Tacit Knowledge

[The following was a conversation on tacit knowledge shared between myself and two colleagues. We were discussing the properties and uses of tacit knowledge, and whether or not it’s something that can be verbally passed on. The initials “C1” and “C2” represent my colleagues’ comments. The initial, “K”, represents my comments.]

C1: It seems to me that the limitation of tacit knowledge is that it stays with you, can’t be passed on. No question that it’s valuable; just not valuable to students who want to learn from you. I try to keep in mind that what is tacit but not articulate cannot be reflected upon – we must articulate something in order to reflect upon it. An additional level of “knowing” that I think teachers (good ones, anyhow) have to push for within themselves.

K: Yes, totally agree. Actually, I like to think I’m better than average at showing others how to get in touch with their own tacit knowledge. I can explain it, and I’m happy to explain, but it’s often a much slower, less buzzier process than other ways of passing along knowledge, and many intellectual types who are predominantly comfortable falling on the “see it, touch it, smell it–it exists” side usually don’t have the patience, as you point out. Especially when facts are just so darn satisfyingly and quickly verifiable.

C1: This is different, of course, from “logical analysis” – a lot of what is felt in one’s “bones” is not a matter of logic but a knowing that goes much deeper. And, let’s face it, that stuff usually sends the intellectuals screaming anyhow.

K: I love mind knowledge, but it’s often like candy to me. Nice quick rush. But it’s not until it sinks into the body knowledge that it sustains. And then, with enough experience and paying attention, it can finally sink into tacit knowledge. Yes, “knowing” that goes much deeper. That’s always what interests me.

Sending intellectuals screaming? One of my favorite pastimes… Except for those times, of course, when I’m trying to impersonate one.

C1: Don’t you think that knowledge can also begin as tacit knowledge which is then articulated?

K: Yes. I think tacit knowledge more often does originate in the body — that kind of intuitive, deep knowing that often (though not always) appears to be spontaneous. “I need to know, so I do” — it’s often that fast. Then, of course, we get slowed back down trying to find words to explain the knowing. But tacit knowledge can be acquired in reverse — meaning starting with intellectual knowledge and moving it down into the body through years of experience, observation, and practice — but it’s a slow boat to China. I also find that once one has or begins acquiring tacit knowledge, it makes gaining other tacit knowledge much easier.

C1: My experience is that the stuff that makes someone great at what they do – cooking, riding, training, writing, carving, shrinking heads, whatever – is often built in tacit knowledge, particularly if formal education hasn’t been the starting point for the knowledge. Long before I could ever articulate to another human being how I do what I do, I could do it with an animal. When I found the “mind knowledge” candy of jargon and technical applications, I was all excited at first, and then mightily annoyed to find out that cool sounding things like fading cues or extinguishing behaviors or raising criteria – so annoying to discover that I’d long known how to do that, just didn’t know that it had a name or an explanation.

K: Sure, innate gifts are a kind of tacit knowing. And unless a person has a need to verbally communicate that knowing, there is no message being sent to the body to send up a bunch of words to the brain to attach to that knowing. It gets to stay amorphous (often not even fully understood or explored by the individual) because they’ve been able to take it for granted and haven’t had to learn how or why it works, because it just works reliably for them — it’s there when they need it to be there. And, personally, I think some people get superstitious about it. Like if they look at it or question it too deeply, it might go away. Then there are those who might feel that if they could explain it, it would take away the mysterious, mystical qualities, and therefore they might wind up feeling less special (for those who need to feel special). Being the mad scientist that I am, I have the opposite problems.

C1: I think mind knowledge as a starting point is dangerous, and getting it to sink into deeply-known-in-your-bones knowledge is the trick.

K: Because of how our culture is, I find most people freak out a little if you don’t start out with them on the mind knowledge level first. That’s a comfortable space-boundary thing, I think. Doesn’t matter that I can usually pick up a ton about someone within a few minutes — if that’s where I started with them it would shock the pants off them and shut them down pretty quickly in se