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Personal Knowledge and Science

In this post, I want to address the personal aspects of tacit knowing. Here, Polanyi writes that:

The declared aim of modern science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection, which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit thought forms an indispensable part of all knowledge, then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies (p. 20).

On the next page, he writes:

It is commonplace that all research must start from a problem. Research can be successful only if the problem is good; it can be original only if the problem is original. But how can one see a problem, any problem, let alone a good and original problem? For to see a problem is to see something that is hidden. It is to have an intimation of the coherence of hitherto not comprehended particulars (p. 21).

These passages highlight an important issue in knowledge production, aka, science. This is the issue of problem-finding (discovering the question to ask ...), as opposed to problem-solving (... that produces the knowledge).

Most of the world sometimes appears focused on the explicit aspects of knowledge production. This might be because these acts are more tangible (hands-on) and because they are often the direct objects of scientific study itself (think of the focus on methodology and on the development of data collection instruments among social scientists and scientists). As such, we see in current political debates, in K-12 educational practices, and so forth, a major emphasis on the analytical methods needed to produce knowledge (e.g., the so-called scientific method). But this focus is one-sided. It is true that methodological concerns are important, and this is likely why, as an example, scientific articles contain entire sections dedicated to Methodology or Methods. It is because these sections serve a very important purpose; they provide a way to communicate the explicit aspects of scientific research---aspects that afford or enable others to either reproduce or replicate scientific studies from afar, by way of the document that communicates the explicit knowledge to do so (although we may argue that the background knowledge required to read these documents raises a whole host of tacit-related issues).

But what about the problem-finding issue? How does someone know what research question to ask? Polanyi is saying that this is a tacit issue. We sense the "coherence" of a thing or a system without knowing the particulars of the thing or system, and doing that allows us to start asking about the particulars. And thus problem-finding, a key but often ignored aspect of the scientific process, is completely dependent on tacit knowing. Since tacit knowing is personal (when we make a thing explicit, we make an object of it, and therefore, impersonal), then science depends on the personal. In fact, its foundations rest on the personal.

There's some key empirical evidence to back this up. A little after Polanyi's The Tacit Dimension was published, Robert Merton, the sociologist of science, published a paper called "The Matthew Effect in Science". He wrote:

The role of outstanding scientists in influencing younger associates is repeatedly emphasized in the interviews with [Nobel] laureates. Almost invariably they lay great emphasis on the importance of problem-finding, not only problem-solving. They uniformly express the strong conviction that what matters most in their work is a developing sense of taste, of judgment, in seizing upon problems that are of fundamental importance (p. 453).

All science is, ergo, personal, and the better scientists are doing the personal (taste, judgment, etc.) better. What are the implications?

teaching/personal-knowledge-and-science.txt · Last modified: 2019/01/21 11:59 by seanburns