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Tacit Knowledge


"We know more than we can tell," wrote Michael Polanyi, who drew attention to the idea of tacit knowledge. For example, we can ride a bicycle but cannot tell someone else how we do it. When socializing we behave in certain ways that we cannot put into words. Such knowledge is not directly communicable.

This is a problem when teaching and training, because the what the teacher can tell the student is only a part - often only a small part - of what needs to be learned. This is why practice is so important, especially in bodily and sensory activity like sports.

It is a problem when working together e.g. in business settings, e.g. politics. Decisions are made and should be justified. Yet only part of the rationale for them is put in writing. It is only the explicit part of the knowledge that can be used in justifying decisions, whereas the true, full justification remains tacit; indeed it is often the most important part that is tacit.

Some tacit knowledge is because it is pre-analytical ('physical'). Some is because of hidden agendas, but some is because it is intuitive knowledge. Some was known when we first learned a skill, but years later this has become 'internalized' and cannot be explained easily - though perhaps, if we try hard enough to remember back, we can explain it.

Tacit knowledge is poorly understood. Polanyi believed that 'true' tacit knowledge can never be explicated (put into concepts and words). Others, such as Nonaka & Takeuchi believe that at least some can be made explicit, and built a model of how this occurs in social settings. How can we explicate it - analytically, or by stories, or what? There is much confusion. How do we understand tacit knowledge?

Understanding Tacit Knowledge

If we allow for the possibility that tacit knowledge might be of different kinds, or that there are several different reasons why knowledge might be tacit, then Dooyeweerd's aspects can be employed to separate out these different kinds. Sensorimotor tacit knowledge is pre-analytical, to do with our functioning in the sensitive or biotic aspects, while social or decisional tacit knowledge might be to do with our functioning in the social and analytic aspects. If we take this line, then there is a possibility that most aspects yield some kind of tacit knowledge. The table below gives examples.

Benefits of This Approach

This might help us in several ways.


Here is an initial idea of how tacit knowledge might be understood in terms of aspects. The first column is the name of the aspect, and clicking on it will take you to the page of the aspect. The second column is a summary of its meaningfulness. The third column shows how this aspect might be part of tacit knowing. The fourth column shows examples of tacit knowledge of this aspect in things. The fifth column shows whether the kind of tacit knowing might be conceptualizable and explicable or not.

Table 1. Kinds of Tacit Knowledge by Aspect
Aspect Its meaning Tacit knowing Example C/X?
Quantitative Discrete amount
Spatial Continuous extension
Kinematic Flowing movement
Physical Forces, energy, mass
Biotic/organic Life, organism How our bodies have grown Muscles grow in response to exercise No/No
Sensitive/psychic Sensing, feeling, emotion Pre-conceptual memory Riding a bicycle No/No
Analytical Distinction, concepts, Abstraction, logic Maybe: Awareness of things, but without thinking about them
Maybe: intuitive understanding
Maybe: Watching the road while driving Maybe/No
Formative Deliberate shaping, Technology, skill, history) Skills (conceptual or physical) that have been long learned and internalised Doctor diagnosing problems of patients Yes/No
Lingual Symbolic signification Proficiency in a language ? Conversing, writing Yes/Maybe
Social Relationships, roles Relating to other people whom we know Doing what a person known to us expects, without our thinking about it Yes/Yes
Economic Frugality, resources; Management Frugal habits and attitude in thought and action Economy of words in a poem Yes/Yes
Aesthetic Harmony, delight Harmonising our knowledge;
Awareness of the whole, holistic attitude;
Intuition for harmony, fun, humour
During a heated debate, you sense a wider picture;
Seeing the funny side of things.
Juridical 'Due', appropriateness; Rights, responsibilities Sense of appropriateness or justice built up over a long period Judges in court often have this, but cannot explain it without much deliberation; authors also develop it. Yes/Yes
Ethical Attitude, Self-giving love Feeling for, and practice of, self-giving goodness True heroism has this, without being aware of it (as well as pistic courage) Yes/Yes
Pistic/Faith Faith, commitment, belief; Vision of who we are Certainty and commitment Genuine religious faith that leads willingness to go against self Yes/Yes

Note 1: 'C/X?' indicates whether tacit knowledge of this kind might be conceptualizable in thought and explicable in language. 'Yes' usually means 'Yes with difficulty'.

Note 2: These are all my initial informed guesses, there is a lot more, and I might have got completely the wrong slant. So, think about it.

Current Research

In 2013 Alex Kimani began a PhD research project at the University of Salford to explore a Dooyeweerdian understanding of tacit knowledge. We await the results.

This page is part of a collection that discusses possible and actual research using or into Herman Dooyeweerd's ideas, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

You may use this material subject to conditions. Compiled by Andrew Basden.

Created: 6 September 2014. Last updated: