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Week 7--Tacit Understanding

Anne Dalke's picture

Welcome to the third portion of our class on "Storytelling as Inquiry." Our topic for the next few weeks is the brain of the storyteller: What's in it? How's it work? How does its working influence how we work--how we intuit and write and revise our stories?

Our initial readings in this topic, for Thursday, include selections from Polanyi's The Tacit Dimension, and from Lakoff & Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh.

So, for starters, and in response to the claims of these texts: What experiences of tacit understanding have you had? What sorts have you seen others using? What tacit knowledge did you come in here possessing? What do you know that you cannot tell? (And? so? How are you going to tell it?)

Madi's picture

I find tacit knowledge a

I find tacit knowledge a very interesting subject. I wonder how many things have been passed on from our ancestors. How many things do we know tacitly just because of evolution? It really does make sense that tacit knowledge is passed down that way. The members of a population that are predisposed to react in fear in regards to a predator are more likely to survive than those who aren't. It's strange how our opinions and decisions could be influenced unconsciously by relics like those. How much do we do unconsciously?

ashaffer's picture

Going back and reflecting

Deja vu, Instinct, and observing the unconscious.

Since learning about the unconscious and the notion of studying it I have thought long and hard. I've always had what I would call very strong instincts or hunches that I could not fully understand or explain. In a book I read, the author described these hunches as possibly her unconscious making some observation that she couldn't full articulate or understand, but nevertheless felt. I think that this goes back to the idea of knowing w/o being able to tell what you know that these readings seemed to suggest. Nancy's question above about whether deja vu plays into this is also an interesting one to consider. Remembering what was said about body language I think about people-reading, which I have been told I am fairly skilled at. Perhaps there are things that I don't know that I know;-).

Hyperpuffball's picture


So, in class we've talked about sight and color. This sense is clearly tacitly understood.

This led me to think that maybe sight isn't the only tacitly understood sense. I focused mostly on touch, because I've tried to imagine what things would be like if I were deaf or blind. I think that I would rely on my sense of touch much more- it would be grounding for me in the real world.

Woah, wait a second. Grounding in the real world. Real. Touch isn't real, I learned this last week in physics.

Touch is actually our nerves sensing electromagnetic interactions with other surfaces. A desk feels hard because it's structure is rigid- so as the molecules on the outside of our hand approach the molecular structure of the desk, the electrons in the outer orbits of each object repel each other, because electrons are the furthermost objects in a molecule, and electrons repel each other. Now, that means that our hand can never actually come into contact with the desk, which in turn means that we never actually touch anything. What we feel when we think we touch a desk is our fairly non-rigid molecular structure pressing with more force against the very rigid molecular structure of the desk. What our nerves actually sense, therefore, is how much our molecular structure "squishes" 'against' the other object.

If the other object is rigid, our hand 'squishes' so we think the object is hard. If our nerves 'feel' the other object 'give', then the object is 'squishier' than our hand and is thus 'softer' than a rigid object.

Before I thought about this, if someone had asked me how I knew cloth was softer than a desk, I would probably have given them a weird stare and said "the cloth feels softer, less hard" which is not a real answer, it's only a comparison. Is this tacit knowledge?

ErinDoppelheuer's picture


"We know more than we can tell".  This stuck with me through the entire reading and for some reason I never fully understood what it meant.  I understand it interms of using examples like recognizing a face amoung a crowd, but when asked to draw the face we cannot.  The unconscious is one of the most interestig things to me because how can we go about our every day lives, performing such complicated actions etc, and not even recognize some of the things we do unconsciously.  Only when you sit down and think about it or watch someone else do you realzize how much of your day to day life is unconscious.  Even the most simple thing to us, speaking/having a conversation, is mostly unconscious.  We dont think of each and every word to say before we say it, the words just come out in the right order.  The way that our brain allows us to do this unconsciosly is so extreme. 
Paul Grobstein's picture

The unconscious as seen by a neurobiologist

Very interesting conversation. Some further grist for the mill.
redmink's picture

