Though it is a psychological fact that human beings acquire, retain, and employ tacit knowledge, accounts of its nature and function in perception, memory, cognition, language, and learning vary across disciplines. In epistemology, the concept of tacit knowledge was pioneered by the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) in his Personal Knowledge (1956) and The Tacit Dimension (1966). Drawing on Gestalt psychology, Polanyi developed a theory of tacit knowledge by extending the perceptual model of attending from subsidiary clues or particulars (bodily processes, sensory experiences, memory, intimations) to a focal whole (pattern, object, entity) to a general model that holds cognitive processes ranging form identifying objects, performing skills, solving (scientific) problems to understanding texts or persons. Tacit knowing is seen to consist in relying on integrated and interiorized particulars for attending to the comprehensive entity on which these particulars bear, and in terms of which they are (tacitly) known. Accordingly, a formal definition of tacit knowledge and its structure may read thus: a person A has tacit knowledge of a collection of subsidiary clues S if (1) S is integrated by A, (2) A is not directly aware of S, and (3) A has integrated S such that (4) S bears on a focal whole, F.
On this construal, all knowledge is more or less embodied and either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. Moreover, tacit knowledge can be seen as the model of all skillful problem solving, of which scientific discovery is the paradigm case. Inquirers follow rules they can hardly specify and are seldom aware of. In this respect, tacit knowledge is more like knowing how to do things or what things are for than propositional knowledge that something is the case. Near parallels here are Gilbert Ryle's distinction between "knowing how" and "knowing that," and Bertrand Russell's between "knowledge by acquaintance—knowledge by description." Finally, the personal character of tacit knowledge does not make it subjective or irrational. Acquired in the context of social practices of learning and inquiry, it is both personal and social.
The implications of this theory for the dialogue between science and theology are at least the following. First, by emphasizing that contexts of "coming to know" cannot be governed wholly by general rules, the theory would support historical, evolutionary, and cognitive approaches to science and religion, rather than rationalist, metaphysical, and logical ones. Next, by presenting an alternative to impersonal and reductionist accounts of science that focus exclusively on questions of justification or methodology, the theory influenced many theologians, including Thomas F. Torrance, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, and Lesslie Newbigin. It advocates the personal and fiduciary nature of scientific knowing in practice that is not at odds but consonant with religious understanding. Finally, tacit knowledge as embodied, personal, and social points to a common ground for science and religion, not of a methodological or metaphysical nature, but of an evolutionary, cognitive, and anthropological nature. Permeating all human inquiry—scientific as well as scholarly, aesthetic, moral, and religious—tacit knowledge shows that all claims to know and understand are voiced from within traditions and shaped by values that can only be upheld within a free society that allows people to adhere to them.
See also Epistemology
gill, jerry h. the tacit mode: michael polanyi's postmodern philosophy. albany: state university of new york press, 2000.
polanyi, michael. knowing and being: essays, ed. marjorie grene. london: routledge and kegan paul, 1969.
polanyi, michael. scientific thought and social reality: essays, ed. fred schwartz. new york: international universities press, 1974.
sanders, andy f. michael polanyi's post-critical epistemology: a reconstruction of some aspects of tacit knowing. amsterdam: rodopi, 1988.
andy f. sanders