The Tacit Dimension

Michael Polanyi


Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension. 1966. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1966. Paperback: 9780226672984.


“'I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell,' writes Michael Polanyi, whose work paved the way for the likes of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. The Tacit Dimension argues that tacit knowledge---tradition, inherited practices, implied values, and prejudgments---is a crucial part of scientific knowledge. Back in print for a new generation of students and scholars, this volume challenges the assumption that skepticism, rather than established belief, lies at the heart of scientific discovery.”


I. Summary

“Tacit Knowing”

1) Premise: we can know more than we can tell

  • This is Polanyi’s starting point, a “fact [that] seems obvious enough” (4).

  • For Polanyi, that which we know but cannot tell is the tacit.

2) The first mode of the tacit is ostension, pointing

  • The “ostensive” mode in language is denotation, “naming-cum-pointing” (5).

  • We use words to point to things.

3) The second mode of the tacit is subception, integrating

  • This is a psychological concept.

  • Subception occurs when a subject integrates a set of particulars, which she is aware of but cannot identify, into her knowledge through her experience of their effect.

4) The two modes correspond to the two terms of tacit knowing

  • The first term is the “proximal” (near) and the second term is the “distal” (far) (10).

5) Tacit knowing has a functional from-to structure

  • The tacit faculty points from proximal particulars to a distal whole, and in pointing to the distal whole integrates the particulars into a comprehensive entity.

  • We know “the second term [the whole] by attending to it, and hence the subject is specifiable” (9). But we know the first term [the particulars] only by “attending to something else [the whole] … and hence our knowledge of [it] remains tacit” (10).

  • So there is a “functional relation between the two terms of tacit knowing: we know the first term only by relying on our awareness of it for attending to the second” (10).

  • In the “act of tacit knowing,” then, “we attend from something for attending to something else; namely, from the first term to the second term of the tacit relation” (10).

  • This is the “from-to” structure of tacit knowing, which is its “functional structure” (10).

6) Tacit knowing has a phenomenal structure of appearance

  • Tacit knowing has a “phenomenal structure” (11) because “we are aware of the proximal term of an act of tacit knowing in the appearance of its distal term; we are aware of that from which we are attending to another thing, in the appearance of that thing” (11).

7) Tacit knowing has a semantic aspect

  • The “semantic aspect” (13) is how “an interpretive effort transposes meaningless feelings into meaningless ones, and places these at some distance from the original feeling” (13).

  • This is to say that meaning is “displaced away from ourselves” in the tacit dimension (13).

  • The meaning of the proximal (near) term is located in the distal (far) term.

8) Tacit knowing has an ontological aspect

  • The fourth term, and the most significant for Polanyi’s following discussion of emergence, is the “ontological aspect” (13).

  • The distal term is a meaningful whole because there is, in fact, a relation between proximal particulars that constitutes a comprehensive entity.

9) The implication is that existence precedes essence

  • The tacit, in relating from an unspecified set of particulars to a specified whole, makes the observer aware of the particulars through the appearance of the whole.

  • The meaning of the particulars that we tacitly know, then, is in their appearance as a whole. They do not mean in themselves, but in comprehensive relation to each other, and to the observer.

  • The leap Polanyi makes is that the being of the comprehensive entity must be understood as this “meaningful relation between two terms” (13), which are the proximal particulars (first term), and the distal whole (second term).

  • Therefore, the tacit is indispensable, because “we comprehend the entity by relying on our awareness of its particulars for attending to their joint meaning” (13), but our understanding cannot be reduced to the isolated understanding of particulars in themselves.

  • We cannot reduce a comprehensive entity to an ‘essence’ because its essence exists in the relation of its existents.

10) Perception unifies the two modes of the tacit

  • Perception is a “transposition of feelings” (14), a relation [n.] or relating [v.] between proximal and distal terms, that occurs through “the use of probes [ostension; pointing] and in the process of subception [integration]” (14).

11) Perception is fundamentally a bodily process

  • “Our body is the ultimate instrument of all our external knowledge [knowledge that is distal to us], whether intellectual or practical” (15).

  • In this way, the body is always proximal to the distal world.

  • “In all our waking moments we are relying on our awareness of contacts of our body with things outside for attending to these things” (16).

  • Our immediate [percept-ive] thought takes this from-to structure, in that immediate thought is the most bodily form of thought. Our reflective [concept-ive] thought also operates in this manner, but in being a symbolic patterning of the world, and also a distancing in time from it, it is necessarily secondary to the immediate.

