Sharing Tacit Knowledge via Chance-Seeking

Sharing Tacit Knowledge via Chance-Seeking

Emanuele Bardone (Institute of Informatics, Tallinn University, Tallinn, Estonia)
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/ijkss.2013070103


According to Polanyi any act of cognition has a tacit component that we cannot fully access or explicitly specify. The author will characterize tacit knowledge by referring to the notion of unknown known. That is, tacit knowledge is that kind of knowledge that people do not know they know, but that nonetheless has an impact on the way people solve problems and make decisions. The problem the author will specifically address in this paper is how tacit knowns as instances of tacit knowledge can be shared. The idea that the author will try to develop is that tacit knowns cannot be communicated, but they can be shared. In illustrating the author’s proposal, the author will refer, first of all, to the idea of docility. The author will describe docility as that disposition enabling people to discover what cannot be told. Secondly, the author will argue that this activity of discovering what one cannot be told is a chance-seeking one. The author will describe chance-seeking as an adaptive process characterized by incremental, hypothetical, and open-ended modifications of the environment, which leads one to his/her goal by means of successive approximations.
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Introduction: Unknown Knowns And The Problem Of Their Communication

During a press conference in March 2003 on the problem of weapons of mass destruction allegedly being developed by Saddam Hussein, Donald Rumsfeld tried to explain the American strategy by engaging the journalists in a sort of philosophical discussion. Rumsfeld said that there are things we know we know – known knowns. For instance, we may look out of the window and see that now it is raining. So, we know that we know that now it is raining. Known knowns belong to the realm of certainty. Then we have things we know we do not know – known unknowns. If we do not look out of the window, we cannot say if it is raining or not. Therefore, we know we do not know if it is raining or not. That is the realm of Socratic ignorance, which brings us to doubt and uncertainty. Finally we have things we do not know we do not know – unknown unknowns. We ignore something and we do not know. That can be the case of black swans, namely, highly improbable events that usually people do not take into their account (Taleb, 2007). For example, mainstream media financial experts had completely ignored that a financial crisis was going to hit the entire globe back in 2008. They did not know when the crisis could strike, and they did not even think that something like that could ever happen. Unknown unknowns are all instances of ignorance of ignorance (Kamitake, 2007).

In commenting Rumsfeld’s amateur attempt of philosophizing, Slovenian philosopher Slavoy Žižek claimed that there is a fourth category that the former secretary of defense missed out, which is also the most enigmatic one: things we do not know we know, that is, unknown knowns (Žižek, 2006). Saying that there is something we do not know we know means that in some sense we know something and in some other we do not know it. Clearly, unknown knowns are not things that we simply ignore the way we ignore what the weather will be like next summer. They are knowns after all.

At first approximation, I may say that unknown knowns are all cases in which we lack reflective knowledge. Generally speaking, I posit that unknown knowns are cognition without meta-cognition. Metacognition is usually defined as higher order thinking, which allows us to gain active control over certain cognitive processes like, for instance, learning (Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994). Metacognition grants us the possibility to develop a reflective attitude towards what we know (or what we do not know). And in so doing it improves thinking as well as decision-making. In the case of unknown knowns, this control is absent. Even more, unknown knowns affect our problem-solving abilities without our awareness.

Broadening the discussion, I may relate the phenomenon of unknown knowns to what I called reverse epistemic embubblement (Bardone, 2011). Epistemic embubblement, along with the notion of epistemic bubble, was introduced by John Woods and it is defined as follows:

Whenever it is true for Y to say of X that X believes that P, it is also true that X takes himself as knowing that P (Woods, 2005, p. 738).

Epistemic embubblement is that process of knowledge ascription to belief and its main outcome is that a person believes she knows P, when she does not know P. I claim that unknown knowns are exactly the product of the reverse process:

An agent A believes she does not know P, when she does know P.

In this case we are not in presence of knowledge ascription, but ignorance ascription so that we do not know when we do know. That is, it is not knowledge which is apparent, but its contrary, namely, ignorance. Such a reverse epistemic embubblement brings us into a sort of bubble, in which it is not our ability to know that becomes problematic, but our ability of ignoring or being ignorant. In some respect this might sound a bit weird, as ignorance is traditionally conceived as mere absence of knowledge. However, as Proctor put it, “ignorance is more than a void” (Proctor, 2005, p. 2). That is, it is not a uniform block either. In this respect I do agree with Proctor when he encourages scholars and researchers to know more about ignorance and its various manifestations – the so-called epistemologies of ignorance (Sullivan & Tuana, 2007).

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