Tacit Knowledge

Like Mary and Audrey, I needed to break down Polyani’s text into chunks of reading rather than as a whole. It can be a bit overwhelming as a body of work, for while it looks like a short and slender read, it reminds me of The Metamorphosis- underneath it’s modest and simple cover, with it’s slim bound pages, lies a book that requires a great deal of mental effort to understand, since it is multidimensional and encompasses a broad spectrum of information.

To me, this work seems divided into three larger sections, focusing first on social science and then moving in to hard science theory, and then more into philosophy and rhetoric (in style at least). There are a few quotations Polyani that I am still muddling over.

“The meticulous dismembering of a text, which can kill its appreciation,                                can also supply material for a much deeper understanding of it”. (19)

This made me think of Kumar (2012) discussion of tacit knowledge and codification. Does language, in the form of writing and reading become a form of tacit knowledge after these have become second nature? Can literature and symbolism within literature be considered a recognized system of codification? From different aspects, it makes me question whether something can be tacit knowledge. However, From Kimble’s (2013) perspective, it would not be, since it is “acquired” and not “implicit”. “Tacit Knowledge” seems to be a rather amorphous theory, since it can change depending on how it is being used.

“Yet however greatly we may love an animal, there is an emotion which                               no animal can evoke which is commonly directed toward our fellow man. I                           have said that at the highest level of person hood we meet man’s moral                               sense, guided by the firmament of his standards. Even when this appears                             absent, its mere possibility is sufficient to demand out respect.”

I think this is an interesting point, but there also seems to be an irony here. In another portion of the book, Polyani discusses how man is an animal- so isn’t loving/expecting morals from other men also in a way expecting it from fellow animals? Furthermore, there is a great deal that we do not actually know about animals. For example, should gorillas who are able to speak ASL be considered capable of having morals within their own society or since they are capable of a recognized form of human communication (though acquired, thus not tacit), should this be considered a valid statement? At the same time, there is a barrier of tacit knowledge between animals and humans. Humans, unlike dogs, do not understand the world in terms of smells or by barking. Nor do dogs have human speech capabilities. Both seem to be tacit or in animals, instinctual in their own way.

“For modern existentialism uses moral skepticism to blast the morality of                             the existing society as artificial, ideological, hypocritical.”

“In our society, ideas about morality are also cultivated by different                                     circles of mutual appreciation, which are deeply divided against each                                     other; and in politics these circles are deliberately organized as rivals.”

These seemed particularly apt for the current climate going on in news media (election season). Kimble’s (2013) concept of explicit knowledge seems to describe the formation of a political system- politics is not something that is ingrained in us by nature, but at the same time, people occasionally have a difficult time separating church from state and also understanding the actual goings on of politics. Party voting almost seems to be tacit knowledge for some- explaining why one votes for someone comes down to personal morals and social groups, which fits with the concept of “bounded awareness” (Kumar 2012). While we, as a society, are bombarded with political information and have actual videos of the goings on of politicians in Congress (CSPAN, the news), much of the actual details of the political process and everyday goings on which form the law in this country seem to be encased in boundaries (we know it’s there, but do we actually pay attention to it?).

Polyani’s “Tacit Knowledge” is interesting to think about and try to apply to the everyday situations, because that everyday mindset may be exactly what he is studying about- why humans behave along certain social patterns based on concepts that we cannot directly explain such as impulses/instincts/gut feelings/gumption etc.


Kimble, C. (2013). Knowledge management, codification and tacit knowledge. Information Research, 18(2).

Kumar J, A., & Chakrabarti, A. (2012). Bounded awareness and tacit knowledge: Revisiting Challenger disaster. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(6), 934-949.

Polanyi, Michael. (2009). The tacit dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1966)

11 thoughts on “Tacit Knowledge

  1. This line really started the wheels spinning in my head:

    “Does language, in the form of writing and reading become a form of tacit knowledge after these have become second nature? Can literature and symbolism within literature be considered a recognized system of codification?”

    I don’t know that I know the answer to the first question, but my gut is telling me the answer to the second question is a “yes”. Maybe not all symbolism in literature, particularly where authors are getting creative and perhaps using the symbol and all its connotations against us. We all expect a heart to mean love, or passion. We expect “thumbs up!” to mean “good job!” Foreshadowing, patterns, and similar literary elements can take symbols we recognize as coded a particular way (“she’s dressed in white, she must be innocent”) and use them to keep us interested in the story.


  2. You bring up an excellent point with the consideration of “man” as a “moral animal”. A lot of our moral behaviors stem from emotion, which is a phenomenon well documented in the animal kingdom. By nature, aren’t our emotions tacit? If we love someone, we often just know. Interesting.


  3. I really liked the views Polanyi had on modern existentialism. You talking about the politics of it and the inherent division in existentialism (due to its focus on individualism I feel) really resonated with me. Polanyi really seemed to dislike modern existentialism from what I felt from the book. Do you agree?


  4. Plane’s quote about how dismembering a text can both kills its appreciation and yet also allow for a deeper understanding of said text was a line that also posed a series of questions during my own reading. The paradox in and of itself is something highly noteworthy to consider. Oddly enough it brought back memories of early grade school. Specifically, the ways in which teachers would deconstruct words and phrases as if they were mathematical equations. Repetitive lessons like these would inevitably lead to less appreciation of the text, especially for kid counting down the minutes until recess.


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