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Emergence (9.4)


Michael Polanyi’s concepts of tacit knowing and emergence are foundational to complexity thinking. The purpose of this essay is to question Polanyi’s ways of theorizing the concepts in order to develop lines of inquiry that warrant contemporary examination. One contribution is to look at several types of tacit in Polanyi’s work so that they might be compared in future investigations. This contribution centers on the occurrences of transcendental and moral reasoning in what is purported to otherwise be a pragmatist view of the world. A second contribution is to question hierarchical-ordering in emergence theory in order to move from systems to complexity formulations. I shall argue that both tacit knowing and emergence are mired in systems thinking views of hierarchic order of reality.

Tacit knowing, emergence, and story research

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was born (Polányi Mihály) in Budapest. After getting degrees in medicine, chemistry, and physics, he moved to Berlin. He had to flee Germany in 1933 because of Hitler’s persecution of Jewish professors. He secured a chair in physical chemistry at University of Manchester. Gradually his interests shifted to philosophy of science. And in 1948 he accepted a chair in social science (also, University of Manchester). For more on Polanyi’s biography and contributions to physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy, see Nye (2002). The focus here is on tacit knowing and emergence.

Polanyi by the mid-1930s wrote about his opposition to positivist scientific method. It is in this argument with positivism, that Polanyi developed his theory of ‘tacit knowing.’ Rather than transmitting an explicit, logical and rigorous method (i.e., reading textbooks), science is learned more tacitly, by demonstration, imitation, and practice in the relationship between apprentice and master (such as in the guilds of medieval and early modern Europe).

Polanyi (1966) develops several definitions and approaches to tacit knowing.

Type I: Neural processes of tacit knowing

“Tacit knowing is the way in which we are aware of neural process in terms of perceived objects” (1966: x). In the neural approach, tacit knowing is embodied in that “all thought dwells in its subsidiaries, as if they were parts of our body” (p. x).

Type II: Know more than we can tell

In a more narrative conception of tacit knowing, Polanyi states, “we can know more than we can tell” (1966: 4). At the time of a telling, we know more, such as the ability to recognize moods of human faces without being able to tell, except vaguely what signs we know (Para: 5). This tacit knowing is rooted in Gestalt psychology, and the study of subception (i.e., something perceived below the threshold of consciousness). For example, “a skill combines elementary muscular acts which are not identifiable” (1966: 8). Polanyi’s model for this is the proximal/distal distinction. For example, in an electric shock experiment, at the proximal level of awareness, we know the electric shock, but at the distal (subception) level we cannot communicate what are the particulars of behavior that result in someone or something giving us the shock. The reason Polanyi gives is that one disattends from the particulars to pay attention to the shock. The neural type of tacit knowing is related to the Gestalt type. We disattend to certain (Gestalt) things in order to attend or focus upon other things (p. 10). Or, we disattend to the “subliminal process inside our body” to attend to what is happening around us. In sum, the “know more than we can tell” (p. 18) (i.e., the distal) becomes integrated with a gestalt when can tell something is going on at the surface (i.e., proximal, which in this case is the gestalt awareness).

Type III: Projection and tacit knowing

Projection is involved in various types of tacit knowing. Our bodily (neural) processes participate in sensory perception” “our tacit knowing of a process will make sense of it in terms of an experience we are attending” (1966: footnote: 15). Our projection of tacitness is a sentient extension of our body attending to a feeling (i.e., a relation between proximal awareness of the feeling and the distal particulars we can not tell about). However, a priori to, or transcendent to, the sensemaking (5 senses of perception), there can be various kinds of projections that follow, such as indwelling.

