Recently, I have been reading excerpts from the writings Michael Polanyi, a scientist turned philosopher. Polanyi was interested to understand how scientists would “know” when they had hit upon a significant discovery, or when the findings of another scientists were truly valid and significant. Polanyi challenged the scientific assumption that all true knowledge was empirical, that is, it could be “proven.” Polanyi said there was another kind of knowledge that came from one’s culture, one’s experience and one’s community called tacit knowledge. He defined tacit knowledge as knowing something beyond our ability to explain it.
He gave the example of recognizing a friend’s face in a crowd. We might be able to describe the features of a person’s face. By themselves, those features could describe a million different people, but when we saw those features on one particular person, we “knew” it was the face of our friend. How did we know that configuration of features was our friend? Tacit knowledge. We can’t explain why, we just know that is him.
As I have gotten older, I have learned to listen to those aspects of my being that seem beyond words. I sit in a meeting and I get a “gut feeling, an intuition about how a decision will go down. It may be minutes, hours or even days before I can articulate the reasons behind my “hunch,” and in the world of academia, as well as in the world of business, hunches and gut feelings don’t get you much of a hearing —unless over time they have proven to be right. Nonetheless, I have learned to follow my intuitions to the point of trying to put words to the feeling; but it’s the tacit knowing, the knowing beyond words, that gets me started.
I have also started to listen to my body. There are days I can just “feel” a cold coming on or “feel” that I need to get to bed early. There may be no tell tale signs that I need to change my routine, but my body is giving me signals. Another example: I have muscle in my chest that tells me when I am overstressing myself. Several years ago I went to the doctor because I thought I might have a heart problem. After stress tests, and all sorts of scans, nothing showed. My heart was perfectly healthy and functioning fine. The pain came and went. So, I listened to my inner voice –it’s your body telling you to slow down. Now I listen. Why that muscle? Why that message? I can’t explain it except to say its tacit knowledge.
This whole idea of tacit knowledge leads me to think that there is a whole lot more knowledge and understanding in our bodies, in our intuitions, and in our souls than we give credence to. We need to learn how to listen and then respect the tacit knowledge that is there. Today so many people seem to be drowning out the world with noise. Perhaps we ought to turn off the TVs, radios, Ipods, computers and cell phones, and cultivate an awareness of the knowledge we have beyond words. We may find we know a whole lot more than we realize.