Thursday, 4 December 2008

Tacit knowledge

In a taxi ride across Cairo in 2005 with Bill Fulford, I rashly announced that I was writing a book on tacit knowledge. The sense of ‘writing’ was that in saying one is thinking about writing, or actively pursuing the possibility of writing, not necessarily at the glad stage of typing actual chapters. Nevertheless, this idea, retrospectively and prospectively, justified my being introduced as someone working on tacit knowledge (an idea which has had a bit of a hold on some colleagues, much as one’s relatives may recall with perfect clarity a rash statement from one’s teens). Wearing my applied philosophy hat, tacit knowledge promises practical utility and that has been a helpful impression when, eg, being introduced to clinicians in a medical school.

In the meantime, however, I’ve been distracted into other projects. Fortunately, the same (introductory) purpose has been served by the central role of judgement in much of what I’ve written about and which more quickly connects Wittgenstein, and possibly Kant, with aspects of clinical judgement. (For an attempted justification see here.) But finally I’m writing (in the sense explained above!) the book on TK with my good friend Neil Gascoigne (pictured). (In my case, at least, it may be an occasional weekend project rather than blocked out time during the working week.)

Two initial problems have to be faced. One is that Neil sees all ground level philosophical issues through the lens of metaphilosophy. (By contrast, I’m merely troubled by how philosophy is possible. It’s a condition of adequacy of an account that it must be possible in its own terms and philosophical dogmatism should be avoided.) Further, his metaphilosophical stance takes the reaction to scepticism as its starting point. Especially in a book on tacit knowledge, this is bound to produce differences in how we want to frame the issues. (Is tacit knowledge really best thought of in the context of a response to Gettier problems?)

The other is that I realise that the question of what makes TK tacit is one for which none of the plausible answers completely attracts me. If ‘tacit’ equals unreflective (as, eg Erik Rietveld’s work implies), that looks to be merely a contingent phenomenological distinction. If it is taken to be darkly ineffable (as Adrian Moore’s tantalising book suggests), then it is hard to avoid a sense of implausible mystery clinging to it (one does not standardly say that the tacit knowledge of white sauce making is ineffable). If, as I’m inclined to say, one presses the idea that it is not (finally?) linguistically codifiable, then some apparently explicit judgements will count as tacit.

It seems odd to have decided on so much else about the book but not, perhaps, the central issue.