Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Tacit Dimension

I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell, said Michel Polanyi in his book The Tacit Dimension, whose work paved the way for the study of tacit knowledge, the concept that is later applied to business analysis by Ikujiro Nonaka.

As an example to explain the concept of tacit knowledge, Polanyi uses the way we identify ones face. We cannot explain why, but can confidently identify our friends face from a million of others. The form of nose, width of mouth, color of eyes and the others constitute a face of individuals, but the aggregation of individual factors is somehow different from the entity. The same can be said when we talk about personal preference: although we list key conditions for friends, we tend to make friends who do not satisfy the conditions. Something is missing in listing particular factors only.

Polanyi introduces the concept of tacit knowledge, which is the integrated knowledge that captures wholeness of the things.  Polanyi seems to be inspired the idea of Gestalt psychology, which emphasizes the importance of wholeness in human recognition system. He emphasized the importance of wholeness in human intelligence and said as below:

The highest forms of integration loom largest now. These are manifested in the tacit power of scientific and artistic genius. The art of the expert diagnostician may be listed next, as a somewhat impoverished from of discovery, and we may put in the same class the performance of skills, whether artistic, athletic, or technical. (page 6)

Basic structure of tacit knowledge
Let us briefly look at how Polanyi describes the basic structure of tacit knowledge. He argued that tacit knowledge has four aspects: functional, phenomenal, semantic, and ontological

Lets say that there happened an event A and then an event B. For instance, a child sees dark cloud and then rain. Once a child form tacit knowledge on raining, he or she can combine the two kinds of knowing (functional aspect of tacit knowledge), can tell that rain will come by seeing dark cloud (phenomenal aspect), is able to find meaning in dark cloud, i.e. meaningless feelings turns into meaningful one (semantic aspect), and, finally, the child will be able to understand the comprehensive entity of how weather changes (ontological aspect).

Entity and particulars
Polanyi claims that we acquire tacit knowing by indwelling things. For instance, when a boy learns how to ride bicycle, he needs to integrate various body actions. He needs to be fully used to each action, so that he can internalize the action and dont need to be conscious of it. You cannot ride a bicycle if you care every bodily movement. Polanyi called this internalization of each action indwelling. He also used the word interiorizationas the same meaning of indwelling. Once we succeed in indwelling things, we will be able to see each what we indwelled as the entity. This is the process of tacit knowledge formation. By knowing and indwelling particulars, we reach to principle to explain particulars as an entity.

Thus, just breaking down the entity into particulars will lead to lose the understanding of wholeness, and that is the common pitfall of investigations. Polanyi said:

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 destroyed. Such cases are well known. Repeat a word several times, attending carefully to the motion of your tongue and lips, and to the sound you make, and soon the word will sound hollow and eventually lose its meaning. By concentrating attention on his fingers, a pianist can temporarily paralyze his movement. We can make our selves lose sight of a pattern or physiognomy by examining its several parts under sufficient magnification.
  Admittedly, the destruction can be made good by interiorizing the particulars once more. The word uttered again in its proper context, the pianists fingers used again with his mind on his music, the features of a physiognomy and the details of a pattern glanced at once more from a distance: they all come to life and recover their meaning and their comprehensive relationship. (page 18)

If tacit knowledge is the essence of all knowledge, ideal of exact science, i.e. the science full of lucidity and dividing the concept into very tiny elements, is fundamentally misleading and a source of fallacies. Polanyi said that the process of formalizing all knowledge to the exclusion of any tacit knowing is self-defeating.

Importance of ambiguity
If tacit knowledge does exist and play a determinate role in knowledge formation, then knowledge wholly based on only visible and identifiable grounds collapse. Although modern science has weighed importance on objectivity and testable experiences, Polanyi claims that metaphysical belief, which is sometime ambiguous and very logically weak, should play the central role in the progress of science.  He says:

Metaphysical beliefs are not explicitly professed today by scientists, let alone by the general public. Modern science arose claiming to be grounded in experience and not on a metaphysics derived from first principles. My assertion that science can have discipline and originality only if it believes that the facts and values of science bear on a still unrevealed reality, stands in opposition to the current philosophic conception of scientific knowledge.  (page 70)


I found the similarity in problems detecting way of Polanyi and Chomsky (see the previous post). Polanyi said as follows:

To see a problem that will lead to a great discovery is not just to see something hidden, but to see something of which the rest of humanity cannot have even an inkling. (page 22)

Polanyi also taught us a hint to come up with the great discoveries. Indwelling or interiorizing is the key. Perhaps this weekly reading would lead to the interiorization.

The concept of tacit knowledge always encourages me when I face difficulty in explaining my personal belief. I totally agree with the concept that Polanyi brought about and wish to cherish my personal belief and principle.

Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, University of Chicago Press,  Reissue edition, 2009/05


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