Type IV: Indwelling and tacit knowledge

“Indwelling, as derived from the structure of tacit knowing, is a far more precisely defined act than is empathy” (p. 17). Indwelling then is a kind of reflexivity that has moral import. Indwelling is an attempt to understand the proximal terms of tacit knowing re relation to inquiry into the distal particulars. Indwelling goes beyond a neural, narrative, or projection type of tacit knowing. Indwelling establishes moral knowledge (a framework for moral acts) in relation to practice. Here we begin to read in Polanyi, that tacit knowing is about a structure or more precisely, a theoretical-framework that is internalized for understanding the moral act. Indwelling is “tacit framework for our moral acts and judgments” (p. 17). Polanyi reveals tacit knowing, then, as part of his grander project, to like the practices of science to indwelling (framework of moral acts). Polanyi is definite that this is bending his earlier conception of tacit knowing into a new type” The identification with indwelling involves a shift of emphasis in our conception of tacit knowing” (p. 17). It is a shift to an inquiry into the distance between unbridled lucidity of coherence (such as a simple narrative) and the complexity patterns (that simplifying narratives would destroy). While we can inquire into distal particulars of complex patterns, Polanyi assumes that it is not possible to recovery some original meaning (p. 19). At the same time, “the meticulous dismembering of a text, which can kill its appreciation can also supply material for a much deeper understanding of it” (p. 19). This brings us to the possibility of something in-between the unrecoverable origin, and a deeper understanding.

Type V: Tacit reintegration

Tacit reintegration is an appreciation of how a coherent narrative (with its linear emplotment), sacrifices so many particulars that the indwellment of meaning in some new story, i.e., in a (tacit) reintegration of omitted particularities is impossible. For Polanyi, tacit reintegration is a sort of reflexive practice, such as when the engineers understand more particularities than the non-engineer, and can afford therefore a deeper understanding. However, just as there is no recovery of an origin (due to complexity of movement), there is no “explicit integration: that can replace the tacit counterparts of knowing (p. 20). It is here that Polanyi provides an insight into the contemporary knowledge management fallacy of trying to turn tacit knowing into explicit knowing (p. 20):

“We are approaching a crucial question, the declared aim of modern science to establish a strictly detached objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit thought forms an indispensable part of all knowledge, then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies.”

In sum, the relation of tacit to explicit knowing is a relationship of reintegration, where it is a fallacy to totally eliminate tactic knowing, since it has a viable role to play in knowledge. One way to extend Polanyi would be to look at the relationship of narrative-control (acts of explicitness) and story-diffusion (acts of reflexivity upon tacit reintegration). If narrative-order and story-tacitness are in a relationship it could be a handle on the very nature of self-organizing of knowledge. If narrative-explicit-coherence is a counterpart to story-tacit-reflexivity then it is important to not disembody the process of knowing. Eliminating story knowledge to make narrative-abstract-theoretic-explicitness is impersonal, misleading, and logically unsound because to collapses the counterforce of self-organization.

Type VI: Past lives

Another kind of tacit projection is an act of reflexivity upon all that is hidden by the inanition of narrative “coherence” (p. 21). Narrative coherence can devitalize living (embodied-indwelling) story. The initiation of some originary narrative to supplant tacit reintegration ends the inquiry into discovery of what is hidden in all the discarded particularities. It is at this point that Planyi pulls out yet another definition of tacit knowing: “… all discovery is a remembering of past lives” (1966: 22). This is a very transcendental turn to defining tacit knowing in ways far beyond the previous five sorts of approaches. Sorting through the particulars discarded in narrative coherence (& control) will not give us an inkling of tacit reintegration that is rooted in past lives. Polanyi lists as his references for the ‘past life’ approach, Plato’s Meno, and Edgar Allen Poe’s Purloined Letter (p. 22). Plato’s dialogue, known for the character Meno, is a theory of anamnesis (i.e., the recollection of past events). The soul knows that it has been incarnated before and conveys some of its recollections forward to the next incarnation. Meno is used by Polanyi to tease out the foreknowledge of tacit knowing: “we can have a tacit foreknowledge of yet undiscovered things” (p. 23). The insights of tacit knowing from past lives are a kind of foreknowledge to future eyes, or “an indefinite range of unexpected manifestations” (p. 24). For Polanyi it is “foreknowledge which guides scientists to discovery” (p. 33). Whereas indwelling is paying attention to unspecifiable particulars, Meno is a conviction there is something more to be discover, as in a hidden truth which no positivist methodology or procedure will uncover. This transcendental turn to a recollection that recovers past memory of the eternal soul in its reincarnations is for Polanyi an alternative to positivism. It also links Polanyi’s concept of ‘tacit knowing’ to Plato’s idea of ‘latent knowledge’: “all learning is the recovery of latent knowledge always possessed by the immortal soul” (Plato’s Dialogues: 27-28).