My mom is a fashionista

My mom is a fashionista.  She probably has a sixth sense to pick up the cheapest, best clothes in stores.  Dragged by her for my entire life, I became good (sort of) at choosing 'what my mother would probably like.'  When my right hand tries to reach a 80's skirt, my left hand that deeply sensed my mom's grimace stops the action.  Such repeated practices, however, do not work when I am alone.  I panick when I have to buy like a prom dress by myself.  I consciously remind myself that I have to choose a good one, but at the same time my mind goes totally pitch-black.  'What is the style that my mom would recommend me?" I can't think.  Though I have shopped with my mom numerous times in my life, I can't define what my mom's style is.  Here, two tacit understandings can be found:


1.  my mom's skill at choosing a good wear

2.  my ability to grasp my mom's style when I'm with her.


The second one works because I don't consciously think I have to choose a good one, and I know somehow in the presence of my mom beside me what she likes maybe by sensing her glare, or body gesture, or facial expression.  


The other example of tacit knowledge is language.

Speaking English as a second language, I personally have somewhat different English lexicon than other native speakers.  According to someone(who was it?) in class, if a person consciously thinks what she is speaking word by word, then he/she will never learn a language;  this represents how native language dictionary, or lexicon, is innately there in human's brain. (So, I decided not to be conscious while talking. )


Lastly, as I mentioned in class, test skill is also a tacit understanding.  First attempt of choosing an answer of multiple-choice test is usually better than the second attempt which is a conscious thinking.  Such instinct cannot be taught easily in words, and gets better through repeated practices. 


christa wusinich's picture

divorced from meaning

I felt rewarded when I arrived at the end of our selection from Michael Polyani's The Tacit Dimension. Beyond his classifying of tacit knowledge into its various aspects, namely, its functional structure (recognition of a duality in tacit understanding) phenomenal structure (whereby terms distal and proximal name the relationship that allows us to know), semantic aspect ( whereby we give meaning to or derive meaning from our tacit knowing experience), and the ontological aspect (or the knowledge we have derived from particulars to arrive at a comprehensive whole)...Polyani does something refreshing that resonates deeply...he warns us that divulging ourselves into particulars, may leave us agitated and at an utter loss where meaning is concerned..."how an unbridled lucidity can destroy our understanding of complex matters (Polyani 18)." Rather than ending on any sour notes where meaning is forever elusive, Polyani tells us that we can come back to what is comprehensive with a greater appreciation for it having painstakingly dwelled in a dissection.
Student 23's picture

A metaphor

Or rather, a simile:

Tacit knowledge is like the ground we stand on.

I was trying to imagine what the world would be like if there was no such thing as tacit knowledge, as we defined it-- it would be like trying to live without anything to put our feet on. Picture us getting around by flapping our (imaginary) wings and trying not to fall... we would have to do all the work the floor does for us and we take for granted. It keeps us from sinking to the center of the Earth, it provides traction, it stabilizes us, and if we fall, it's there to catch us. The ground frees up energy* that we would otherwise use just to stabilize ourselves so that we can move.

Similarly, tacit knowledge, our unconcious processing of the world around us, the things we know without knowing we know them, frees up room in our brains we would otherwise be using to conciously analyze every aspect of our environment. It keeps us from sinking to the pure stimulus-response of our reptilian brains, it provides traction for higher thought, it stabilizes us, and if we fall, it's there to catch us.

akerle's picture

body language

I know we were talking about body language in the last class and I have some information for anyone who wants to know:

1) The book I read is called ' The Definitive Book of Body Language' by Barbara and Allen Pease.

2) this is also a v. interesting website


hannahpayne's picture

Summary for Last Week

Last week we talked about if a universe can exist without you in it. This topic brought us back to the idea of the tree falling in the forest and whether or not it made a sound if no one was there to hear it. Because what we experience is a function of our bodies it is very difficult to imagine a world without ourselves in it. 
Paul suggested we wath Woody Allen's movie, "Everything You Want to Know About Sex."

