chapter  8
16 Pages

Telling by hand

It is a fact, declared Michael Polanyi, introducing a series of lectures on The Tacit Dimension, ‘that we can know more than we can tell’ (Polanyi 1966: 4). Polanyi was referring to those ways of knowing and doing that grow through the experience and practice of a craft, but which adhere so closely to the person of the practitioner as to remain out of reach of explication or analysis. His argument was that knowledge of the sort that can be rendered formally and self-consciously explicit is but the tip of an iceberg compared with the immense reservoir of know-how that lies beneath the surface and without which nothing could be practicably accomplished. Whereas Polanyi, however, was primarily interested in what it means to know, my concern just now is with what it means to tell. In his reflections on the nature of personal knowledge, Polanyi seems to have assumed that telling is tantamount to putting what one knows into words, in speech or writing, and that this entails two things: specification and articulation. Thus he regards as the unspecifiable part of knowledge ‘the residue left unsaid by defective articulation’ (Polanyi 1958: 88). In this chapter I want to argue, to the contrary, that we can tell of what we know through practice and experience, precisely because telling is itself a modality of performance that abhors articulation and specification. It follows that personal knowledge is not quite as tacit as Polanyi thought. Part of the problem is that the term ‘tacit’ has many shades of meaning, ranging from the silent through the unspoken to the implicit. What remains unspoken need not be left unvoiced; nor need what remains unwritten be left without any inscriptive trace. Moreover, what is not explicated may still find expression in spoken or written words. As anthropologists who have worked with skilled practitioners are all too aware, their mentors are often inclined to expound upon their crafts vociferously, demonstrably and at very great length. The figure of the silent craftsman who is struck dumb when asked to tell of what he does, or how he does it, is largely a fiction sustained by those who have a vested interest in securing an academic monopoly over the spoken and written word.