Type VII: Tacit knowing relation to emergence

Tacit knowing is related to emergence in a way that has not been noted or addressed in contemporary reviews of Polanyi. And it is a relationship that speaks directly to the transition from systems thinking to complexity thinking. For Polanyi has a foot in both ways of thinking. On one hand, Polanyi is caught up in systems thinking, where the “universe [is] filled with strata of realties” that are ordered, in “higher and lower strata” (p. 35, bracketed addition, mine). On the other hand, he theorizes the ills of [narrative] coherence that blind science to the more tacit acts of comprehending that are ontological (as well as transcendental aspects of complexity, of type six). For Polanyi, the systems thinking is revealed in the assumption that “principles of each level operate under the control of the next higher level” (p. 36). It is a systems thinking assumption that Kenneth Boulding (1956) also posited, that there are levels (or strata) of systems, and that run from frameworks, mechanical, to open systems, more symbolic and languaged systems, to transcendental. For Polanyi and Boulding, there is a hierarchy of levels. For Polanyi, the hierarchic orders of system-levels are a “process of morphogenesis” (p. 36) in which, for example, the sciences are ordered, where physics and chemistry cannot explain the complexities of biology and biophysics, or the perceptions and consciousness of ethnology and psychology. “The laws of physics and chemistry include no conception of sentience” (p. 37). Or, principles of machine operation tell operators whom the machine works and the purposes the machine is to serve. In Polanyi’s hierarchy-view, above the basic sciences is linguistics, where constituting speech making in words, sentences, style, and composition) makes literary criticism a higher order of systems than lexicography (vocabulary) or language-grammar. This hierarchic ordering of one systems relation to another of a different sort, is brought together in the “principle of marginal control” (p. 40), where “successive working principles control the boundary left indeterminate on the next lower level” (p. 41) and “each lower level imposes restrictions on the one above it” (p. 41). His example of speech acts that control the order of utterance is that otherwise “words are drowned in a flow of random sounds, sentences in a series of random words, and so on” (p. 41). One could raise poststructuralist critiques of the assumption that the lexicography, grammar, or stylistics of language is a deterministically hierarchic structure. The idea that systems are hierarchically ordered form physics and chemistry, to engineering, on to psychology and linguistics seems a bit too mechanistic explanation of life and its complexity. Rather than a system thinking “hierarchy of controls” that Polanyi (p. 42) posits, it could be that systems are not so finalized, not so ordered, and could be more holographic such as Edgar Morin’s (1993, 1996) approach to complexity. Positing a hierarchy of systems (Boulding or Polanyi, as examples) seems to remove the possibility of systems freely associating, or not being determined by principles of one level to another. It could be that there is more equipotential relationships between various modes and sorts of systems, and that the whole construct of levels (or strata) needs to be challenged and conceptualized non-hierarchically. Putting systems into level-by-level array is a definite form of linearization that does not allow for the possibility of self-organization in non-linear relationships. This is not saying there are no strata, and no important relational principles. Rather, the criticism is that there could be a relation between linear and nonlinear aspects of complexity, as force and counterforce of self-organizing processes.

In sum, Polanyi posits a special relationship between some types of tacit knowing and his concept of emergence. Tacit knowing (indwelling, projection, tacit reintegration & recollection of past lives) and emergence assume a hierarchic structure of stratas, as well as of alternative realities. Emergence, itself, is a function of the assumption of hierarchic relations among levels: “But the hierarchic structure of the higher forms of life necessitates the assumption of further processes of emergence” (pp. 44-45). More specifically, Polanyi’s theory of emergence is complicity bound to hierarchic order assumptions:

“Thus the logical structure of the hierarchy implies that a higher level can come into existence only through a process not manifest in the lower level, a process which thus qualifies as an emergence” (p. 45).

And it is this structure of hierarchy in emergence that for Polanyi has its counterpart in the field of “tacit comprehension” (p. 45). The example Polanyi gives is Piaget. Polanyi admits, that emergence represents yet another conception of tacit knowing: “I have included all stages of emergence in an enlarged conception of inventiveness achieved by tacit knowing” (p. 44). That is, the mental powers of tacit knowing are linked to an evolutionary emergence in an overall “theory of stratified universe” (p. 50).