12) The body is the locus of knowing

  • “Our own body is the only thing in the world which we normally never experience as an object, but experience always in terms of the world to which we are attending from our body. It is by making this intelligent use of our body that we feel it to be our body, and not a thing outside” (16).

  • But, “[w]henever we use certain things for attending from them to other things, in the way in which we always use our own body, these things change their appearance. They appear to us now in terms of the entities to which we are attending from them, just as we feel our own body in terms of the entities to which we are attending from our body” (16).

  • “when we make a thing function as the proximal term of tacit knowing, we incorporate it in our body—or extend our body to include it—so that we come to dwell in it” (16).

13) Understanding is an indwelling

  • When we understand something we “incorporate it in our body” as we do with a tool, but as concept more than percept, reflective rather than immediate knowledge.

  • This is “interiorization” (17).

  • “To interiorize is to identify ourselves with the teachings in question, by making them function as the proximal term of a tacit moral knowledge, as applied in practice” (17).

  • “To rely on a theory for understanding nature is to interiorize it. For we are attending from the theory to things seen in its light, and are aware of the theory, while thus using it, in terms of the spectacle that it serves to explain” (17).

  • “true knowledge,” therefore, “lies in our ability to use it” (17). Reflective knowledge must be incorporated into our immediate knowledge, which is to say, made tacit.

  • Since the body learns tacitly, and since the body is the ultimate instrument of our external knowledge, Polanyi argues, then, “that it is not by looking at things, but by dwelling in them, that we understand their joint meaning” (18).

  • So we see that the integration accomplished through the “denotative word” is the same integration that occurs in tacit knowing. Or rather, denotation is the linguistic tacit.

14) Theories depend on prior tacit knowing

  • A theory “can be constructed only be relying on prior tacit knowing and can function as a theory only within an act of tacit knowing, which consist in our attending from it to the previously established experience on which it bears” (21).

  • So the symbolic (reflective) act of theorization depends on prior immediate knowledge, and previously integrated reflective knowledge.

15) Seeing a problem thus depends on prior tacit knowledge

  • “all research must start from a problem” (21).

  • “Research can be successful only if the problem is good; it can be original only if the problem is original” (21).

  • “to see a problem is to see something that is hidden” (21).

  • “It is to have an intimation of the coherence of hitherto not comprehended particulars” (21).

  • Plato demonstrated the necessity of the tacit in the Meno, because “if all knowledge is explicit, i.e., capable of being clearly stated, then we cannot know a problem or look for its solution” (22).

16) Tacit knowledge acts as a sort of foreknowledge

17) Truth claims rely on the foreknowledge of the tacit

  • “It appears, then, that to know that a statement is true is to know more than we can tell and that hence, when a discovery solves a problem, it is itself fraught with further intimations of an indeterminate range, and that furthermore, when we accept the discovery as true, we commit ourselves to a belief in all these as yet undisclosed, perhaps as yet unthinkable, consequences” (23).

  • “Such indeterminate commitments are necessarily involved in any act of knowing based on indwelling. For such an act relies on interiorizing particulars to which we are not attending and which, therefore, we may not be able to specify, and relies further on our attending from these unspecifiable particulars to a comprehensive entity connecting them in a way we cannot define” (24).

  • Thus “all knowledge is of the same kind as the knowledge of a problem” (24).

  • Knowledge is therefore also the “knowledge of an approaching discovery” (25).

18) Such knowledge is deeply personal

  • It is “deeply committed to the conviction that there is something there to be discovered” (25).

  • “It is personal, in the sense of involving the personality of him who holds it” (25).

  • “The discover is filled with a compelling sense of responsibility for the pursuit of a hidden truth” (25)

  • This knowledge is therefore also an act of “personal judgment” (25).

19) Anticipation of discovery can be a delusion

  • But this is a risk we must take

  • “You cannot formalize the act of commitment, for you cannot express your commitment non-commitally” (25).


1) Understanding the world begins with the body

  • “Because our body is involved in the perception of objects, it participates thereby in our knowing of all other things outside” (29).

  • “Moreover, we keep expanding our body into the world, by assimilating to it sets of particulars which we integrate into reasonable entities” (29).

  • “Thus do we form, intellectually and practically, an interpreted universe populated by entities, the particulars of which we have interiorized for the sake of comprehending their meaning in the shape of coherent entities” (29).

