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« Web Surfing | Main | Art and Religion in the Dia Generation »

April 11, 2003

Michael Polanyi

Friedrich --

Thinking about the "tacit dimension"

Do you still read much philosophy? I do, though in spasms. But I've come to realize I'm not a true philosophy person, enjoyable as I can find it. Real philosophy people engage with the ideas deeply, deeply. They seem to feel that by doing so they’re really getting somewhere, and they relish the fun of quarreling over each split hair. Me? I’m happy enough with a solid general impression of what’s up ideawise. What I get taken by tends to be either a philosopher’s literary qualities (Schopenhauer; Kierkegaard), or his usefulness (Aristotle, Hume). Call me superficial.

Recently I've been thumbing through some of the work of the Hungarian chemist and philsopher of science Michael Polanyi, who I first read some years ago. I like him still. He's one of the useful ones, and I think you'd get a kick out of his writing and thinking -- he's likely to be of interest to anyone who's ever flipped for Popper, Gombrich, Hayek, or Oakeshott.

What he's best known for is his idea that we have different ways of knowing. One way depends on explicit training and conscious skill; it's technical. The other ("tacit knowledge") consists of what we know but probably can't express -- everything that goes into "having a knack for it," "knowing what feels right," etc. One of his examples is driving a nail into a board. You know this is a hammer; this is a nail; this is a board. You hold the hammer; you know how to hammer. All this is technical knowledge. But when you actually perform the activity, all you know is that you're driving the nail into the board. If you were to focus on your hammer technique, you'd be likely to screw the task up.

Polanyi extends this kind of thinking into meditations (convincing, to my mind) on the role in science of such (non-"objective") factors as personal commitment, inspiration, insight, imagination and faith. As you'd guess, and like Hayek and Oakeshott, he had a great deal of respect for tradition and common sense, both of which he saw as embodying far more in the way of knowledge and experience than we'll probably ever be able to uncover.

He seems solid and down to earth to me, which is probably partly because before turning to the philosophy of science he spent a couple of decades as a topnotch chemist. He had concrete experience of what he was philosophizing about. And -- amazingly enough -- whenever he felt he didn't have the information or evidence he knew he needed, he actually went out and got it. At one point, for example, he wanted to know how craftspeople worked, and how they managed their skills and their knowledge. What did he do? By god if he didn't go out and do extensive interviews with craftspeople.

No empty theory here, in other words. Does his work provide literary thrills? Nope, though he wrote unpretentiously and straightforwardly. What it does come through with is utility, or so I find. His thinking offers a solid alternative to the usual modern/postmodern dichotomy, and is simpatico with evo-bio approaches to the arts. If there's a little more art in science than we usually allow for, maybe there's a little more science in art -- something you and I both seem to think and hope, and sometimes insist is true. Or ought to be.

The Polanyi Society's webite can be explored here.

You'll get all the Polanyi you're likely to need from his two best-known books, The Tacit Dimension (here) and Personal Knowledge (here).

Mars Hill Audio has produced a two-cassette audio documentary about Polanyi that can be bought here. It's produced in a dreary, NPRish style, but it's fair and substantial.

The best free way I know of to sample Polanyi's brain is to read this essay at the Polanyi Society, "The Stability of Beliefs," here.

Let me know how you respond if you give him a try.



posted by Michael at April 11, 2003


Does Polanyi convincingly use the analogy of explicit vs. tacit knowledge? Or does he perhaps force this analogy upon scientific practice? His ideas seem to overlap those of ethnographic/user requirement research, wherein one studies the implicit practices and thoughts of the client in order to design a computer system that really seamlessly fits into their work culture.

Posted by: Chris on April 11, 2003 1:45 PM

Hey Chris -- From my know-nothing, long-ago-English-major point of view, I found his view of tacit and explicit ways of knowing very convincing. It rang true to me, which isn't to say that I'm any kind of judge. But I did take reassurance from the fact that he'd done science himself.

I'd imagine that the computer world would be a great test of his thoughts. There are things I notice about people, computers and how they do and don't get along that I'd love ask Polanyi about. Have you noticed, for instance, that even someone who's terrific and experienced at a complicated program like Quark or Photoshop can go away for a few weeks, return, and have lost a surprising amount of her familiarity with the program? She might really have to think about where that one tool is, or how to execute that particular command. Where, say, a carpenter who goes away from his craft and returns a few weeks later seems to lose almost nothing? The tool-craft-user relationship seems a bit different. I notice too that people working at computers often talk to themselves as they execute multistep tasks -- "OK, now I go over and here and drop this in like that; and shrink that; and now back to this program so I can ..." Why?

People's interactions with computers must be fun to study. But I've got zip knowledge of it, apart from reading a little Donald Norman. Do you know much about the subject? I'd be very curious to hear about your response to Polanyi if you do give him a try.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 11, 2003 2:20 PM

Perhaps Chris will come back to comment on this: one clue, I'd say, is that carpenters' tools were designed by people who were looking for a better way to carpent.

I can't imagine the marketing team, the project managers, and vice-presidents in charge of synergy, and the developers from the original hammer launch team having any major disagreements.

Posted by: j.c. on April 13, 2003 1:58 PM

I would suggest the hammer analogy does not carry over very well into the relationship of the computer user and software. In that case the hammer is more like the keyboard and the software, such as Quark, is more like the specs the carpenter is working under.


Posted by: Deb on April 16, 2003 10:56 AM

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