article about tacit knowledge in the New Scientist.
What strikes me as particularly interesting is the way he aims to demystify tacit knowledge, contrasting his own account with that of Polanyi. He says:
To find a space for his idea, Polanyi made tacit knowledge seem more mysterious than it is. Now we know science is not perfectible we do not have to fight so hard to retain a conceptual space for that which cannot be done by logic and mathematics. This means we can take a calmer look at tacit knowledge and remove some of the mystery. [Collins 2010]
But I have always taken it that Collins thinks tacit knowledge is mysterious. Back in Changing Order he describes its transfer as ‘capricious’ because similar relationships between teacher and learner can or cannot transfer it.
In his more recent work, in trying to capture the expertise of science managers who lack the skills of coal face practitioners but nevertheless gain an understanding of the science through linguistic immersion, he describes a form of interactional expertise which is still supposed to be tacit.
Now I am not as sure as I would like to be about this latter idea. It seems to me that on Collins’ picture the transmission of knowledge for such middle managers is a bit weird: spoken language, distinguished from strings of symbols, ‘contains’ in some tacit form, aspects of practices such that hearers who acquire fluency in the language also still rather mysteriously acquire understanding of the practices.
It seems to me that Collins’ talk, in the New Scientist article, of both relational and collective tacit knowledge is compromised because of the twin issue of balancing the status of tacitness and also of knowledge having moved away from bodily skills. Some of this is in play when he says:
[Y]ou may not know what you need to know and I may not know what I know. Thus, in the early days of TEA lasers scientists did not necessarily know that the inductance of the top lead was important but by copying existing designs they built in successful short top leads without knowing why. The bottom line is any piece of relational tacit knowledge could be made explicit but logistics prevent it all being made explicit at once. [ibid]
The TEA example surely stands in contrast to the second element of the first part of this thought (I may not know what I know) since it seems that the requirements on the top lead were not, in fact, known. It may be a tacit element in what was passed on but it wasn’t known. In general I suspect Collins plays up the tacit at the risk of the knowledge element and that’s why it ends up musterious and capricious.
My hunch is that it is misleading to concentrate on the transmission of TK – to get at the tacit – rather than on an articulation of the content of the knowledge. In fact I am not convinced by Collins’ basic picture. Earlier in the article, he sets up a contrast thus, which I’ll quote as a whole and then look at piecemeal:
In The Logic of Tacit Inference, Polanyi argues persuasively that humans do not know how they ride, but he also provides a formula: ‘In order to compensate for a given angle of imbalance α we must take a curve on the side of the imbalance, of which the radius (r) should be proportionate to the square of the velocity (v) over the imbalance r~v2/α.’
While no human can actually ride a bike using that formula, a robot, with much faster reactions, might. So that aspect of bike-riding is not quite so tacit after all.
That we humans do much of what we do without following explicit rules is no more mysterious than my cat hunting without knowing rules about hunting or a tree growing without knowing rules about forming leaves. We only think it's mysterious if we think explicitness is the norm, but explicitness is a rare thing, restricted to humans, and used only now and again because it is often more efficient to allow causal, neural connections in the brain and body to execute an action with little (or, indeed, no) conscious calculation - after all, cats do pretty well this way. [ibid]
So Polanyi’s formula would be sufficient, against the right robot background, for robot bike riding. Collins says ‘So that aspect of bike-riding is not quite so tacit after all’. Now what does he mean? Does he mean that the formula shows that human bike riding is no longer tacit? Surely that is too rash a claim (that whenever a formula would be sufficient, against an engineering background, to replicate or mimic a skill, tacit knowledge of that skill is universally ruled out).
Or does he mean that, because robots can ride bikes when so engineered, then bike riding in general need not be tacit (although human bike riding may be). But that does not seem right since there is no reason to think that a robot system, engineered in accordance with that formula, follows any explicit rule.
‘That we humans do much of what we do without following explicit rules is no more mysterious than my cat hunting without knowing rules about hunting or a tree growing without knowing rules about forming leaves.’
Now I’m a bit concerned that human doing is compared to trees growing. Surely the latter has nothing to do with tacit knowledge? This is another instance of playing up the tacit at the expense of the knowledge part of TK.
‘We only think it's mysterious if we think explicitness is the norm, but explicitness is a rare thing, restricted to humans, and used only now and again because it is often more efficient to allow causal, neural connections in the brain and body to execute an action with little (or, indeed, no) conscious calculation.’
This seems roughly the right kind of thing to say, but for two things.
First, it sets up at the end the expectation that the distinction between the tacit and the explicit depends on the absence or presence of ‘conscious calculation’. The problem of setting out an account of tacitness like this is that such consciousness admits of degrees.
Second, that thought doesn’t hook up with the contrast with ‘causal, neural connections in the brain and body to execute an action’. Even where knowledge is not tacit, I would not wish to deny that the execution of an action is a matter of ‘causal, neural connections in the brain and body’.
So I am not sure that this is the right basic picture after all.
Collins, H. (2010) 'Tacit knowledge: you don't know how much you know' New Scientist 31st May
PS: Other posts on Collins are here and here. But there are many others.
My, later, first reactions to his new book, Tacit & Explicit Knowledge are here.