  • The logic here is that, because the body is the ultimate proximal term, it is also therefore the ultimate means of our integration with (and thus indwelling and understanding of) the distal term, i.e., the world.

  • The infant, presumably, is thrown into the world with entirely tacit knowledge of its body. The infant learns the world through tacit integrations of it, starting with her own body.

2) Understanding each other is performance

  • “The performer co-ordinates his moves by dwelling in them as parts of his body, while the watcher tries to correlate these moves by seeking to dwell in them from outside. He dwells in these moves by interiorizing them” (30).

  • In this performance “we meet something that accounts for the coherence of the entity” (30). At the level of the person, this entity is mind and personhood. We cannot attend to the particulars of our own personhood or that of another, but in the performance of such, a coherent entity emerges, is presented, is revealed.

  • It is a “false assumption that we start acquiring the knowledge of a mind by observing the workings of the mind in themselves” (31).

  • Rather, “the mind is unsubstantial only in the sense in which a problem is unsubstantial. Indeed, a great mind is an inexhaustible and rewarding problem to the historian and literary scholar, and every person is of infinite concern to one who cares for him” (31).

  • So the performance of coherence is also the presentation of a problem, the revealing of an entity that we know as a whole but not in its particulars, which in turn is an intimation of some greater whole.

3) The presentation of performance is ordered in complexity

  • The performance of personhood is an act of self-presentation (à la Gadamer).

  • But as we learn from Gadamer, the mode of being of nature is self-presentation. Nature is there for presentation.

  • “Persons and problems are felt to be more profound” realities to be presented, “because we expect them yet to reveal themselves in unexpected ways in the future, while cobblestones [and other inanimate things] evoke no such expectation” (32).

  • This self-presentation, the “capacity of a thing to reveal itself in unexpected ways” (32), is due “to the fact that the thing observed is an aspect of a reality, possessing a significance that is not exhausted by our conception of any single aspect of it” (32).

4) Reality is the capacity for self-presentation

  • “To trust that a thing we know is real is, in this sense, to feel that it has the independence and power for manifesting itself in yet unthought of ways in the future” (32).

5) Significance is a function of complexity

  • Because the significance of a thing is in the relation of its parts, and in its relation to us, then the more complex the network of relations in the think, the more significant it is.

  • In this, then, the greater significance, the “deeper reality” it possesses (32).

6) Understanding is an ontological reference to significance

  • What “we know by understanding a comprehensive entity” (33), that it is a significant network of related particulars constituting a whole, “makes an ontological reference to it” (33), the entity. That is, in comprehending an entity, our understanding of it as such is a reference to its ontological status as comprehensive.

  • “It seems plausible then to assume in all other instances of tacit knowing the correspondence between the structure of comprehension and the structure of the comprehensive entity which is its object” (34).

7) The emergence of higher orders from lowers orders and the tacit comprehensivity of the higher can be explained with reference to the ontological aspect of tacit knowing

  • “(1) Tacit knowing of a coherent entity relies on our awareness of the particulars of the entity for attending to it; and (2) if we switch our attention to the particulars, the function of the particulars is canceled and we lose sight of the entity to which we had attended” (34).

  • “The ontological counterpart of this would be (1) that the principles controlling a comprehensive entity would be found to rely for their operations on laws governing the particulars of the entity in themselves; and (2) that at the same time the laws governing the particulars in themselves would never account for the organizing principles of a higher entity which they form” (34).

  • “The upper [order] relies for its operations on the laws governing the elements of the lower [order] in themselves, but these operations of it are not explicable by the laws of the lower level” (34).

8) So we do not merely populate the universe with comprehensive entities, but truly perceive these comprehensive entities as they are a part of the strata of realities that constitutes the universe

  • This “strata of realities” is “joined together meaningfully in pairs of higher and lower strata” (35), each forming the proximal (lower) and distal (higher) term of a tacit ‘understanding’ or ‘comprehensivity.’

9) The distal higher order cannot be explained by the laws of the proximal lower order

  • “each level is subject to dual control; first, by the laws that apply to its elements in themselves and, second, by the laws that control the comprehensive entity formed by them” (36).

  • But “it is impossible to represent the organizing principles of a higher level by the laws governing its isolated particulars” (36).

10) Principle of marginal control

  • Though the distal depends on the proximal, the proximal operate in relation according to the distal.

  • “We may call the control exercised by the organizational principle of a higher level on the particulars forming its lower level the principle of marginal control” (40).

