New Work on Tacit Knowledge

Lynne Kiesling

An article in New Scientist is an excerpt from a new work on tacit knowledge. Harry Collins of Cardiff University is following Michael Polanyi’s treatment of tacit knowledge, but arguing that of the three categories of tacit knowledge he identifies (somatic, relational, collective). Collins argues that Polanyi characterized tacit knowledge as mysterious:

To find a space for his idea, Polanyi made tacit knowledge seem more mysterious than it is. Now we know science is not perfectible we do not have to fight so hard to retain a conceptual space for that which cannot be done by logic and mathematics. This means we can take a calmer look at tacit knowledge and remove some of the mystery.

However, his book delves into making somatic and relational tacit knowledge less mysterious. The remaining mystery in tacit knowledge, though, is highly relevant to economics and social science:

The one real mystery left lies in collective tacit knowledge. This is mysterious because we can’t describe it and we don’t know in detail how we acquire it. It is mysterious because we can only “borrow it”: it is not our property but is social and collective. Take language. What constitutes our constantly changing natural language is not up to any individual, it is a matter of where the collective of language speakers takes it.

This is also why Polanyi missed the full complexity of bike-riding. To balance on a bike we need somatic tacit knowledge, but to ride it in traffic we need collective tacit knowledge. Only by understanding the unspoken conventions of traffic (which vary hugely from place to place, time to time, culture to culture) can you ride in safety. These are impossible to describe in moment-to-moment detail and are unknowable to any entity but humans.

This insight fits well with lots of interesting work on informal and customary legal institutions, as well as still fitting in the intersection between Polanyi and Hayek that resonates with the title of this site. I am adding the Collins book to my summer reading list!

2 thoughts on “New Work on Tacit Knowledge

  1. Picturing you on your bike at the corner of Polanyi and Hayek (streets on the economic fitness landscape, perhaps?) trying to tap into the tacit collective knowledge needed to ride safely in the traffic.

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