Then we discussed how people experience somthing that is seemingly the same in different ways. (ex. How do we experience Paul?) We all experienced Paul differently because we came up with different words to describe him from our unconcious. But when we tried to conciously describe him we all said mostly the same thing. What we concluded from this was that concious description is more similar and unconcious description is more varied. One explanation that we came up for this is that we have been taught to express ourselves in way others can understand easily. It was suggested that maybe this is the reason we have trouble writing our essays about what we talk about in class because its what we think people want us to say. We also said that the discussion helps us come up with new ideas and build off of our ideas which is why its more interesting than our papers.

We decided that you cannot experience exactly what another person is experiencing becasue no two brains or previous experiences are the same. But then the idea of twins through a wrench into this thinking. Some twins can supposedly feel each other's pain and share the same experience exactly. We thought that this could be a result of their upbringing, being thought of as one person instead of two. But we coudn't really figure out an answer to the twin question.

So... what we learned from this week was that to experience someone else's experience we would need to have their body and mentality. The concious reflects the unconcious. If someone does somegthing without knowing why they are doing it unconciously. 

Also, somthing kinda fun... a lot of people saw pictures instead of words when doing word association. Does this mean that the unconcious understands pictures better than words?
Allison Fink's picture

Record for this past week: Class Assessments, Tacit Knowledge

       This week we first discussed methods for changing how the class works to fit our needs. Our professor said that overall it seemed that people thought it was working, but there were some issues to be addressed. To better facilitate discussion such that everyone is able to have her say, we decided that raising hands could be a tool, but that overall we should listen to each other and try to be spontaneous enough so that we don’t have to deliberate too much before saying something. We decided to  have a question and writing time at the beginning of class, and to enable ourselves to use the forum as a way to post afterthoughts from class. This could be a positive way to keep us thinking about our topics. It was agreed that the topics for papers could be flexible to speak to the student’s needs. The point of editing papers, our professor said, is not just to change a few things around but to revise your actual ideas and method for presenting them.

       We discussed tacit knowledge: knowledge that you know without being aware of how you know it. People seemed very interested in this topic. Together we came up with a long and interesting list, after writing individually for five minutes, of what tacit knowledge is and what our own examples were.  Tacit knowledge can constitute many things, involving instincts, feeling something before you know why you feel it (such as tension before you realize why you are tense), perceiving things without being able to describe what they are in words (such as colors or faces), intuition of other’s feelings, dreams from subconscious influences, emotional  responses to pieces of music that come without being told how they are supposed to make you feel, putting things into categories, and motor skills that come naturally with practice. In summary, a great part of tacit knowledge comes from the older part of the brain, below the neocortex, which is not identified with conscious thought but really encompasses most of our mental operations.       

Alison R. Mouratis's picture

After the fact...

I felt like I had to wait until after our class discussion to post on this week’s topic. I found the point in class today where everyone went around and said what they thought “tacit understanding” was extremely interesting. Hearing definitions such as “understanding a concept, but not knowing why” was very helpful to me in further understanding this weeks’ reading. I personally spoke of guilt and the more I think about it, the more I truly believe that there is a significant overlap between the mind and body. And although this isn’t directly related to our discussion of tacit knowlegge, I felt it what Audra talked about in the beginning of class was very important. Just because there is a scientific way and spiritual way of analyzing everything that happens to us, does not take away from the actual experience itself. Anyway, I’m really excited to brainstorm project-topic ideas…

ashaffer's picture

Summary: Week 7

Idea: “you” not existing
• That we experience things in “this” body- in a different body, things change- different reality
o You would see the world differently
o different expressions of how we experience things vs. different actual experiences of things
o Everyone has a different experience of things- it relates to our body- our bodies are different
• Does a tree make a sound when it falls if you don’t hear it?
Idea: perception as it relates to perspective
• Our experiences of things are different from person to person
• Identical twins sharing their experiences with each other
• Can they share some parts of their perceptions? (ie. wavelengths of light→ color)
Idea: Experiencing the world entirely through someone else’s consciousness-
• means that your consciousness would cease to exist, therefore your self would not be able to be to do this w/o becoming someone else’s self Conscious vs. Unconscious things-
o describing (conscious) personal experience in a way that other people can relate to
o explaining (unconscious) things in a way that only we understand
Idea: lots of Free Association
• we were trying to describe the unconscious and how it relates to the conscious
Idea: trying to look @ the unconscious
• Using body language, etc.
o Pupils dilating, menstrual synchronizing
o Turing towards/away from someone, etc.

