When learning how to tie our shoelaces, we are not given a book to read or even told precisely what to do. At some point, someone shows us how to do it and utters onto us: “do like this”. And what do we know of our own conscious bodily actions when swimming or cycling? As we perform these activities, we are striving. We are acting intentionally. We may be mimicking our old teacher, for instance, whether she was a sibling or a parent. But which muscles are we moving? In what order? And exercising how much pressure? How much air are we keeping in our lungs to stay afloat? How much are we concentrating mentally during the efforts that we consciously and intentionally perform? What do we pay most attention to? In which order? And to what degree?
We simply cannot tell. Yet it is not ignorance. We do know how to swim, how to ride a bicycle—and we know that we know it. We can swim, cycle and tie our shoelaces, to the point of being able to teach it to our own children. Very few, however, can explain clearly how we can, i.e. explicitly, exactly, objectively. A gap endures between what our embodied thought can produce, i.e. a skilful performance, and the abstract language in which we wish to cast such a thought. This gap is what justifies the distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge, for which Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) gained fame in the humanities and the social sciences since the 1950s.
When reading as commonplace a written text such as a letter, we perform a “whole series of consecutive integrations simultaneously” (Knowing and Being, 1969, p.186). To begin with, we combine together sounds into words (tacit phonetics), words into sentences (tacit syntax) and sentences into prose (tacit stylistics). Moreover, and at the same time, we understand the sights and events therein described, we structure a verbal composition of what is understood, and we interpret the overall meaning of the composition. All these integrations are “tacit efforts” that allow us to make sense of the letter, the meaning of which we attend to by attending from the plethora of details that we integrate tacitly (ibid.). It is not the case that we are not aware of them. If we were genuinely unaware of them, then we could not operate upon them and grasp the meaning of the letter. Rather, we are aware of them in a secondary, instrumental manner, whilst we focus primarily upon their meaning.
Typically, especially if we are good at anything, we just do what we do, without much articulate thinking. We think fast, heuristically; not slowly, logically. As a result, we may not even know how to explain clearly that which we can do very well. We can say we learned it. We may be able to show it, repeatedly and often flawlessly. Yet we may be at a loss for adequate words that can make it explicit to any satisfactory degree. It is a matter of know-how, rather than know-that. It is a knowledge that harkens back to pre-linguistic animal faculties of ours, which also explains why it is so difficult to elucidate it in articulate, objective, explicit terms. At best, we may produce convenient abstract formulations to refer to them, such as those of Piaget’s genetic psychology, which Polanyi studied in his lifetime and referred to in his works.
Still, abstract lexical distinctions, though invariably popular among scholars and scientists, do not solve the problem. They exemplify it further. For my knowing that “know-how” means know-how means that I know how to make sense of the graphic signs that we call “graphemes”, “letters”, “words”, etc., as well as of their mutual relations on the written page. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds for the spoken word, its “phonemes”, “tones”, etc.: “[T]he use of language is [itself] a performance” (ibid. , p.193). Again, a gap endures between what our embodied thought can produce and the abstract language in which we may try to cast it. This thought and the language trying to express it are not one and the same thing, nor are they entirely equivalent. The former contains and constitutes implicit or tacit knowledge, the latter explicit knowledge; and only part of our implicit or tacit knowledge can be made explicit.
Let’s consider the ice-cream cake or semifreddo made by the present author’s mother, which she prepares without consulting any cookbook or using any scale, but rather out of feelings of quel che ci vuole [“what is right”] and quanto basta [“what is enough”; q.b. in Italian cookbooks]. Prima facie, its preparation can be translated into a set of explicit instructions. Any contemporary cookbook is but a long series of such explicit instructions concerning types and quantities of ingredients, preparation methods and serving options. Tacit knowledge, in this case, has been made explicit—or at least some of it. Part of my mother’s tacit knowledge, in fact, cannot be made explicit.
Firstly, let us agree, for argument’s sake, that my mother makes the best semifreddo on earth (and she does, actually). Why is that? How is it that she makes a better cake than any other chef, cook, or experienced Italian housewife? The instructions are exactly the same for all of them. The equipment in her kitchen might be even deficient or out-of-date, in comparison. Why is she such a star, then? Why is her semifreddo so good? Is there no instruction on how to be the best that all could follow? No, there is not. Genius cannot be prescribed. There is no recipe that can turn any chosen person into the next Newton or a novel Mozart. Or ask Messi or Maradona how exactly they kick the ball to make the most astounding passes, so that any other player can do it too. They will not tell you. Not because it is a secret, but because they cannot tell you. They possess that knowledge, and we certainly know that they have it, for we can see it—not to mention the spectators paying good money precisely in order to see it. Nevertheless, they cannot articulate it in an explicit fashion. They can show it; but even then, no other player can do the same. Such a knowledge is beyond everyone else’s grasp: it is “ineffable” (Personal Knowledge, 1962, p.87).
