Tacit and Explicit Knowledge Paperback – Jun 1 2010
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"In this profound and carefully worked-through book, leading sociologist of science Harry Collins neatly turns Polanyi on his head by showing us that the really deep mystery is how knowledge ever becomes explicit in the first place." (Trevor Pinch, Cornell University)"
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His basic notion is that explicit knowledge is knowledge that can be represented as a string and passed through an intermediary (such as the Internet) without any loss of information. A string is a general term to represent characters, numbers, computer codes etc. The book is a fascinating exploration of the differences between human and artificial intelligence and links together many of the interesting experiments (both thought and actual) that have been published in the last 50 years.
He introduces some very interesting ideas. For example, the degree to which tacit knowledge is required to understand strings, even compose them in the first place.
He revisits Michael Polanyi's discussion on riding bicycles with the notion of somatic tacit knowledge, knowledge that becomes part of our body for the performance of mechanical tasks. He argues that this can be reduced to mechanical instructions, even though these instructions could not reasonably be performed by human in the required timescale. What attracted my attention was a footnote in which he dismisses actor network theory as "the so-called actor network theory has succeeded brilliantly in the academic market place by cleverly failing to acknowledge this obvious asymmetry and claiming that its absence from the theory represents a philosophical insight." I have not yet finished reading Latour's book so I will keep a lookout for this issue.
The asymmetry to which he refers is the notion that a blind man's stick becomes part of a blind man: the man uses the stick as an extension of his own self. However, we cannot say that the blind man has become part of the stick. (Page 114).
In the final chapter he talks about collective tacit knowledge and social Cartesianism, the notion that there is a distinct difference between humans and animals because, he argues, that humans are capable of reorganising their tacit knowledge to fit in with the social patterns of different social setting. Dogs, cats and other animals, he argues, cannot socialise at all. I think that this is the least impressive chapter in the book, in my opinion, because it seems out of touch with recent research, even common sense, that if humans cannot socialise effectively with animals since we cannot speak their language, it says nothing that animals cannot socialise effectively with humans. For example, there is plenty of evidence that whales have a complex social life and language. While I disagree with the detail of the chapter I'm happy with the conclusions that, for example, direct face-to-face human interaction is essential in order to acquire collective tacit knowledge. Where I differ is in his conclusion that teleconferencing will never be a substitute for air travel. Just as human beings are remarkably adaptable, teleconferencing has an enormous potential for improvement with genuine broadband transmission, and while it will never be quite the same as being there in person, has a long way to go in terms of development. I think eventually that he will be proved wrong in this conclusion.
Explicit knowledge is easily taught skills that are specifc and goal directed, but the elements of explicit knowledge are isolated and don't necessarily lead to a deep understanding of a topic. Whereas Tacit knowledge is far harder to pick up, almost needs to be learnt from a master, but is far more powerful and integrated when it is learnt. For example, basic welding can be broken down into explicit training elements and is learnt easily by most people, but building a sculptural piece out of steel that contributes to the world of creativity can not be broken down and takes many years of trial and error and a much furrowed brow.
What this book does well: it is a very readable and steps through the history of the development and study of tacit knowledge. It builds up the differences between explicit and tacit knowledge in incremental steps. It also provides a dsicussion of some alternates to the dicotic view of knowledge.
While not addressed directly this book explains the reason for the failure of most internet based education in that they attempt to address tacit ideas whereas the media it is better suited to present explicit learning. (Internet training - good. Internet education needs a different approach and will take some time to develop)
A Harvard university study of training and knowledge acquisition came to similar conclusions as this book but used different terms to describe the spectrum. So Tacit and Explicit knowledge is not the only way to understand the concepts, but is a great read and well structured and definetly worth the effort.