Embodiment in Polanyi's Theory of Tacit Knowing

By Zhenhua, Yu | Philosophy Today, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Embodiment in Polanyi's Theory of Tacit Knowing


Zhenhua, Yu, Philosophy Today


One of Michael Polanyi's most important contributions to philosophy is his clarification of the structure of tacit knowing based upon two terms of awareness. For instance, in driving a nail, we are not only aware of the nail, but also aware of the hammer and the feelings in our palm and fingers that grasp the hammer. According to Polanyi, our awareness of the nail is focal awareness, and the awareness of the hammer and the feelings in our palm and fingers is subsidiary awareness. Tacit knowing rests on the dynamic relationship between these two terms of awareness. In order to grasp an object (a comprehensive entity), we need to integrate its various clues, particulars. Here we can identify the two terms of tacit knowing. Our subsidiary awareness of various clues, particulars and parts constitutes the first term of tacit knowing, and our focal awareness of the comprehensive object is the second term. We rely on the former so as to know the latter. Tacit knowing manifests itself in the dynamic process of attending from the first term to the second term. "Tacit knowing is a from-to knowing.1

In the 1960s, Polanyi's theory of tacit knowing came to fruition. In revealing the conceptual potential of the theory of tacit knowing to solve a series of philosophical problems, Polanyi also brieflydiscussed the connection between his theory and other philosophical traditions. Phenomenology was one of them. Polanyi's theory of tacit knowing intersects phenomenology primarily at three points: intentionality, being-in-the-world, and embodiment.

With regard to the relation between tacit knowing and intentionality, Polanyi says the following:

Brentano (1942, orig. publ. 1847) has taught that consciousness necessarily attends to an object, and that only a conscious mental act can attend to an object. My analysis of tacit knowing has amplified this view of consciousness. It ells us not only that consciousness is intentional, but also that it always has roots from which it attends to its object. It includes a tacit awareness of its subsidiaries.2

In Polanyi's view, the from-to structure of tacit knowing clarifies the nature of consciousness more adequately than does Brentano's theory of intentionality. It not only displays intentionality, that is, the vectorial quality of consciousness, but also reveals the fact that such directedness of consciousness is based upon a tacit awareness of the subsidiaries. In addition to its "to" aspect, consciousness also has a "from" aspect.

As will be shown below, an important corollary of the from-to structure of tacit knowing is the thesis of "knowing by indwelling." It is in indwelling that Polanyi sees the connection between the theory of tacit knowing and Heidegger's notion of being-in-the-world. In the preface to the Torchbook edition of Personal Knowledge (1964), Polanyi claims: "All understanding is based upon our dwelling in the particulars of that which we comprehend. Such indwelling is a participation of ours in the existence of that which we comprehend; it is Heidegger's being-in-the-world."3 He further claims,

Indwelling is being-in-the-world. Every act of tacit knowing shifts our existence, re-directing, contracting our participation in the world. Existentialism and phenomenology have studied such processes under other names. We must re-interpret such observations now in terms of the more concrete structure of tacit knowing.4

I have tried to clarify the epistemological implications of Heidegger's notion of being-in-the-world in the perspective of the theory of tacit knowing elsewhere, in the direction pointed out by Polanyi.5

Although the claim that "Indwelling is being-in-the-world" is suggestive and inspiring, there is an important difference between Polanyi's "indwelling" and Heidegger's "being-in-the-world," of which Polanyi seems not quite conscious. As will be shown below, while Polanyi's thesis of knowing by indwelling is founded upon his insight into the unique position of our body in the universe, Heidegger does not take Dasein as being essentially embodied. …

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