Return to archive
What is Tacit Knowledge?
“…it is not like I have a ‘tacit object’ on my desk!”
— Adam Caruso
Broadly speaking, we can think about tacit knowledge in two ways.
First, in an everyday sense, it refers to the way we successfully perform actions without being able to explain the theory of why they work. To put this in more concrete terms, taking two famous examples, we learn to ride a bicycle through practice, not by understanding the physics of balancing; native speakers will speak correct sentences even if they do not know the grammatical rules behind them. Similarly, in the design studio, architecture students learn how to design, draw and develop spatial solutions, often without being able to say exactly what they are doing or how they are doing it: the plan might just look right. In this sense, tacit knowledge is often synonymous with intuition or a design sensibility.
Tacit knowledge also has a more specific, philosophical meaning. The term was first discussed by the Hungarian scientist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi to describe the way “we can know more than we can tell.” Drawing from Gilbert Ryle’s insights on the differences between the facts of “knowing that” and skills of “knowing how”, Polanyi tied tacit knowledge to the “knower”: holistic, intrinsic to an individual’s body, background, beliefs, enthusiasms, context, and the other specific factors. Since then, other philosophers and theorists, such as Harry Collins, have extended and developed Polanyi’s term, contributing to its more widespread everyday meaning.
In TACK, we have understood tacit knowledge in a variety of ways, at times following Polanyi, and at others departing from his conception of the term. This website catalogues these various interpretations and positions through a series of key terms, which are loosely defined below. Yet ultimately, to grasp these overlapping understandings of tacit knowledge, we urge you to dive into the deep end, and read the entries on this website. Only this, we believe, will give a true overview of the kaleidoscope of architectural tacit knowledge.
Personal Knowledge Knowledge that cannot be made explicit because it relates to the knower’s body and background. It avoids subjectivity by relating individual discoveries to collective standards. “It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge” (Polanyi, 1958, iv)
Embedded Knowledge Knowledge that cannot be made explicit because it exists in objects, buildings, artworks, or other material artifacts; or, because it exists sub- or unconsciously within individuals and/or communities.
Embodied Knowledge Knowledge that resides in the capacities of individuals, learnt and refined through practice and training. This is somatic tacit knowledge, related to the “the nature of the human body and brain” (Collins, 2008, 2).
Enacted Knowledge Knowledge that is performed, practiced, made, crafted or otherwise produced, resulting in tangible or observable outputs but whose operation occurs solely in action.
Situated Knowledge Knowledge that eschews objectivity in favor of the positional, partial, personal and/or specific to a culture/site/place. “Situated knowledges are about communities, not about isolated individuals. The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular” (Haraway, 1988, 590).
Communities of Tacit Knowledge Knowledge related to a particular culture, practice, school, or other group defined and differentiated by their shared tacit knowledge. Adapted from the term “Community of Practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991).
Collective Tacit Knowledge Knowledge that cannot be made explicit because it operates as a changing network of reference points within society. It is “the knowledge that the individual can acquire only by being embedded in society” (Collins, 2008, 11).
Relational Tacit Knowledge Knowledge which could be made explicit but is kept hidden whether deliberately or not: “the reasons range from deliberate secrecy to failure to appreciate someone else’s need to know” (Collins, 2008, 11).