The Form of Knowledge LO25950

From: Fred Nickols (
Date: 01/20/01

In LO25925, At de Lange inserted this little gem, encapsulating Polanyi's
statement in symbolic notation:

we can know > we can tell

I don't know the rules for manipulating symbolic notation but, for my
purposes, I'm going to strike "we can" from both sides:

know > tell

The expression above asserts a quantitative difference ("more") and it
also suggests a qualitative difference ("know" and "tell").

In the past, I've taken the position that tacit knowledge tied to the
quantitative difference asserted in the expression above (i.e., tacit
knowledge was that which we know but cannot tell, making tacit knowledge
inexpressible). I'm still of that opinion for now but I am re-reading
Polanyi's Tacit Dimension as a result of At's thoughtful reading of it.
Now, on to the qualitative relationship.

It has occurred to me that "know" and "tell" suggest very different things
about the "form of knowledge." When I articulate my knowledge (i.e., tell
what I know), I use language and, on my part at least, diagrams as well.
The products or artifacts of my telling what I know are things like the
statements I make in conversations (along with accompanying gestures), the
statements I make on paper, and the diagrams I draw or construct. It
should be self evident that the form these things take is very, very
different from whatever form my knowing takes. These things, then, are
merely representations of my knowledge or what I know, not that knowledge
or my knowing.

One aim in trying to grasp and communicate our knowledge or what we know
is to develop something similar in others. We often say we are trying to
communicate our knowledge or what we know, to effect a transfer of it from
one to another. If that transfer or development is to have any chance of
happening, it must entail a process that in part relies on Person A
expressing his or her knowledge in the form of artifacts and utterances
and Person B comprehending those artifacts and utterances in ways that
result in a state of knowledge very similar to a state of knowledge in the
creator of the artifacts and utterances.

Now if knowledge outside an individual is just information then one thing
we all somehow do is convert information into knowledge; we create
knowledge and, in so doing, our individual knowledge is unavoidably
unique. We find our common ground in information, not knowledge.

So, here are a few additional thoughts:

"We can know more than we can tell" because what we tell is NOT what we
know, it is merely a representation of what we know. (The map is not the

"We can know more than we can tell" because we do not know everything we
know. We do not know, for example, the form that knowing takes inside us;
we can merely speculate about it.

"We can know more than we can tell" because words frequently fail us; not
all knowing is reducible to or expressible in words or diagrams (e.g.,
knowing how to ride a bicycle).

Now, let's suppose that somehow we are able to get hold of something we
know that previously escaped our awareness or knowing and successfully
articulate it. Have we articulated tacit knowledge? I think not. I
think, in keeping with At's notion about knowledge outside of people, that
we have created information. That we intend it to represent and convey
our knowledge doesn't make it the same as that knowledge. The information
we create must be converted into individual knowledge by others.

Human beings are wondrously good at creating knowledge, at coming to know.
Thank goodness, because not one of us can explain how that happens. To be
sure, there are many theories and there are even some practical methods
for facilitating this mysterious process (e.g., teaching, tutoring,
instructing, training) but, inside the learner, it is a mystery
nonetheless. We can, indeed, know more than we can tell.

Hip, hip, hurrah! Hip, hip, hurrah! Hip, hip, hurrah!

Now, I think I must go off in search of Meaning (i.e., Polanyi's last book).


Fred Nickols The Distance Consulting Company "Assistance at A Distance" (609) 490-0095

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