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Biology 103
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

How Do We Know What We Know? Tacit Knowledge Defined

Diana LaFemina

When I asked a certain professor for help in defining tacit knowledge, he stated that it is ¡°the knowledge that we have without knowing we know it¡± and that ¡°once we know we know it, it becomes harder to know how we know what we know. WHAT?!?! Needless to say, this confused me to no end and only created more questions. The more I researched, the more fuzzy the idea of tacit knowledge became to me.

Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that people have that can not be readily or easily written down, usually because it is based in skills (1). It is silent knowledge that emerges only when a person is doing something that requires such knowledge or when they are reminded of it (2). Whatever governs this knowledge is not conscious. This covers a surprising amount of knowledge that most people have, such as attention, recognition, retrieval of information, perception, and motor control. These are known skills, but they are not easily explained (3). This is not a knowledge that can be explained through a system or an outline in a book (4).

The person ascribed with the theory of tacit knowledge is Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). Polanyi was a chemist, born in Budapest, who became a philosopher later in his life (5). Polanyi thought that humans are always "knowing" and are changing constantly between tacit knowledge and focal knowledge, that this in itself is a tacit skill and is used to blend new information with old so that we can better understand it. More easily put, people categorize the world in order to make sense of it. This is something that everyone does, whether they realize it or not, and cannot be replaced by another method. Taken in this context, it may be better to define knowledge itself as a method of knowing. Each person will have the reality of their world shaped by their experience. In this context, all knowledge is rooted in the tacit (6).

This is all well and good, but what does it mean? The problem with understanding tacit knowledge is that is it nearly impossible to be able to grasp in and think on it (7). In order to help someone understand tacit knowledge, all one can do it to give them opportunities to for them to teach it to themselves (8). This is most easily done through examples. This paper is made up of small characters based in the Phoenician alphabet. While reading this, were you even aware of the characters? Probably not. You probably skimmed over the words, heedless of how they were composed, understanding only what the grouping of letters meant. But how do you know the meaning of the words? You didn¡¯t have to think about them, you just saw the words and somehow understood what they meant. This is a tacit knowledge(6). In the same way language can be considered a tacit knowledge. How do you know whatever language you speak most often? Do you put any conscious thought into how you say something, or do you just know how to say what you want to convey (9)? Here's another example. What's wrong with the following sentence:

The girl throws ball the.

There is a grammatical rule involved with the exact reason why the above sentence is incorrect. Were you even slightly conscious that you had learned this rule (8)? Tacit knowledge goes beyond rules and meanings that we have learned somewhere along the way but that we have pushed back beyond our consciousness. When you see your friend you can recognize their face. Yet, how do you do this? How do you recognize and differentiate between two people? Many people have brown eyes, dark hair, short hair, etc. How can you tell the difference, and in a split second also(6)?

Tacit knowledge is not easily understood. The more I researched, the harder it became for me to explain, even to myself, what tacit knowledge was. I later figured out the reason for this: I understood tacit knowledge tacitly. Without the aid of examples of what tacit knowledge was, I would still be utterly confused as to the meaning of the phrase. Once it is understood, the explaining seems to come easily. Explaining it in a manner that help others understand it better is almost impossible, though. They must learn it through experiences they themselves have had if they are to understand it at all.



2)Tacit Knowledge

3)Models of Tacit Knowledge

4)Tacit Knowledge

5)Michael Polanyi 1891-1976

6)Polanyi-Tacit Knowledge

7)Tacit knowledge - riding a bike - John Seely Brown

8)Tacit knowledge and implicit learning

9)Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind - tacit knowledge

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