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Caution! (it's more than you think)

akeefe's picture


(it’s more than you think)


Enter carefully. Your mind is making an unconscious connection between the words on this page and the thoughts in your head. This is mind control, and I caution you from going further without realizing the consequences of reading. Everything that you read, hear, touch, experience in someway flows inside of you and makes its stay somewhere. While consciously you may forget all about this paper after reading it, it will remain with you somewhere unconsciously. You may even reproduce part of it without your conscious consent. This scary moment is brought to you by tacit knowledge, but it doesn’t need to be frightening. It could in fact be liberating to shake the shackles of plagiarism and “intellectual property” which have wound themselves so tightly around the academic community. An understanding of tacit knowledge undercuts their definitions and proposes a new lens in which to view intellectual creation.

Tacit knowledge is the understanding you gain unconsciously, that is without knowing where or when it was acquired. Things like knowing this may not be the best time to talk to your mother about that D, the way your body reacts when you are, to be technical, zoned out, or even the instantaneous revulsion you get when thinking about incest can be explained by tacit knowledge. According to Polanyi, Gestalt psychology suggests that tacit knowing “will be shown to form a bridge between the higher creative powers of man and the bodily processes which are prominent in the operations of perception” (Polanyi 7). So, there is an link between the things which we experience and the things which we create, and tacit knowledge is the connector.

We like to think that the things we create are original, and that once created, we can claim credit for their uniqueness. The culture of citation means that even if our idea leads to another, we can be secure in the fact that we will receive our credit. Plagiarism according to Gordon Harvey is “passing off a source’s information, ideas, or words as your own by omitting to acknowledge that source - an act of lying, cheating, and stealing.” (Harvey 22). I provide you with his definition, because he is the one who was passed out to our college’s freshmen. I will further delay my analysis by making one point very clear. Stealing the ideas/work of another person consciously is wrong. It is one thing to speak philosophically on the unconscious, but conscious acts of deception are indeed inexcusable. That said, even Harvey’s book states that “occasionally, a student…obliviously incorporates a few vivid phrases from a source.” (Harvey 22). I am interested in why that occurs.

Tacit knowledge has provided me with an option. The reason I am so passionate on the subject is due to an experience I had writing an earlier draft of this paper. In order to talk about tacit knowledge and dream imagery, I wrote a poem using a list of the metaphors I wished to include. The poem was written without any stops, or really without care for clarification. I have only my own voice with which to express that during this process I was not consciously thinking of any other poem; I might even say I wasn’t doing much conscious thinking at all. When I turned in the paper, my teacher immediately recognized the link between my poem and a piece by Emily Dickinson. I had in fact read the poem for her class, but had given it no thought since then. Still, there were similarities in imagery and ideas, though my poem took a different spin upon the theme.

Initially, I was shocked. How could I have plagiarized without my consent? Until then, I had thought of tacit knowledge sensually, but not in terms of thoughts. However, reading a poem still fit’s the link described by Polyani. In order to explore this link further, I set up a small experiment. I asked two groups to participate in the writing of an exquisite corpse, a exercise that asks participants to write down random words in a sequence to form a poem. With the first group, I played “The Atheist’s Christmas Carole” by Vienna Teng in the background. Despite the fact that the volume was turned down too low to consciously pick up on the words, many of the words in the poem were the same as found in the song. With the second group, I kept the music on in the background as I explained the procedure, and turned it off when it they began. There were significantly less matches, but still some. The second group also confessed to consciously looking around the room for words.

What I feel these tests illustrate is that when we create in our minds there is an active, biological response. The words we choose do not come out of nowhere; even if the selection process is not a conscious one, it exists. The implication is that we can tacitly remember a text and consciously forget it. Thereby, it can be reproduced without any knowledge of the act. The big deal is that our current definition of plagiarism makes no distinction between conscious omission of citation and tacit creation. So in order to avoid plagiarism, we must cut ourselves off from the academic world for fear of contamination. We must not read. We must not discuss. We must live in pockets of intellectual isolation, and in return for our labors no one could read our work to maintain their originality. Our life style becomes the gas mask to our mind.

Since this is a rather counterproductive means of education, there clearly needs to be room for tacit knowledge in the plagiarism discussion. The simple answer is to change the definition to make a distinction between conscious plagiarism acts and unconscious ones. However, you are likely to run into a purist’s argument, just because it came about tacitly doesn’t mean the work is your own. It is that very notion that I am presenting a direct challenge to.

What the connection between tacit knowledge and creative powers implies is that we do not sometimes utilize tacit knowledge, we are constantly utilizing tacit knowledge. The very foundation of creation is built upon this idea. We are constantly, unconsciously recycling our experiences, both sensual and contemplative. The line between “common knowledge” and “intellectual property” is blurred, because your “property” was influenced unconsciously by your experiences. “Originality” is uncut. Thereby, someone with similar experiences should have just as much claim to an argument as you do. By this new definition, “intellectual property” begins to look a little outdated. It isn’t necessarily practical with the advent of the internet. The amount of knowledge received by an individual is greatly multiplied, so too is the range of people open to the assimilation of ideas. Knowing what we do, our collective unconscious has the capability to grow by unconscious assimilation. This isn’t supposed to be a scary notion, but perhaps a bit of a shake.

Then again, you may disagree. You may choose to dispose of this paper, and never think of it again. However, my argument is such that this will stay with you in some fashion whether you choose to acknowledge it consciously or not. So I again warn you about your reading. Enter carefully; it might be more influential then you think.


~ Allison Keefe


Works Cited

Harvey, Gordon. Writing with Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.1998.

Polyani, Micheal. The Tacit Dimension. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc.