Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension LO25698

From: Artur F. Silva (artsilva@mail.eunet.pt)
Date: 11/27/00

Dear lo-learners:

Some threads in this list motivated directly this investigation, namely,
the discussion about Unlearning (including "tactic knowledge" and "what is
knowledge and what is learning") and the dialogue on the "levels of

Some people sustained a cycle of knowledge where "tacit knowledge" should
convert to a superior level of "explicit knowledge". Some others suggested
that the superior level was the tacit knowledge himself - when someone
truly masters a concept or skill he will need less and less to pay
attention to it, the master's knowledge being tacit and involving an
emergence from explicit to tacit.

Some people, respecting Polanyi, defined "tacit knowledge" as the
knowledge that CAN NOT be made explicit. Others decided that they
preferred to think about "tacit knowledge" as knowledge that had NOT YET
emerged to the explicate level. An alternative has been proposed,
reserving the expression tacit to what Polanyi (who "coined" the idea)
intended to say, but recognizing that in certain skills (but not in all of
them) there is "implicit knowledge" that can be formalized and made
explicit - but that this has nothing to do with Polanyi concepts, so the
use of a word different from "tacit" (like "implicit") should be used.

In a course of "Epistemology of Social Sciences", many years ago I read a
summary of the ideas of Polanyi and some extracts of his texts.

Only from that, and from the respect for the authors of any ideas (that
was a strong theme in my education, driven by ethical reasons) one of the
positions referred was unacceptable for me.

Indeed, If, for instance, one uses concepts like "general relativity" or
"five disciplines", I don't think that one can say, without mystification,
that he prefers to talk about "general relativity" to refer to the
"relativity of General Human relations", or to the "5 disciplines of
creating an Organization with learning disabilities". One can refer to the
5 disciplines of Senge, to understand what Senge said, and afterwards try
to prove, if he so thinks, that everything is wrong. What one can't do is
to put the creator of the concept under parenthesis and talk about the
same concepts with a different, and eventually contradictory meaning. The
same is true about "tacit knowledge".

This was clear for me. But I also though that some of those conceptions
profoundly contradicted the most important things that Polanyi intended to
address with the "tacit" concept and the "tacit dimension". But, as my
original texts were only extracts and have disappeared, I couldn't prove
the second point, to my own satisfaction.

So, I decided to buy and study Polanyi's book "The Tacit Dimension", that
I ordered through Amazon. They had not the book, not even in "second
hand", but offered to produce a special edition and I have accepted. I
assume that people that want to came back to that discussion have done (or
will do) a similar thing: to obtain the source references, to assure that
what is said is congruent with Polanyi's ideas, or, if not, all
disagreements are made explicit (this is a case where making things
explicit is convenient).

I will make only a small summary of a very profound small book; and I
would love to discuss it with any others that have or will read the book
and discuss it.

I don't want to gain or loose discussions with anyone, I want to
understand Polanyi's ideas and see if they are correct and useful or not.

So, from "Tacit Dimension", the ideas of Polanyi seem very clear: Polanyi
departs from the evidence that there are thinks that one knows but can't
speak, and refers to it as "tacit knowing" to include both formal
knowledge and practical skills.

And gives arguments to conclude:

 - that the efforts to explicit the tacit knowing are impossible and

 - that the pseudo objectivity of science is a dangerous demarche that
shall be contradicted by an understanding of tacit knowing

 - that practicing and indwelling is the way to interiorize knowledge,
habitudes, moral teachings and scientific theories, that when fully
"learnt" become profoundly interiorized and then tacit.

To illustrate he gives examples from the recognition of physiognomies, to
artistic, athletically or technical skills, to the domain of scientific
theories, and even to the capacity of seeing something as a scientific
problem (solving Plato's Meno paradox).

He thinks that when one explicates tacit knowledge, or decomposes an
aggregate in its parts and particulars, one doesn't attain more knowledge;
on the contrary, one looses the knowing one previously had. He criticizes
the idea of modern science, namely in Academia, to think that everything
must be made explicit, as being self-defeating and dangerous.

In the second chapter, titled "Emergencies", he shows that biological and
namely human emergencies, coming from lower to higher levels of
organization, are processes similar to the one that governs tacit knowing.
He claims that fully understanding the tacit dimension is essential to
understand this type of emergencies.

Some quotations to illustrate some of those points:

"We can see now how an unbridled lucidity can destroy our understanding of
complex matters. Scrutinize closely the particulars of a comprehensive
entity and their meaning is effaced, our conception of the entity is

"The damage done by the specification of particulars may be irremediable.
Meticulous detailing may obscure beyond recall a subject like history,
literature or philosophy. Speaking more generally, the belief that, since
particulars are more tangible, their knowledge offers a true conception of
things is fundamentally mistaken".

"My examples show clearly that, in general, an explicit integration cannot
replace its tacit counterpart. The skill of a driver cannot be replaced by
a thorough schooling in the theory of the motorcar; the knowledge I have
of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology;
and the rules of rhytming and prosody do not tell me what a poem told me,
without any knowledge of its rules.
We are approaching here a crucial question. The declared aim of modern
science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any
failing short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection,
which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that the tacit thought
forms an indispensable part of all knowledge, then the ideal of eliminating
all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction
of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be
misleading and possibly a source of DEVASTATING FALACIES.
I think I can show that the process of formalizing all knowledge to the
exclusion of any tacit knowing is self-defeating..."

"The first emergence by which life comes into existence is the prototype of
all subsequent stages of evolution, by which rising forms of life, with their
higher principles emerge into existence. I have included all stages of
emergence in an enlarged conception of inventiveness achieved by tacit


I hope that I have proved that when dealing with concepts that others have
created is always needed to go back to the sources, instead of trying to
"assimilate" (and in some cases destroy) those ideas within the scope of a
predefined and valued theory.

Coming back to the unlearning question, I have already said, and I repeat,
a quotation from Pope: "there are people that never learn because they
understand everything too quickly". To understand everything too quickly
applies whenever one "understands everything" within the frames of a
particular theory, whenever one doesn't give oneself the time to go to the
sources, or even to understand what a fellow learner is saying, IN THE
TERMS OF THE SPEAKER (and not only in the terms of the listener), whenever
one in unable to UNLEARN their previous theories, and change them when
that is needed to accommodate different views. This type of attitudes can
also (and that is much worse) inhibit others from reflecting and learning

I hope that you all accept that one can agree or disagree with Polanyi, or
any other author or idea - what one shall not do is to let preconceived
ideas inhibit oneself from fully study the ideas one disagrees with.

Being this one a list on learning, I believe that a fully understanding of
the "tacit dimension" is important; from that understanding one can agree,
or disagree, as I said; without that understanding opinions or preferences
have little value.

Learning is a self-organizing, personal process - we can share ideas or
data, but to learn implies a fully commitment of the learner (including
probably the "subconscious" that Senge correlates with the tacit
knowledge). As the school systems everywhere in the world proves, too much
teaching can inhibit learning, making the learner disempowered and
prepared to always receive "learning" that others have already digested.

That is the reason why for true individual or organizational learning the
capacity to make a "shift of mind", a metanoia, is so important. But this
will be another post.

All comments are welcome

Best Regards



"Artur F. Silva" <artsilva@mail.eunet.pt>

[Host's Note: In assoc with Amazon.com, this link...

Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0844659991/learningorg $26, usually ships in 1-2 weeks.

I have also enjoyed Polanyi's _Personal Knowledge_

Personal Knowledge Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy by Michael Polanyi http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0226672883/learningorg In-print, ships in 24 hours


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