Good luck on those papers everybody!!!
ashaffer's picture


I have to say, I really enjoyed “The Tacit Dimension.” I can’t honestly say that I understand it completely, but several of the author’s points are incredibly interesting stories. I like the distinction between the “knowing what,” and the “knowing how” as I understand it.
I couldn’t help but thinking of vision as I read this work- can this tacit knowing be equated to peripheral vision (as opposed to focused vision)? My reasons for asking this question is that, we observe things peripherally that takes no concentration or “indwelling.” Nevertheless, we are still observing things. To understand them more clearly, we can shift our eyes and focus on them – “interiorizing” -(both purposely and involuntarily), but, in doing so, our perception of the object we are gazing at is changed- it changes from the blurry picture in our peripheral to a clearer image. The reading says “scrutinize closely the particulars of a comprehensive entity and their meaning is effaced.” If you are willing to momentarily equate meaning with perception, then this example, I think, fits nicely.
I also thought of the kind of tacit knowledge that I use when I play sports. My coaches often chastise me for “overthinking” things on the volleyball court. Just like the concentration on a repeated word changes its meaning for us temporarily and we lose sight of its definition/use, when I focus exclusively on how to pass the ball, I tend to (somehow) make myself less likely to successfully pass it. In a sense, the meaning/practice of the pass is erased. What I have found to help in these situations is to focus on something else. I sing a song, work out a math problem in my head, plan my weekend- in terms of the vision example, I move the act of passing the ball from my mental focus to the periphery- then I am able to let my body do what I have taught it to do.
I don’t know if anyone else relates to this at all, but I think it’s similar to “letting an idea come to you.” “The Tacit Dimension” talks about how scientists, when they look for the answer to a problem, they have “tacit foreknowledge of yet undiscovered things.” I take this to mean that, on some level, you know what you want to say- maybe it’s in the peripheral, but it’s there. Sometimes, trying so hard to “come up with an idea”- focus on it- can be just as unproductive as my overthinking on the volleyball court. Rather than hunting down the answer, sometimes it may be more helpful to relax, “un”focus, and let the answer hunt you down. [I hesitate to say this because it seems like I am advocating scientific laziness, so please do not misunderstand me- I am merely suggesting that exegesis of a situation or problem can be more successful than isogesis- that is to say, vigorously following the data to where it will lead.]
More later on analysis and meaning…
hoope's picture

i found both readings

i found both readings interesting. In the reading on Tacit knowledge, i'm not sure i agree with plato's statement that you cannot find anything if you don't know what you're looking for.
but i really liked the idea that sometimes becoming aware of the first term can ruin our understanding of the second. i sometimes notice this happening in my life, especially in the context of the ability to perform skills. if i think really hard of all the little, unnoticed things i do when playing soccer, then forget how to play. but when it comes to understanding, i think it is possible to both understand the minute details and have an understanding of the whole, like in the example he gave of an engeneer.
i also wondered how the scientists mentioned found volunteers for their shock experiments.

the experiments actually reminded me of something i learned in biology that i found really interesting. there is a species of worm that can be put in a T shaped tube and trained to always turn left by putting food in the left side and an electric shock in the right side. once trained, the worm will always turn left even when the food and shock are removed. then if you kill the worm and cut it into little pieces and feed it to other worms of the same species, they will always turn left too.

