Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 187–213

Recognizing Racit Knowledge in Medical Epistemology


    • Center for Biomedical Ethics and SocietyVanderbilt University Medical Center

DOI: 10.1007/s11017-006-9005-x

Cite this article as:
Henry, S.G. Theor Med Bioeth (2006) 27: 187. doi:10.1007/s11017-006-9005-x


The evidence-based medicine movement advocates basing all medical decisions on certain types of quantitative research data and has stimulated protracted controversy and debate since its inception. Evidence-based medicine presupposes an inaccurate and deficient view of medical knowledge. Michael Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowledge both explains this deficiency and suggests remedies for it. Polanyi shows how all explicit human knowledge depends on a wealth of tacit knowledge which accrues from experience and is essential for problem solving. Edmund Pellegrino’s classic treatment of clinical judgment is examined, and a Polanyian critique of this position demonstrates that tacit knowledge is necessary for understanding how clinical judgment and medical decisions involve persons. An adequate medical epistemology requires much more qualitative research relevant to the clinical encounter and medical decision making than is currently being done. This research is necessary for preventing an uncritical application of evidence-based medicine by health care managers that erodes good clinical practice. Polanyi’s epistemology shows the need for this work and provides the structural core for building an adequate and robust medical epistemology that moves beyond evidence-based medicine.


clinical judgmentmedical epistemologyevidence-based medicineEdmund PellegrinoMichael Polanyitacit knowledge

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© Springer 2006