The Poetics of Thought


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on January 13, 2010

Moving up the hierarchy to information, the way this is conceived metaphorically shows significant overlap with  data.  It is similarly conceptualised as being ‘corpuscular’ and ‘discreet’ with each item of information being imaginable as distinct from every other.  There is also a shared sense of its being ‘out there’, pre-existing our efforts to acquire it.  Also, with both data and information, when the volume of either is large, we begin to think of this in terms not of a collection of discreet particulate objects but as a kind of liquid.  We might talk of the ‘flow’ of information, or of ‘drowning’ in an excess of it.  In this sense it retains some of the properties of the corpuscular but also, like sand through an hour glass, can pass like a liquid.

This metaphor of substance that varies between solidity and liquidity may have its origins in the affordances that different substances present to the body, and a reading of the metaphor in terms of affordances also starts to allow a distinction to be identified between data and information.

Affordance is the term that Gibson (1977, 1979)  gives to the properties of (physical) entities that we perceive and to which we respond in an embodied way.  So for example, the handle of a tool presents itself to the body in such a way that its ‘handleability’ is experienced as a part of the perception of that object, in fact the primary perception. As part of a metaphor of information then, if we are looking for a substance metaphor which embodies this sense of there being something that might be ‘grasped’ as well as the possibility of there being ‘too much for us to grasp’, then substance metaphors are appropriate.  Small manageable amounts of information are conceptualized as hard particles of solid material whilst an excess of information is understood as being ‘impossible to get a handle on’, ‘hard to grasp’, or ‘slippery’, and we run the risk of ‘drowning’ in it.  In this latter regard, such a metaphorical substance acquires the properties of a liquid.

It might be intuited from this use of the language of affordance that there is, in the distinguishing of information from data, the beginnings of an implied human agent figuring in the ground of the epistemology.  Even though we have conceived of data in substantive terms, the presence of the body as the provider of an affordance to that substance is minimal.  As we begin to consider the organisation of information however there is a tacit understanding that such substance is under the approach of an intentional agent; the provider of significant form.  There is the feeling that what was previously inert data is beginning to lean in our direction and organise itself into structures of information which at least have the possibility of purchase, even if our grasp is inadequate and the structure too frail.

Jonathan Hey, in the essay ‘The Data Information Knowledge Chain’ (2004), draws out this epistemological distinction in the metaphor, suggesting that the point at which information parts company with data is in the sense of what Hey calls ‘attributes’.   He draws our attention to the idea that information can be ‘sensitive’ or ‘pertinent’.  It can be more or less ‘salient’ or ‘valuable’ in a way that ‘raw’ data cannot.  These attributes, which are awarded to the information in such a way that they seem to be part of its ontology, are actually derived from the relationship established between such potential information and the origin of this potential, which is the purposive human user.

GIBSON, J. J. (1977) The Theory of Affordances. IN SHAW, R. E. & BRANSFORD, J. (Eds.) Perceiving, acting and knowing: toward an ecological psychology. Hillsdale, Erlbaum; New York; London: Distributed by Wiley.

GIBSON, J. J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception, Dallas; London, Houghton Mifflin.

HEY, J. (2004) The Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom Chain: The Metaphorical link.

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.


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 28, 2009

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.


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 17, 2009

As I mentioned earlier, Mark Johnson attributes meaning and thought to ‘our capacity for perception, object manipulation and bodily movement’.    Through processes such as conceptual metaphor, the cognitive structures which have evolved to allow for these capacities then become available as means of organising purely imaginary entities; ideas, concepts, and other abstractions, or ‘meaning and thought’ as Johnson puts it.  In this section I want to consider one of these capacities, which is that of object manipulation.  Or more specifically I want to explore what we understand by this thing called ‘an object’.  Through a close analysis of the nature of real objects I hope to be able to identify what aspects of the ontology of these objects are carried over into our understanding of metaphorical objects.

Metaphorical objects might be said to include any entity which is expressed using a noun and indicated by a direct or indirect article, ‘a’ or ‘the’.   Examples of these entities might include ‘the mind’, ‘the state’, ‘the university’, ‘a thought’, ‘a feeling’, ‘a desire’, ‘a fact’, or ‘an article of knowledge’.  This last example is significant for this project as a closer understanding of how ‘knowledge’ is conceptualised will form a large part of future writing.

Samuel Beckett once stated that ‘We can only talk about nothing as if it were something, in the same way we can only talk about God as if he was a man’. He might have added that we can only talk, or indeed think, about the abstract as if it was concrete.  The kind of concrete experience we tend to use to provide analogical structure to the concept of knowledge is revealing. The various metaphors for knowledge used within Knowledge Management have shown that the dominant images are based upon the mapping that suggests that KNOWLEDGE IS STUFF. This stuff includes assets, resources, capital, substances and constructed entities (machines, ships, etc.), but by far the most common subdivision of the overall metaphor is that KNOWLEDGE IS OBJECTS, (Andriessen, 2008).   This should not be surprising, given that we routinely assign certain structures of perception and cognition to a category we refer to as ‘objective knowledge’.  The unspoken, but nevertheless active metaphor which conceptualises (some) knowledge as akin to an object is clearly at work here.  In order to flesh out this understanding it may be worthwhile considering what processes are at work in this assignation.
An object, in the material world of lived experience, typically demonstrates a number of key features.  These have some similarities to those of the ‘figure’ as outlined by Peter Stockwell in his book Cognitive Poetics,

(W)e see, hear and move in stereo three dimensions, and so the cognitive capacity for making figure and ground is clearly and literally an embodiment of this human condition…. The part of a visual field or textual field that is most likely to be seen as the figure will have one or more of the following features that make it prominent:
– it will be regarded as a self-contained object or feature in its own right, with well-defined edges separating it from the ground;
– it will be moving in relation to the static ground;
– it will precede the ground in time or space;
– it will be a part of the ground that has broken away, or emerges to become the figure;
– it will be more detailed, better focused, brighter, or more attractive than the rest of the field;
– it will be on top of, or in front of, or above, or larger than the rest of the field that is then the ground. ” (2002, p.14)

In presenting this list, Stockwell is drawing largely on a Gestalt tradition in which objects or figures are distinguished from the ‘ground’ against which they are placed.  Whilst these characteristics might indeed be typical of what we intuitively think of as an ‘object’ it is probably more accurate to say that entities which display these characteristics show ‘prototypicality’, this is something I will be coming back to later.  In addition to these features which give objects (or figures) their overall status as objects there are a large number of eidetic variables which allow for organised distinction.  Objects might vary in shape and size, be of different weights,  have interiors and exteriors, be easily decomposed into smaller objects or resist such decomposition, be stable or instable, soft or hard, distinctly bounded or fuzzy, persist over long periods of time or barely break the surface of time at all.  All of these qualities offer themselves as potential structuring metaphors for an understanding of abstract entities which draws on our cognitive engagements with objects in lived experience.


Andriessen, D. G. (2008).  Stuff or love? How metaphors direct our efforts to manage knowledge in organisations.  Knowledge Management Research & Practice 6: 5-12.

Stockwell, P. (2002). Cognitive poetics : an introduction. London, Routledge


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on August 26, 2009

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