Hilary McGowan's picture

Communism and Philosophy

In reading the Tacit Dimension, the beginning thoughts and words were the ones that provoked me the most. The idea and history that an entire human belief system and society could change is still astonishing to me. Communism has always been incredibly intriuging because of the sheer power it had over so many people. It was not merely a belief system or a government, but a metamorphosis of twisted philosophy.

Our previous conversations in these readings lend themselves to Communism as well, not in the Dictatorship style, but the re-thinking of humanity and what we percieve. Which 'story' is correct? Is the popular idea the correct one? I'm not saying anything about Mao, but about me. What do I believe?

akerle's picture

i hate technology



i just spend 20 mins writing this really long thing and now it's been deleted and i've lost the flow.

will post later once i have stopped hating technology as much.

akeefe's picture

Towards Nonfood

It was a spur of the moment decision to not have a takeout lunch, but instead find someone to sit with that I did not know in the least. I did find someone, and we had a rather interesting discussion about a paper she was reading on race relations. I forgot about some of the things we had discussed until I read Philosophy in the Flesh. During the discussion on “the inescapability of categories,” I suppose, I was predisposed to think about how this idea related to interpersonal categorical relationships.

ie race relations. I wondered how a phrase like, “We do not, and cannot, have full conscious control over how we categorize.” fits into the diversity training that I received in my childhood. It was a very noble venture, eliminate racism by eliminating the differences that we see in each other. However, Lakoff and Johnson might have said that we cannot unwrite our software of categorization. We are all like amoeba separating everything it encounters into food and nonfood.

So perhaps my teachers were mistaken in thinking that our class or anyone else could entirely stop being aware of differences within humanity. Yet, I do not believe that this justifies allowing cultural prototypes ( or stereotypes) to pervade out interaction with our environment. Humanity has traveled a long way since the amoeba. Unlike the amoeba, who moves towards food and away from all else instinctually, we have the ability to choose to investigated those things that fit into the categories we create. Humanity, can explore its environment less selfishly.

Then maybe the way to combat racism, stereotyping, and so forth is not to cut off the discussion and hope it goes away, but to learn about and appreciate the differences in ideas, cultures, and ultimately the INDIVDUAL MINDS of those we encounter. Move towards nonfood, it may prove just as useful in the long run.


nmuntz's picture

Tacit Knowing.....

"We know more than we can tell"

I think this is an ingenious way of looking at knowledge.  This happens to me all the time: where you can't explain what you know but you can recognize it, whether it is a face, or a specific culture's way of life.  The one thing that really sparks my interest right now though: Is deja vu a form of tacit knowledge?  What do you think?

merry2e's picture

Sleepless nights and second posting due to phil and flesh

(A second posting) After a night of tossing and turning, dreaming of Philosophy in the Flesh (all of 3 hours), all I really want to know is…

is unconscious memory inheritable?

Audra's picture

Love at First Sight

I am in love with the second text.


Okay, maybe I’m just infatuated. We’ll see if I feel the same after writing a paper about him.


How we met: 


I was sipping a glass of red wine in the C-Sem Bar, chatting half-heartedly with a somewhat wordy and inaccessible essay, when Philosophy in the Flesh sauntered in. I could tell immediately that he was not like the others I’d met there. Within the first few words, I was hooked— I find cognitive science fascinating. His immediate connection to the Humanities showed off his versatility, and I knew I’d found someone I could develop a relationship with. He dazzled me with thought-provoking ideas, he wooed me with references to linguistics. Our compatibility was made most apparent by his continual assertion that the shades of grey prevail; reality is an interaction between the subjective and the objective. What a delicious concept that fits so well with my personal belief system! How refreshing and reassuring to find a novel idea that both questions my conception of reality and lets me come to the conclusion that I think the right way after all! 


Philo, as I affectionately call him, and I have been happily engaged for the past two hours. We’re putting an announcement in the paper tomorrow. I’ll let you know how the relationship progresses.

merry2e's picture

Change in brain chemistry and future generations???


“Second, these results tell us that our bodies, brains, and interactions with our environment provide the mostly unconscious basis for our everyday metaphysics, that is, our sense of what is real” (17).

