, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 75-92

Rethinking Polanyi’s Concept of Tacit Knowledge: From Personal Knowing to Imagined Institutions

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Abstract

Half a century after Michael Polanyi conceptualised ‘the tacit component’ in personal knowing, management studies has reinvented ‘tacit knowledge’—albeit in ways that squander the advantages of Polanyi’s insights and ignore his faith in ‘spiritual reality’. While tacit knowing challenged the absurdities of sheer objectivity, expressed in a ‘perfect language’, it fused rational knowing, based on personal experience, with mystical speculation about an un-experienced ‘external reality’. Faith alone saved Polanyi’s model from solipsism. But Ernst von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism provides scope to rethink personal tacit knowing with regard to ‘other people’ and the intersubjectively viable construction of ‘experiential reality’. By separating tacit knowing from Polanyi’s metaphysical realism and drawing on Benedict Anderson’s concept of ‘imagined communities’, it is possible to conceptualise ‘imagined institutions’ as the tacit dimension of power that shapes human interaction. Whereas Douglass North claimed institutions could be reduced to rules, imagined institutions are known in ways we cannot tell.