  • So “each lower level imposes restrictions on the one above it ... [and] a higher operation may fail when the next lower operation escapes from its control” (41), but the higher is responsible for the purpose (the “significance”) of the comprehensive relation of its parts.

  • Because we can understand a comprehensive entity as such, and because its parts cannot explain the whole in their isolation, we can say that “all comprehensive entities [have] a fixed structure” (41) that is real—that is to say, that the whole is really a whole, that it is more than the sum of its parts.

11) Tacit knowledge of a problem is an intimation of potential coherence

  • Higher levels of reality emerge from lower, but their operating principles cannot be explained in terms of the lower.

  • Problems, then, are “intimations of the potential coherence of hitherto unrelated things and their solution establishes a new comprehensive entity, be it a new poem, a new kind of machine, or a new knowledge of nature” (44).

12) Increased complexity introduces the potential for error

  • Inanimate matter cannot err, but life can—i.e., life can die. The principle of death is “not present in the inanimate” (44) and is therefore emergent.

13) Emergence is a result of marginal control

  • “no level can gain control over its own boundary conditions”—the higher level always control the lower “margins” (45).

  • So, no level can “bring into existence a higher level, the operations of which would consist in controlling these boundary conditions” of possibility (45).

  • “Thus the logical structure of the hierarchy implies that a higher level can come into existence only through a process not manifest in the lower level, a process which thus qualifies as an emergence” (45).

14) Emergence produces new comprehensive entities

  • “the kind of emergence that I identify with comprehension is an action which creates new comprehensive entities” (46).

15) Polanyi’s logic: tacit body gives personal performance gives structure of emergence

  • Our “tacit powers interpret[] the world around us by converting the impacts between our body and the things that come our way into a comprehension of their meaning” (49).

  • In this way we understand other persons in their performances that impact our bodies. Personhood is the comprehension we attend to in the performance of others, a higher order of reality that emerges from biology.

  • We see then that “each higher principle controls the boundary left indeterminate by the next lower principle. It relies for its operations on the lower principle without interfering with its laws, and because the higher principle is logically unaccountable in terms of the lower, it is liable to failure by operating through it” (49).

  • “The spectacle of rising stages of emergence confirms this generalization by bringing forth at the highest level of evolutionary emergence those mental power in which we had first recognized our faculty of tacit knowing” (49).

  • So with every level we have a “gradual intensification of new functions” and a “series of increasingly comprehensive operations” which lead to “an additional liability to miscarry” but also a “consolidation of the center,” the proximal lower order (50).

“A Society of Explorers”

1) Comprehension is indwelling; knowledge is comprehension (55)

2) The structure of tacit knowing determines the structure of comprehensive entities (55)

3) “The relation of a comprehensive entity to its particulars was then seen to be the relation between two levels of reality, the higher one controlling the marginal conditions left indeterminate by the principles governing the lower one” (55)

4) Emergence is the action which produces the next higher level of comprehension

5) Emergence takes “over from tacit knowing the function of producing fundamental innovations” (56), or rather, tacit knowing is the human capacity for the perceiving of emergent entities. Tacit knowing is an aspect of the emergent character of nature.

6) This is contrary to the modern dogmas of “skepticism [science] and perfectionism [morality]” (58).

  • These “fall into two classes, one personal, the other political” (58). The personal is existentialism, wherein ideals are obliterated [skepticism] but must be individually achieved [perfectionism]. The political is Marxism, wherein politics are critiqued [skepticism] and utopia is projected [perfectionism].

  • Thus “moral doubt is frenzied by moral fury and moral fury is armed by scientific nihilism” (60).

  • But Polanyi argues that “men are getting weary of ideas sprung from a combination of skepticism and perfectionism” (60).

7) The production of a new ‘ideology’ (Polanyi does not use this word) requires a tacit indwelling of tradition, rather than an obliteration of it

  • The “pupil must presume that a teaching which appears meaningless to start with has in fact a meaning which can be discovered by hitting on the same kind of indwelling as the teacher is practicing. Such an effort is based on accepting the teacher’s authority” (61).

  • Just as higher orders of complexity emerge from the indwelling and thus relation of a set of particulars, the political subject must indwell the particulars of his tradition so that a new order can emerge from the old.

  • In this way, just as emergent orders in nature are not limited by the order beneath, but rather control the boundary conditions of that beneath with an openness to the future, so too must an emergent political order.