I cannot help but think especially of the “interactions with our environment” and, if it changes the functioning of the brain…especially in regards to interpersonal relationships and as in Darwin’s theory, if this change would begin to be passed down to the future generations…I do not know if I am understanding this reading correctly or if I am “telling what I feel like I cannot tell” properly, if that makes any sense at all.

 I am wondering if there is a change in the brain chemistry and can tacit knowledge be passed down like other inherited traits?

Anyway…I am still trying to wrap my head around this reading.

calypsse's picture

again with the truth

I don't really see a dramatic shift from what we've been discussing so far, these two readings again deal with perception, truth, retelling something, I think it's really interesting. I like to see the debate of preconceptions and how can they be proven obsolete. The human body will never cease to amaze me, and by integrating two fields that often don't agree the more fun it is. Elisa
Allyson's picture

I considered this an

I considered this an interesting reading because of its wide applicability to what we’ve discussed in class. Every time we have a conversation in class we’ve touched those boundaries of tacit knowledge by asking how we’ve come to accept stories as part of our basic knowledge in any and all aspects of life. I find this approach particularly engaging because it seems as if we are not necessarily expending on the topic, but instead digging down deeper in order to see why we think this way and learning more in turn. That is what the function of the readings seemed to be, but it was applied even more broadly in order to lead us to thinking about thinking.

hannahpayne's picture

The ideas presented in the

The ideas presented in the two readings made up some of my favorite parts o psychology in high school. I find it really interesting how so much of our thinking is subconcious and we are only aware of a small portion of the information our brain processes. I continue to be amazed by the brain, it can perform so many different funtions at one time that it doesn't bring to awareness. This also baffles me, how can something that drives our every motion and thought be so hidden from our conciousness. Why aren't we constantly concious of our breathing or of the processing of sound or color? Tacit knowing is far more extensive than I ever realized.
jforde's picture

I found the Lakoff and

I found the Lakoff and Johnson readings more interesting than The Tacit Dimension mainly because I found it very confusing. The Lakoff and Johnson readings seemed to have a theme of the unconcious in each othe the sections. Before this reading I only associated the concious with Freudian theory and dreams. The readings further extended on the unconcious stating that it had a larger rols in our thoughts and reasoning. I don't understand how reasoning could be unconcious since you are concious when you reason and you are aware of it. Also, reason develops from past experiences and understanding which are reached conciously. The only time that I can see reason dealing with the unconcious is when one does not know the reason for a given answer but knows the answer. Unconciously, the person knows the answer but cannot think of it conciously. I agree with their agruments for thoughts mostly being concious.
carterian's picture

Wow. I really feel like

Wow. I really feel like there isn't too much to add to what these readings said. They were not only super complicated, but they were so interesting. I don't think I could come up with any counter-argument.

The first reading really made me think about the kind of tacit knowing in my life. I have previously mentioned in class how science boggles my mind. I can't seem to understand why electrons act the way they do or why. I know a light goes on when I turn the switch, I know it has something to do with electrons (maybe not...I may be remembering it wrong), but I still don't really get it. It's the same with math, I actually do well in math, but after reading this it really made me think, "Well, who decided that 2+2=4?" I mean the whole concept of numbers is so amazing. All that we do with them...its crazy!

I remember when I was younger I often found myself pondering these philosophical questions, and subsequently freaking myself out. On many occasions, I realized that I was just one person in this entire universe, I was only on Earth, and I was just a small girl. This is hard for me to try and describe, but still to this day thoughts like this enter my mind. It's a weird sensation because for a split-second I recognize a world outside of myself. The second reading was really a statement that our world and concepts rely on us and our bodies. No one can truly imagine a world without themselves. If someone asked me to imagine a world without me, I would automatically think upon my family and friends and so on...all the things that directly apply to me.

I don't really know exactly what I'm saying, it's such a complicated, but important topic. I don't think anybody can really understand the intricacies of humans and life.