Secondly, over her long life, my mother has been able to communicate quite aptly with a number of fellow Italian housewives, who are generally proficient in making cakes, if not in cooking in general. Discussing together culinary matters, they have been able to understand each other, as shown by the improvements that they have regularly introduced to a number of desserts and other dishes, even when nobody else around seemed to grasp quite fully what exactly they said. Over countless years, they have used a jargon, a slang, and seemingly odd terms or, from another angle, an expert language, exemplified by vague maxims such as “getting it just right”, “soft but not too soft”, “frothy but not too much”, etc. As odd as these phrases may sound to most people, these Italian housewives know well what they mean—the proof being truly in the pudding that gets eaten. Also, they know which options to take seriously, i.e. which are plausible—and plausibility, like genius, cannot be prescribed either. These Italian housewives know what their odd terms mean, because they share similar experiences and a sense of what is to be done. They share an epistemic tradition, part of which is tacit, inasmuch as it cannot be rendered into clear and explicit terms for the non-initiated. Expert communities exist precisely because there is non-transparent knowledge to be exchanged effectively by people who have been trained inside and by it and who can therefore understand effectively what external observers would deem vague, too complex, perhaps equivocal, if not even mistaken (Knowing and Being, p.132).
Thirdly, even if we translate my mother’s semifreddo into sets of instructions, one must still prove capable of understanding and carrying out the instructions. Comprehension of the rules and skilful execution may be facilitated, trained and evaluated, but they cannot be prescribed. Some persons succeed, while others fail. Again, tacit knowing of how to make effective sense of explicit knowledge is required throughout: “language [itself] is nothing unless it has conscious meaning” (ibid., p.195). That is why Polanyi claims that “all knowledge… is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge” (ibid.). Even when expressing and/or grasping the most explicit forms of knowledge (e.g. formal logic, mathematics), we engage in a variety of familiar skilful performances which, however, we cannot entirely fathom (e.g. focusing our thought, directing our will, sustaining our concentration, holding information in our memory, assuming prior knowledge, etc.).
As a matter of fact, our tacit abilities have been trained and developed tacitly too, as when an infant acquires the mental, emotional and physical habits required to be interested in, look at, see and entertain mentally the objects around her as objects, or to speak her own mother tongue. If there were no capable persons around, who kept performing these actions and ipso facto teaching them to other persons (e.g. children, students, apprentices), whether by sheer proximity or by intended display, no knowledge would be possible, whether explicit or tacit, and entire cultures would collapse. No person, no knowledge; no knowledge, no culture. Hence is all knowledge personal knowledge—Polanyi’s key-point, and the title of his most famous book.
Polanyi’s intellectual work outside chemistry was motivated by his perceived collapse of Western culture, as shown in his lifetime by the two World Wars, the Great Depression, fascism and Stalinism. Polanyi (ibid. p.16) regarded these tokens of self-proclaiming modern “progress” as results of the West’s rejection of its cultural traditions. Polanyi and Prosch (Meaning, 1975, p.25) single out rationalist and positivist “scientific obscurantism”, i.e. the modern trend that takes detached, impersonal, abstract, formalised, analytical reason, as best exemplified by the hard sciences, qua sole true path to knowledge. Theology, ethics, the humanities, common morals, common sense and “religion” (The Tacit Dimension, 2009, p.92) are thus neglected or abandoned because they are not scientific, ergo subjective and irrational.
The paradoxes of such a self-maiming modern trend are the inhumane and dehumanising horrors of “progress” mentioned above. Its logical contradictions are not as blatant, and they are what Polanyi endeavoured to reveal, by showing how hard scientists too rely upon intuition, faith, authority and tradition, i.e. underpinning ‘unscientific’ “standards” to be treasured, not rejected. Our current climate crisis, in its manifold manifestations, is most certainly an example of the paradoxical offshoots of modern progress, especially as this is expressed in the widespread quasi-religious faith in technoscience as the solution of all our problems and in the relentless pursuit of economic growth on a planet that, patently, cannot sustain it. In addition, Polanyi’s thought reminds us of older theological and ethical notions, attitudes and praxes that could be of help if regained and restored: empathy for the living, responsible stewardship of God’s creation, parsimony and self-restraint in consumption as virtues, rationing of resources to life-need as civic duty. Tradition, in this connection, can be an instance of civil commons—a notion to be discussed in a future contribution of mine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in Genoa, Italy, Giorgio Baruchello is an Icelandic citizen and works as Professor of Philosophy at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Akureyri, Iceland. He read philosophy in Genoa and Reykjavík, Iceland, and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Guelph, Canada. His publications encompass several different areas, especially social philosophy, theory of value, and intellectual history. Northwest Passage Books has recently published five volumes of collected essays by him.