  • Polanyi is critical of existentialism and Marxism, but I would say that is exactly what both schools accomplished, tacitly identifying a reality, then explicitly integrating its particulars so as to elaborate a new tacit from which a new emergency comprehensive entity could emerge. But now for us in the 21st Century, existentialist and Marxist thought are the proximal, the old tacit.

8) Accepting limitation enables understanding

  • Polanyi believes “that the new self-determination of man can be saved from destroying itself only by recognizing its own limits in an authoritative traditional framework which upholds it” (62).

9) Scientific discoveries depend on this authoritative traditional framework

  • A scientific fact must be exact, but it must have “systematic importance” and “intrinsic interest” (66), which can only be derived from the tradition of scientific inquiry. The problem can only be known from one’s tacit knowledge.

  • “discoveries are made by pursuing possibilities suggested by existing knowledge” (67).

10) Perception in all forms and all schools is inexhaustible

  • “Perception has this inexhaustible profundity, because what we perceive is an aspect of reality, and aspects of reality are clues to boundless undisclosed, and perhaps yet unthinkable, experiences” (68).

11) Sciences in its particulars self-co-ordinates by mutual adjustment

  • The proximal particulars self-coordinate in their relation to each other as a whole

  • This is the “principle of mutual control” (72).

  • This is how “scientific opinion is formed” (72).

  • Scientists “trust the traditions fostered by this system of mutual control without much experience of it and at the same time claim an independent position from which they may reinterpret and possibly revolutionize this tradition” (73).

12) Tradition renews itself by bearing on a reality beyond experience

  • Tradition “induces its own renewal by bearing on a reality beyond experience; now we find likewise that each scientist’s knowledge of his own neighbourhood bears on the whole of science far beyond his own experience” (74).

  • Originality “springs from” tradition “and at the same time supersedes it” (75).

13) The obsession of inquiry into a problem emerges from tacit knowledge

  • Obsession “is about something that no one can tell” (76).

  • “The true discoverer will be acclaimed for the daring feat of his imagination, which crossed uncharted seas of possible thought” (76).

14) There is a responsibility to our inquiry

  • Our “gropings” toward the unknown “are weighty decisions” (76).

  • Inquiry requires a “judgment of the hidden reality [one] seeks to uncover” (77).

  • Thus one’s “vision of the problem, [] obsession with it, and [] final leap to discovery are all filled from beginning to end with an obligation to an external objective” (77).

  • The inquirer’s acts “are personal judgments exercised responsibly with a view to a reality with which he is seeking to establish contact” (77).

  • Certainty, therefore, is nothing more than the utterance of a “responsible commitment” (77-78). The validity of a statement “merely declares that it ought to be accepted by all” (78).

  • “We start the pursuit of discovery by pouring ourselves into the subsidiary elements of a problem and we continue to spill ourselves into further clues as we advance further, so that we arrive at discovery fully committed to it as an aspect of reality” (80).

15) Existence precedes essence

  • “To this extent, then, “existence precedes essence,” that is, it comes before the truth that we establish and make our own” (80).

  • All of our “existential choices are made in response to a potential discovery; they consist in sensing and following a gradient of understanding which will lead to the expansion of [our] mental existence” (81).

  • One’s existential “calling” then is the “small area of responsibility, for the transformation of which [one] will rely on the surrounding world as its premises” (85).

16) Commitment is a responsibility to tactitly intimated truth

  • Responsibility is “the act of judgment” which is the “personal pole” of commitment (87).

  • Truth is the “independent reality” which is the “external pole” of commitment (87).

17) The trajectory of an emergence can be projected by three characteristics of inanimate processes

  • “We see forces driving toward stabler potentialities” (89)—thermodynamics

  • “catalysts or accidental releasers of friction-locked forces cause them to actualize these potentialities” (89)

  • “such accidents may be uncaused events, subject only to probable tendencies” (89)—quantum mechanics

  • In a phrase then, reality is a field of probabilities which can spontaneously be actualized, revealing a new field of hidden potentialities that depends on the first field, but is governed by its own terms, and controls the boundary conditions of the first field.

  • In this way reality is meaningful because it is full of these as yet unrealized coherences of relation, which Polanyi described as the “significance” of an entity in the first chapter. An entity’s significance is in the comprehension of its related particulars as a whole. Therefore, as higher and higher field of possibility are unfolded, the immanent meaning of the entire system increases.

18) “Men need a purpose which bears on eternity. Truth does that; our ideals do it” (92).

  • Herein Polanyi sees the significance of religion, but here he stops.

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