The Poetics of Thought

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.

One Response

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  1. Kaposvári Márk said, on November 16, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    this distinction reminds me of your recent video on the “visual unconscious” which is also a tacit kind of dimension that could inform the more explicit and highly constructed dimension, but I guess I overdraw the analogy here,
    but one more thing,
    about the relationship between motion and cognition,
    today I had a rather shallow realization, I say shallow, because it seems obvious, yet I haven’t made the connection yet (the tacit did not turn into explicit so far)
    it’s nothing fancy, just that when Llinas talks about intelligent (internalized) motion as being the bedrock of human cognition one could immediately draw the connection between complex movement and the subsequent complexity of image-schemas and
    full stop 🙂

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