RE: [xmca] Material cognition

From: Kai Hakkarainen <kai.hakkarainen who-is-at>
Date: Tue Oct 30 2007 - 15:29:42 PDT

Dear friends,

I have myself been interested in tacit knowledge for a long time and
extraction of such knowledge is an essential aspect our Knowledge-Practices
Laboratory ( project. Lately I have, however, started to
become dissatisfied for this notion. It appears that while talking about
tacit knowledge we tend to trivialize extremely complex embodied processes.
Or perhaps I am missing a critical discussion or misunderstanding something.

This kind of simplification takes place, for instance, when we assume that
non-conscious psychic processes, relational expertise, or social practices
may be considered as kinds of knowledge. Notwithstanding its mentalist
presuppositions, the cognitive science of the 80th did not have difficulties
of talking about tacit knowledge. It was, however, narrowly understood as a
kind of vague or fuzzy representation. It appears to me that a great deal of
the present organizational discussion addresses tacit knowledge from a
corresponding narrow perspective as a special kind of knowledge

If we give up the representational theory of mind and assume that human
beings are embedded in their biological, physical, social, and cultural
environments, our view of tacit knowledge changes considerably. Rather than
seeing it as a kind of representation, it appears as a fundamental aspect of
human activity. The notion of implicit learning expands our perspective
beyond traditionally conceived tacit knowledge; it was nice that David
brought it up. Also Roger Schank (1999) provides a very useful analysis of
the centrality of implicit learning in his Dynamic Memory Reconsidered. In
one of the thought experiment provided, he proposes that you go to a closet,
shut off the lights, and try to empty your mind. This turns out to be very
difficult. Your mind appears to have a will of its own. As a consequence,
your thoughts wonder from one to another idea without you being voluntarily
able control the process. In situations like that you get a hint of very
rich subconscious processes all the time going on in your mind. I think that
such subconscious processes play a far more central role in human cognition
and have deeper implications for our notion of mind than assuming that a
part of your knowledge is tacit in nature. If deliberate and conscious
thinking is an exemption rather than the rule, there are no reasons to
reduce activity to semantic entities.
As an educational researcher I am involved in various effort of transforming
educational practices in a way that engage students in expert-like
generative working with knowledge. Such educational changes are very hard to
come by. While it may be argued that the participants do not have tacit
knowledge needed for more productive educational activity, I believe that
the problem is at a much deeper level. Adopting novel epistemic practices
calls for change in habitus rather than mere change in beliefs. Going
through the educational system has carved into the participants' bodies and
lives very rigid, narrow, and reproductive ways of working with knowledge
(as W.-M. Roth has noticed). Changing education practices is difficult
because both students' and teachers' habitus have adapted to traditional
practices. Even if they would know that changing the habitus would be
desirable, they may not know how to go about trying to make any changes.
They may feel themselves as fishes outside of water as long as they are
required to do something that their habitus does not support. In practice,
this can be seen as insecurity and anxiety, occurrence of repeated
disturbances and breakdowns, and slow or non-existent progress. When the
participants go through a frustrating period of adapting their habitus to
the emerging novel epistemic practices, they start gradually doing better as
well as feeling better. Going through such double-bind situations appear to
represent much deeper transformation that mere revision of tacit knowledge
Capturing these kinds of processes require considerable transformation of
the prevailing views of tacit knowledge. If we are expanding the meaning of
this concept substantially, it would be very important to do it explicitly
as well as deliberately distinguish one's approach from the superficial
accounts of tacit knowledge popular in the knowledge-management genre. By
talking about material cognition, investigators are deliberately seeking to
expand the problem space beyond the traditional semantic perspectives. In
practice, it is, however, difficult to break the received frame of mind so
that we are constantly falling to old or otherwise familiar patterns of
Best regards,


-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of Bruce Robinson
Sent: Tuesday, October 30, 2007 6:21 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Material cognition


Not sure if this answers your question but it seems to me that both the
neglect of tacit knowledge and false consciousness rest on a belief that
things appear to us in the form that reveals what they really are. Thus
tacit knowledge not being immediately perceptible leads a shadowy
existence until it forces its way into the light of day when it is seen
to be crucial to making things work. Fetishisation and reification
entail an acceptance of the immediate - everything can be taken at face
value. The neglect of tacit knowledge seems to me to be both ideological
- a wish to deny that apparently simple things done by the 'unskilled'
involve a lot of hidden knowledge and skill, perhaps even more than
their managers have - and a consequence of the belief that knowledge
should be capable of being spelled out and thus formalisable (thus
Dreyfus and others attack AI for believing that intelligence can be
expressed as a program, thus ignoring the tacit which is
unformalisable). May be this is too simple?

By chance, earlier today I found this article:

The emancipatory power of the tacit dimension by Rene´ Brohm
Critical perspectives on international business Volume 2 Number 3 2006
pp. 244-258
Findings - The instrumental approach to knowledge, so frequently used in
knowledge management,
neglects important issues. The conventional question: "How should we
organize knowledge?" neglects
the question: "How should knowledge impact organization?". With use of
Polanyi's concept of
knowledge, a richer interdependency between knowledge and organization
can be conceived. Findings
were drawn from an ethnographic case study in the IT sector to
illustrate how professionals can
successfully negotiate the content, meaning and development of their
tasks and practices. The attempt
to create a safe haven, supporting professional and personal
development, illustrates how the tacit
dimension has emancipatory potential.
Originality/value - Contributes to clarifying the richness of Polanyi's
social thought and the uses of
the concept of the "tacit" to organization when it is not functionally
misunderstood but appreciated in
its full critical force.

Not read it yet but it looks interesting.


Martin Packer wrote:
> Once again a thread on XMCA has intersected with something I'm currently
> working on. I'm feeling stupid, so let me just throw out a question,
> provocative, perhaps dumb. How do we reconcile the fact that tacit
> is undoubtedly important but neglected by much mainstream research (and
> devalued in society) with the suggestion that participation in the
> of modern society leads to MISunderstanding how that society works (false
> consciousness, alienation, etc.)?
> Martin
>> All of these hover around my central interest, which is the often
>> (sometimes called "tacit") knowledge that people working develop and
>> about how to get the work done. For example: a class which we have been
>> asked to teach in November will take place at a plant where the workers
>> represented by the grainmillers' union. This is an old plant. Under the
>> original management, the workers essentially ran the plant -- they had
>> knowledge and the means to run the plant efficiently and safely. Then the
>> plant was sold and new management came in. This new management took an
>> adversarial position against the union and attempted to take over control
>> the work without fully understanding how it was done (without exploring
>> social practices related to the working knowledge of the plant?). A
>> non-productive culture developed. Now another new management has taken
>> and this new management has gone to the union and together they have
>> approached us to teach a class to the supervisors that is essentially
>> getting them to respect the working material knowledge that the workers
>> developed. "Leave us alone and we'll run the plant better than you can
>> do it," the union is saying.
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Received on Tue Oct 30 15:43 PDT 2007

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