Polanyi appeals to St. Augustine, “unless you believe, you shall not understand” (p. 61) and as reviewed above, to Plato’s idea of a recollection of past lives of the eternal soul.


This essay has identified seven definitions and constructions of tacit knowing. It has shown that at least one of this is bound up with a stratified hierarchical assumption about Being, that the universe, its multiple realities (including past lives) is a totality of ordering, one which has a definite moral product. For Polanyi, tacit knowing and emergence are related, level-by-level to a “moral sense of man” (p. 56). As with Boulding (1956), Polanyi (1966) posits that this moral sense is transcendental, and at the top of hierarchy of systems levels, which is read as an “evolutionary emergence” (p. 56), that is, becoming more tacitly integrated in a linear notion of emergence levels that culminate in a moral motive. Polanyi wants positivistic science to notice that it is nihilism to deny transcendental moral values: “modern positivism has denied justification to all transcendental values” and combined with rationalism “has impaired moral beliefs, first by shattering their religious sanctions than then by questioning their logical grounds” (p. 56). Polanyi’s view is that the enlightenment project of modernity, the integration of science to rationalism has marginalized transcendental values.

It is ironic that Polanyi cites Einstein’s quantum physics, and then proceeds to create theirs of tacitness and emergence that are so tainted by hierarchical order principles. In the end, both constructs (tacit and emergence) are without a theory of power. His idea that science is “mutual control” where mediated consensus among scientists allows for gradual progress is the ultimate theory of rational-science. Polanyi’s concepts seem helplessly bound to radical metaphysics, taking tacitness beyond neuro (cognitive) and Gestalt psychology to past lives, and rational consensus, granting scientists a transcendental belief in a hidden reality (pp. 74-75, 78).

Polanyi’s claim is that he is engaged in pragmatism, citing Dewey and James. Polanyi defends against existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre, and the passionate commitment for change of Freidrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. Yet, one has to notice in a detailed reading of Polanyi, that there are several existential choices that are well beyond the reaches of Dewey and James’ pragmatism. Polanyi dismisses existentialism (p. 78-80) and dialectical materialism (p. 82) in favor of his stratified hierarchical view of tacit emergence in gradual consensual doses.

In the end, Polanyi fails to challenge the monologic of his theory of successive levels of reality or the progress of levels in an ordered universe, as being but half the story. While Polanyi admits to “open systems” and to “quantum mechanics” (p. 88) he puts these in a rather stable configuration, that limits emergence to structuralist evolution in a “cosmic emergence of meaning” (p. 92). Polanyi is a moral philosophy who seeks to reestablish a place for religion in science.

Polanyi’s (1946) early work Science, Faith and Society, was followed in 1958 by Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, in 1959 a short book The Study of Man, and in 1966 to a book that is the central topic of this essay, The Tacit Dimension (based on the 1962 Terry Lectures at Yale University). Polanyi’s main project in these works was to move out of a positivist science framework into one that allowed for moral judgments. His 1975 book, Meaning (with Harry Prosch) extends his pragmatist (or constructive) philosophy to art and religion. Polanyi died Feb 22, 1976. Polanyi argues against Existentialism, and prefers to anchor his ideas in pragmatism. Polanyi extends his ways of conceptualizing tacit knowing and emergence from neuroscience to philosophical cosmology, in a rather broad Plutonian metaphysical scheme.


Originally published as Polanyi, M. (1966). “Chapter 2: Emergence,” in The Tacit Dimension, New York, NY: Doubleday, pp. 29-52. Reprinted with kind permission.



Boulding, K. E. (1956). “General systems theory: The skeleton of science,” Management Science, ISSN 0025-1909. 2: 197-208.


Nye, M.J. (2002). “Michael Polanyi (1891-1976).” HYLE: International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, ISSN 1433-5158. 8(2): 123-127.


Polanyi, M. (1932). Atomic Reactions, London, UK: Williams and Norgate.


Polanyi, M. (1946). Science, Faith, and Society, ISBN 9781406768534 (2007).


Polanyi, M. (1951). The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders, ISBN 9780865971820 (1998).


Polanyi, M. (1964). Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, ISBN 9780226672885 (1974).


Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension, ISBN 9780844659992 (1983).


Polanyi, M. and Prosch, H. (1975). Meaning, ISBN 9780226672953 (1977).

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