicit knowledge is simply that which can be communicated in symbolic form and has some overlap with ‘propositional’ or ‘declarative’ knowledge.  Explicit knowledge is typically ‘know that’ in character and corresponds with that which can be written, spoken, represented diagrammatically, or articulated in the form of instructions, rules, laws, and heuristics.  Explicit knowledge, in metaphorical terms, approaches the condition of the object in that it can be fixed, outlined, and rendered permanent through its encoding into language or other form.

The concept of tacit knowledge has been extended by writers since Polanyi such that it is sometimes taken to include almost any form of knowledge which is simply not expressed, (Leonard and Sensiper, 1998, Koskinen and Vanharanta, 2002).  Polanyi’s original understanding of the term was more precise however.  Polanyi saw tacit knowledge as providing the fundamental components from which other, more explicit forms of knowing might proceed, and as underpinning the most apparently autonomous, conscious, and explicit, see Tsoukas (1996).  Tacit knowledge may include the linguistic and cultural contextual information which is necessary for an article of knowledge to be understood, or in a more physically embodied sense, it might consist of those elements of perception which are unavailable to consciousness but nevertheless contribute to conscious observation.  In the essay ‘The Structure of Consciousness’ in Knowing and Being, (1969)  Polanyi gives the example of our ability to see the world in three dimensions.  This ability is the result of our having two eyes, set a few inches apart, each capturing a slightly different version of the visual field.  These two images, combined with the extra information provided by the differences between them, are processed by the visual system in the brain to produce the final image which is presented to consciousness; an image containing the dimension of ‘depth’ that was not present in either of the originating images.  What is significant here is that the images presented separately to the left and right eyes are not available to us consciously, and in fact we would have no way of bringing these images to consciousness (apart from closing one eye of course, which simultaneously dismisses this kind of depth perception).  The three dimensional image, which Polanyi referred to as constituting our ‘focal awareness’ cannot be decomposed back into its constituent ‘subsidiary’ elements.   Whilst the observable scene is explicit and can be spoken of descriptively, the subsidiary materials from which it emerges are necessarily tacit and, whilst obviously ‘known’, inasmuch as they figure in the process of cognition and composition, necessarily remain in silence.   As Polanyi observed in The Tacit Dimension, ‘we can know more than we can tell’, (Polanyi, 1983: 4).

It is significant that, for Polanyi, the processes through which tacit knowledge is composed and utilized do not necessarily ever become available as explicit knowledge.  Rather, such accumulations of subsidiary sensation and experience give rise to the play of hunches, guesses, intuitive leaps, and gut responses which he referred to as ‘passions’.   Tacit knowledge is not sterile and distant, but is rather threaded throughout with emotion and responses close to the heart of the person.  It is this understanding which underpins and gives the name to Polanyi’s best known work, ‘Personal Knowledge’ (Polanyi, 1958).

Other Knowledge Binaries

Like the distinction that Polanyi makes between tacit and explicit knowledge, many taxonomies of knowledge rely on an apparent binary division which separates what are seen as two prototypically different forms of knowing.  A list of such pairings, particularly as they are applied to mathematics, is provided by Haapsalo and Kadijevic

• conceptual vs. practical knowledge

• manifest (structural) vs. instrumental content

• knowing that – knowing how

• declarative vs. procedural knowledge

• facts/propositional vs. skills/procedural knowledge

• hierarchies of cognitive units – condition-action rules

• relational representations – condition-action rules

• understanding – algorithmic performance

• conceptual competence – procedural competence

• rich vs. poor in relationships/algorithms

• theological vs. schematic knowledge

• deductive vs. empirical knowledge

• meaningful vs. mechanical knowledge

• logical/relational vs. instrumental understanding

• connected networks – sequences of actions

• connections between conceptions – computational skills

• words specifying concept – mental images/processes

• definitions/connections – rules/connotations

• proceptual vs. procedural thinking

• structural vs. operational thinking

(2000: 141)


HAAPASALO, L. & KADIJEVICH, D. (2000) Two Types of Mathematical Knowledge and Their Relation. Journal für Mathematik-Didaktik, 21, 139-157.


KOSKINEN, K. U. & VANHARANTA, H. (2002) The role of tacit knowledge in innovation processes of small technology companies. International Journal of Production Economics, 80, 57-64.

LEONARD, D. & SENSIPER, S. (1998) The role of tacit knowledge in group innovation. California Management Review, 40, 112-132.

POLANYI, M. (1958) Personal knowledge: towards a post-critical philosophy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

POLANYI, M. (1969) Knowing and Being, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

POLANYI, M. (1983) The tacit dimension, Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith 1983.

TSOUKAS, H. (1996) The Firm as a Distributed Knowledge System: A Constructionist Approach. Strategic Management Journal, 17, 11-25.

Metaphors of Subjective and Objective Knowledge

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on November 12, 2009

What I would like to argue in upcoming posts is that there are a set of fairly coherent metaphors which articulate the different forms of thought that we refer to as ‘knowledge’.  In order to open these metaphors out I want to use the familiar (although problematic) distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ knowledge as an axis around which other understandings might turn.  The dominant metaphors that I want to lay out across this axis are as follows:

Proximity/Distance – I will suggest that objectivity is characterised using metaphors of distance, such that the object of this knowledge (what I will refer to as the ‘knowledge entity’) is placed at some remove from the body, detached from physical contact.  Conversely, those knowledge entities which might be understood as ‘subjective’ are conceived of as being proximal to the body with no sense of detachment.  This proximity of the subjective might be such that close contact is extended into a sense of interiorisation.

Sensory Modality – Correlating with the proximity/distance metaphorical schema, the play of sensory modality metaphors understands different locations on the subjective/objective axis as falling within range of the different senses.  Objective ‘distant’ knowledge entities are predominantly conceptualised using metaphors of sight, appropriate for objects at some remove.  Subjectively proximal or interior knowledge entities on the other hand are metaphorically accessed through the poetics of taste, smell, and touch.  Other entailments of sensory modality are implied in this construction; so, for example, the objective detachment which projects knowledge entities into the realm of the metaphorically visual also suggests the presence of light which makes that vision possible.

Materiality – This third set of metaphors is applied to the knowledge entity itself and draws upon the variables which mark out the distinctions between objects within lived experience.  Knowledge entities which approach the condition of the objective  tend to be figured as materially solid, well-bounded, resiliant, opaque, and possessing mass and weight.  Conversely, those up-close and personal entities of subjective knowledge usually present themselves with opposite characteristics; they tend toward the  evanescant, vaporous, transparent, fragile, fuzzy, motile, and often weightless and ephemeral.