Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Tacit Dimension that we know, but difficult to explain

Written by: on October 20, 2022

Michael Polanyi was a Hungarian-British chemist and philosopher who passed away in 1976. This week’s reading, The Tacit Dimension, is one of the many books he authored. This book was “first published in 1966, and it is based on his Terry Lectures delivered four years earlier, at Yale University”[1] to explain his concepts and insights of tacit knowledge – we can know more than we can tell. In this book, Polanyi introduces and further explains the workings of management knowledge by using the idea of tacit knowledge. He argues that “if tacit knowledge is a central part of knowledge in general, then we can both (1) know what to look for, and (2) have some idea about what else we may want to know.”[2] The book is divided into three sections (Tacit knowing, Emergence, and a Society of explorers), and ultimately Polanyi seeks to understand a higher order of reality that is the foundation and source of tacit knowledge where he concluded his book by saying, “This cosmic emergence of meaning is inspiring…Truth does that; our ideals do it, and this might be enough if we could ever be satisfied with our manifest moral shortcomings, and with a society that has such shortcomings fatally involved in its workings…there will open up instead a meaningful world that could resound to religion.”[3]

This book definitely will go on to rank in the top 5 of ‘the hardest-to-understand books that I had to read in my life’ list, and I wish that the publishing company printed it in larger fonts. Polanyi wrote that “our body is the ultimate instrument of all our external knowledge, whether intellectual or practical. In all our waking moments, we are relying on our awareness of contacts of our body with things outside for attending to these things.”[4] The idea of tacit knowledge and the contents of Polanyi’s discussions were very difficult to connect to and understand for me. But as I thought about it more, I remembered a recent incident where I took my friends to go check out a new restaurant that had opened up. I think I have tacit knowledge of knowing whether the new restaurants will taste good or bad almost instantly when I pass by new restaurants. I’m not always right, but usually I am right most of the time (Thankfully, I was right on the recent one that I convinced my friends to go check out). I know that many food critics have a similar tacit knowledge of food and presentation that almost instantly happens when they encounter a new dish or a menu. In philosophy, this kind of tacit knowledge is termed indwelling or inherent knowledge. Upon pondering, I discovered we actually interact and use tacit knowledge all the time in our daily lives to make decisions, pursue future directions, and helps us connect to reality. Polanyi further reasoned that this kind of internal, instinctive knowledge is the establishment of “the tacit framework for our moral acts and judgments. And we can trace this kind of indwelling to logically similar acts in the practice of science.”[5]

I got curious if Polanyi was a Christian, and I searched and read Wikipedia’s description of his life. He lived a great life and achieved many great things in the world of academia, but I wasn’t sure if he ever arrived at finding the ‘meaningful world’ he was longing for. The book pushed my imagination to think about tacit spiritual knowledge. Does spiritual tacit knowledge change when we are saved in Christ? If it does change, how and when? From 1 Peter 1:23, I understand salvation as the moment when the imperishable seed of the Word of God is planted in our soul. How does this imperishable seed from God change our tacit spiritual knowledge? My tacit internal knowledge tells me that it does change the DNA of tacit knowledge that comes from the flesh that we are born into. Although I couldn’t understand and follow some of his contents, I appreciated Polanyi’s endeavor and efforts in articulating the things that we know but are hard to tell.

[1] Michael Polanyi and Sen Amartya. The Tacit Dimension. Revised ed. (Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), vii.

[2] Ibid, xi.

[3] Ibid, 92.

[4] Ibid, 16.

[5] Ibid, 17.

About the Author


Jonathan Lee

President of Streamside Ministry Lead Pastor of EM @ San Jose Korean Presbyterian Church in Sunnyvale, CA

7 responses to “The Tacit Dimension that we know, but difficult to explain”

  1. mm Andy Hale says:

    Thank you for weaving your whit into your writing.

    I took the philosophical nature of Polayni’s idea and filtered it through a psychological perspective. There is so much of our unconscious that we are and will always be unaware of. And yet, I wonder if that is one of the great mysteries that God has woven into our existence. We desire to know but do we always have to know and be able to explain everything. Indeed, there is so much about God that is grey when we want it black and white.

    From a leadership perspective, I wonder how much of your role and how you function is based on your tacitness or explicit knowledge?

  2. Elmarie Parker says:

    Hi Jonathan. I really appreciated your post and transparent wrestling with Polanyi’s work. Your commitment to find practical applications of his thought to your life was helpful to me…made things more tangible for me. Thank you.

    What are you finding helpful about the NPO journey for making explicit your tacit knowing on your topic and/or area of concern?

  3. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Jonathan, I enjoyed reading you post, especially because I share the struggle with this “heavy” work of philosophy. I like how you asked about tacit knowledge in the life of the believer and pondered what that concept means in the arena of faith. Do you think Ecclesiastes 3:11 is a form of tacit knowledge in all of humanity: (God) has put eternity into man’s heart,?”

  4. mm Troy Rappold says:

    JL: I wondered the same question about Polanyi’s spirituality. Does he have a Christian faith? At times he said things like, “Men need a purpose which bears on eternity.” That sounds like he has at least a seed of faith planted in him? He certainly approaches ideas from an intellectual, philosophical approach though doesn’t he?

  5. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Jonathan: I literally laughed out loud to your sentence, “This book definitely will go on to rank in the top 5 of ‘the hardest-to-understand books that I had to read in my life’ list.” Amen! However, reading your post, I think you were able to pick up the core themes and content Polanyi was striving for.

    My guess is that now that we are more directly aware of concepts like tacit knowledge we will more easily be able to identify it in ourselves and others, especially working with a younger generation. Has anything immediately stuck out to you with this concept and the youth you work with?

  6. mm Eric Basye says:


    Yes, a hard book for me to read too! No worries, you are not alone!

    It was my impression that he did become a Christian, at least from the blog I read with some comments from a dear friend of his.

    I wonder, “we know more than we can tell,” if this speaks to the eternal implications of the Holy Spirit at work? Or at least that would be my consideration.

    What of his teaching, if any, will stick with you as you think about the work the Lord has given you to do?

  7. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Jonathan thank you for sharing your struggles with the book.

    You seem to have some sense of Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowing. How might you engage the youth of your church around their tacit knowing?

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