Personal Knowing, Tacit Knowledge, and Skillful Performance: A Primer in Polanyi

Personal knowing

One of the most distinguishing features of Michael Polanyi’s work is his insistence on overcoming well established dichotomies, such as theoretical versus practical knowledge, sciences versus the humanities or, to put it differently, his determination to show the common structure underlying all kinds of knowledge. Polanyi, a chemist turned philosopher, was categorical that all knowing involves skillful action and that the knower necessarily participates in all acts of understanding. For him the idea that there is such a thing as ‘objective’ knowledge, self-contained, detached, and independent of human action, was wrong and pernicious. ‘All knowing,’ he insists, ‘is personal knowing—participation through indwelling’ (Polanyi and Prosch, 1975: 44; italics in the original).

Take, for example, the use of geographical maps. A map is a symbolic representation of a particular territory. As an explicit representation, a map is, in logical terms, no different from a theoretical system or a system of behavioral rules: they all aim at enabling purposeful human action, that is, respectively, to get from A to B; to predict; and to guide behavior. We may be familiar with a map per se but to use it we need to be able to relate it to the world outside the map. More specifically, to use a map we need to be able to do three things. First, we must identify our current position on the map (‘you are here’). ...

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