Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The ‘Data Information Knowledge Wisdom Hierarchy’ is an epistemological system usually associated with Russell Ackoff (Ackoff, 1989) although elements of it are prefigured in the work of Milan Zeleny (1987), and in more poetic form in T.S. Eliot (above) and in the lyrics of a song by Frank Zappa.
To introduce this model, a brief description of what is meant by the ‘Data Information Knowledge Wisdom Hierarchy’ is in order. As indicated in the name, the model organises the range of epistemological phenomena into four categories, these are:
- Data – this indicates the set of individual facts, figures, sensory impressions, etc. Data is regarded as essentially meaningless, although it is the raw material from which meaning is derived.
- Information – is regarded as data which has undergone some kind of organisation. Data sets may be divided into categories according to some criteria; individual data items may be linked together according to some salient feature.
- Knowledge – this is, essentially, information which has been internalised by the person such that they might put it to use. An important feature of knowledge is that, whereas information and data may reside in texts, objects, and events, knowledge acquisition, ownership, and transfer can only be effected by human agents.
- Wisdom – this is seen as the possession of knowledge such that one is able not only to observe patterns of information within data and make intelligent connections between different patterns, but also to feel the principles which underlie the patterns themselves. Wisdom allows one to see these various patterns in their contexts and to be able to remain independent of immersion in that context oneself.
What I want to argue is that this model draws on certain key metaphors. These are partially spatial metaphors which, I will argue, map coherently onto those outlined in my previous analysis of ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’ knowledge in the work of Michael Polanyi (and indeed to the less formal ideas of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ knowledge). In addition though, a close reading of the Data Information Knowledge Wisdom distinctions reveals a set of metaphors drawn not only from the properties of space but also to the properties of objects, specifically the substantial properties of hardness and softness, lightness and heaviness, liquidity, granularity, and evanescence.
Data is understood primarily as a physical resource, and the metaphorical form of this resource has a number of properties which distinguish it from information and knowledge. Firstly it is conceptualised as a large number of individual, separate, atomistic, entities, like an aggregate of small stones, or a pile of leaves blown by the wind. Items of data have an ontological irreducibility which prevents their being understood as composites themselves; just as when one is collecting pebbles from the beach one would not think to increase one’s collection by splitting each pebble in half, so individual datum cannot be divided. Data is also understood as pre-existing any efforts to effect its collection; we conceive it as simply ‘out there’ waiting for some kind of exploratory practice to discover it. Such entities might be ‘collected’, ‘mined’, ‘gathered’, or ‘stored’; on the other hand, because items of data are unconnected to every other item, they might also easily be lost, fall away from one another, disaggregate, or slip through the cracks.
 The 1979 song ‘Packard’s Goose’ by Frank Zappa, on the Album ‘Joe’s Garage Act II and III contains the lines: Information is not knowledge/Knowledge is not wisdom/Wisdom is not truth/Truth is not beauty/Beauty is not love/Love is not music/and Music is THE BEST.(Tower Records, 1979).
ACKOFF, R. L. (1989) From Data to Wisdom. Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, 16, 3-9.
ELIOT, T. S. (1934) The Rock, Faber & Faber.
ZELENY, M. (1987) Management Support Systems: Towards Integrated Knowledge Management. Human Systems Management, 7, 59-70.
The other term in Polanyi’s apparent binary is, as already noted, ‘tacit’, and is familiar from its derivative, ‘taciturn’. (‘Apparent’ because they are neither complementary not opposite, as Polanyi himself indicates they are terms which describe the structure of a ‘dimension’, not separate and isolated alternatives ). Both words have in common their origins in silence, and in that which is passed over in silence. The difference that makes a difference is that, whilst taciturn suggests a reluctance or unwillingness to speak, tacit does not offer even the possibility. . Paralleling the physical principle of ‘subsidiary awareness’ outlined above, to be tacit is to be constitutive of expressibility but to take no part in that expression. Though it has position within the body of the speaker, that position is disposition. In contrast to explicit knowledge which folds out in the direction of a metaphorically external, distant object, tacit knowledge stays close to home and the condition of the subject. In the spectrum of knowing and being, tacit knowledge blends into being.
