The Poetics of Thought

Tacit Space

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on December 3, 2009

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 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.