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Posted by: on Oct 2, 2012 | 2 Comments

The Tacit Dimension
By Michael Polanyi

The Tacit Dimension is an oft-cited book, so often cited that I have often felt guilty for not reading it earlier. But when I finally ordered it, I was surprised at how thin it was. The book is a compilation of three lectures, of which the first seems to be the most cited.

Polanyi is concerned about the difference between the over-emphasized role of explicit, expressed knowledge and the less-expressed tacit knowledge—as he puts it on p.4, “I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell” (p.4, his emphasis). How does tacit knowledge work, he asks?

To answer the question, he moves methodically. First, he posits that “the basic structure of tacit knowledge … always involves two things,” one known and the other unknown. “It combines two kinds of knowing.” His example is that of unconscious associations learned from administering shocks (p.9). That is, there’s a functional relationship between two “terms,” in which “we know the first term only by relying on our awareness of it for attending to the second” (p.10). “In an act of tacit knowing we attend from something for attending to something else; namely,  from the first term to the second term of the tacit relation” (p.10).

But there’s also a phenomenal relationship between the two terms: “We are aware of that from which we are attending to another thing, in the appearance of that thing.”

Together, the functional and phenomenal aspects yield meaning: “When the sight of certain syllables makes us expect an electric shock, we might say that they signify the approach of a shock. That is their meaning to us” (p.11).

Polanyi goes on like this for a bit, reasoning in a stepwise fashion through semantic and ontological meanings (p.13), then discussing why an explicit integration can’t fully replace its tacit counterpart (p.20). Honestly, although I appreciated the careful work here, it also seemed quite limiting in the way that these abstract discussions so often do. I began to see why Polanyi’s book is so often cited but so rarely described in any detail: the people I have read seem to very much like the notion of tacit knowledge, on knowing more than we can tell, but aren’t especially invested in the actual philosophical dissection that interests Polanyi.

Me, I appreciate and respect his effort, even though it’s not a discussion that I relish following in detail.


  1. Mark Mills
    October 6, 2012

    >I shall reconsider human knowledge
    >by starting from the fact that we
    >can know more than we can tell”

    This reminds me of good joke: “Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? I'd like to have a word with him!”

  2. Clay Spinuzzi
    October 7, 2012

    Groan 🙂

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