The overall image that Polanyi provides is one in which an understanding of knowledge and knowing maps onto our experience of being the being at the centre of phenomenal space and makes consistent use of metaphors of space as well as the different sensory modalities which function at different spatial removes. That which is tacit and which is close to us, or which is interior to us, does not extend into space and cannot be visualized and objectified. If it is sensed at all this sense is felt rather than observed, a sensorial engagement appropriate to its proximal intimacy. That knowledge which is tacit is held in the necessary silence of our being. As knowledge becomes explicit it coalesces into another being beyond the limits of our skin and the limits of our arms. Performing its primal act, knowledge rolls out toward the horizon, leading our eyes to the object created by that unfolding.
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.
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
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.
The concept of ‘knowledge’ covers a wide variety of different expressions, with a correspondingly wide range of applications, values, and inclusions. A small sample of these might include: objective, subjective, tacit, explicit, declarative, propositional, carnal, occult, procedural, possessive, performative, proactive, and situated. Whilst some of these terms come in pairs, the tacit/explicit binary for example, most of them appear unconnected one to another and their coexistence within an overall category that one might call ‘knowledge’ seems a matter of convenience rather than structure. The diversity in these terms appears to offer no overall epistemological picture which we might use to relate the different terms, and likewise the objects and events to which these terms are applied, the contents of all these different types of knowing, can also appear unconnected. And to the extent that such contents of knowing are related, in the dewey decimal system of libraries, encyclopedia, school and university prospectuses, and in the various ‘trees’ of knowledge that have been produced, such relationship smacks of the arbitrary. A good example of such trees include that centerpiece of Enlightenment thought, the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers of Diderot and D’Alembert, with its exhaustive arboreal analysis of not only rational knowledge but also poetics, metaphysics, and Black Magic. Whilst such a mapping may give the appearance of connectedness and ultimately of coherence, this is ultimately an exercise in taxonomy rather than structure, of categorization rather than consilience.
We might be tempted to say that knowledge organization has moved on considerably since the 18th century when the Encyclopédie was written, and it is certainly true that few modern encyclopedias would give the same page space to divination as to the dressing of chamois leather which one finds in Diderot and D’Alembert. However, in terms of the development of a coherent image of how the different forms of knowing operate little has changed, and improvements have largely consisted of the cultivation of those branches of the tree which support the weight of scientific progress, and the vigorous pruning of those limbs which do not.
Taxonomic strategies of knowledge organization do not reveal the inner working of the great body of knowledge, rather they place the bones here, the viscera there, substituting the living pattern that connects with the geometrical placing of body parts in neatly labeled amphora.
What I will be arguing here is that knowledge in all of its forms does have a coherence, and that this coherence comes from the way our minds and our bodies work in relation to that knowledge.
“Walking return the body to its original limits again, to something supple, sensitive, and vulnerable, but walking itself extends into the world as do those tools that augment the body. The path is an extension of walking, the places set aside for walking are monuments to that pursuit, and walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it. Thus the waling body can be traced in the places it has made, paths, parks, and sidewalks are traces of the acting out of imagination and desire; walking sticks, shoes, maps, canteens, and backpacks are further material results of that desire. Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world” (Solnit. 2001: p.29).
The last part of the Mark Johnson quotation that I have been drawing upon for this section of the writing cites ‘bodily movement’ as one of the capacities within which meaning and thought emerge. By this I take him to mean that moving is a coherent, organised activity involving a set of eidetic invariants which give the act of moving a schematic structure. The structured cognition that represents the act of moving is then available for repurposing such that other kinds of conceptual content can be organised using this structure. Later in this writing I will indicate some examples of how this might work.
Some of the particular structures that moving provides emerge from the way perception changes as the body moves through space. A walk through a forest or through a city causes the sights before one’s eyes to change from a single static viewpoint to a seeing that is set in motion; trees come into new alignments as one passes them and the pebble on the path up ahead grows in size as the body moves toward it. The sounds of those birds on the fence to your left becomes the sounds of birds behind you, growing quieter and quieter as you proceed until their song is lost among the approaching sound of cars on the road up ahead.
SOLNIT, R. (2001). Wanderlust: a history of walking. London, Verso.