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.
Although the structure of this project is inevitably going to be revised during the course of its construction, this is the current map I have in my mind of how it will proceed.
Part One – Coming to one’s Senses (Making Sense)
This first part will introduce the background of ideas through which we might begin to understand what the term ‘poetics of thought’ might mean. I will be tracing a philosophical and scientific trajectory out of evolutionary theory, particularly understandings concerning the evolution of mind. This will be extended mainly through the philosophical traditions of phenomenology and into cognitive science, Central to this will be the proposition that the cerebral activity we call ‘thought’ was originally no more than a set of cognitive and sensory mechanisms for negotiating the physical environment in which our ancestors were embedded. Then I will be addressing the question of how it is that a middle-sized social biped with this limited and contingent cognitive system can begin to think not only of the concrete and perceivable stuff of lived experience; the trees, and tigers, and potential mates that its mind evolved to recognise and engage with, but also the abstract ideas that dominate the thoughts of modern humans; love, science, art, politics, religion, all concepts that make no impact on the senses whatsoever and yet make the greatest of sense and are what modern human life is all about. This making sense, this meaningful sense-making, I will argue, is best understood as poetry. This theme will be developed with reference to psychoanalysis, particularly to the work of James Hillman; to the various poetics of Gaston Bachelard and others, and to recent explorations within cognitive linguistics and experiential philosophy, particularly the seminal work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and others. By the end of this section I want the groundwork to be laid for an understanding perhaps best summed up by Mark Johnson when he writes that “Meaning and thought emerge from our capacity for perception, object manipulation, and bodily movement”.
Part Two – Empirical Knowledge and other kinds of Poetry
In this part of the project I want to begin to distinguish different forms of thought and the poetic devices which are used to allow these distinctions to operate. Although a number of different types of mental content will be considered; fantasy, belief, hope, desire, hypothesis; a central concern will be the idea of ‘knowledge’, particularly rational empirical knowledge or science, which, I will claim, utilises conceptual and expressive devices to assert its status as ‘the poetry of reality’. This will be followed by a consideration of the various sub-categories of knowledge; occult knowledge, religious knowledge, situated knowledge, carnal knowledge, and I will be trying to advance a claim that these various ‘types of knowledge’ share a common poetic framework; that each of these draws on a set of metaphors and figures of speech and thought which serve to organise our understanding of these different forms. I should state at this point that I will not be claiming that all knowledge is relative and that because empirical knowledge is expressed poetically that it has an equivalence with other forms of knowledge or other forms of thought. On the contrary, I will also be asserting here that this mobilisation of a common poetic framework for different types of knowing inevitably and accurately leads to a hierarchy in which some kinds of knowledge are understood as more valuable than others. I will be saying that the particular space that empirical knowledge occupies within its genre of poetic cognition and expression is unique, and reflects its unique status within the social life of thought. As a complement to this I will be proposing that the other conceptual content I mentioned; the fantasies, beliefs, hopes and desires which thread through human life, have different values and are perhaps best rendered in their own poetic terms.
Part Three – Code is Poetry
I want to use the final part of this project to explore different modes of writing and speaking and being expressive, perhaps suggesting different modes of thinking that might align with these other poetic constructions. I am particularly interested in the possibilities inherent in the kinds of writing and speaking practices that we here on youtube, and those on twitter and facebook, and on blogs and wikis, might find themselves somehow giving voice to. What kinds of poetry is at work in the grammar of cascading style sheets and semantic databases? How might the protocols of the network be understood as creating figures of collective speech, and to what extent are we able to embody these figurations in the tissues of our own understanding? Is there a place in the wires for other kinds of thinking, or for the thinking of other thoughts? Knowledge and belief, fantasy and desire. The needle skips back to the beginning of the record, and as the car accelerates down the sliproad and merges with the traffic on the motorway we can look out of the windows of our car at the people in the cars in the adjacent lane, their lips moving, smiling. He is making a joke and she is pretending she hasn’t heard it before. In the back, the children are singing along with the radio.
A note on structure:
Because the material on this site is being developed on youtube I imagine it will be inevitable that the way that youtube works will affect the shape and style of this overall project. For example, the restriction on the length of videos to 10 minutes for each one means that the content I develop will have to be articulated in short sections. I don’t know yet what this means in terms of remediating that content into written form in this blog but I would be surprised if there weren’t huge compositional problems ahead.
On youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySPKxOD9r-Q