Tacit politics

Philosophical descriptions of knowledge rarely contribute to the development of new knowledge. Scientists normally do research without analyzing the presuppositions and methodologies of scientific research. Each branch has an implicit understanding of valid methods and arguments, which is taught to students and redefined bit by bit each time a paper passes peer review. Such interactions are prescriptive even though prescriptions aren’t written down as an explicit set of rules.

Philosophical analyses of scientific knowledge, on the other hand, are descriptive but not prescriptive. They usually describe the presuppositions and methods of scientific inquiry. The philosophical interest lies in following the roots of rational knowledge as deep down as possible. Philosophy comes closest to prescription in questions of demarcation when science is to be separated from non-scientific (or pseudo-scientific) forms of inquiry. A philosophical analysis can be good for proscribing such forms.

Much the same considerations apply to political knowledge and its philosophical description. A philosophical analysis of political knowledge is descriptive, not prescriptive. I can philosophize about the forms of knowledge various political actors possess, but my theories will give no advice or guidance for practicing politicians on how they can improve their political knowledge. And if we want to distinguish between political and non-political forms of knowledge, we immediately ascend (or descend, if you prefer) to the level of philosophy. Only by philosophical analysis can we hope the demarcate political knowledge from related forms of knowledge such as social science and public opinion.

But I have not to date read a philosophical analysis where political knowledge would have been adequately analyzed to facilitate a clear idea of the knowledge that politicians employ in their work. Different forms of knowledge often seem to get heaped together when political questions are discussed. Political actors speak as if they were experts or as if they had intimate acquaintance with public opinion. Experts and citizens often berate politicians for not knowing what they should know (the latest data, the specific concerns of the citizenry) and not doing what they should do (what scientific theories prescribe, what the people think they need). In this essay I make a suggestion which might provide a more reasonable perspective for such criticism.

Polanyi’s tacit knowledge

I will draw some inspiration from Michael Polanyi’s philosophy of science as presented in his book Personal Knowledge. He criticizes predominant theories of rationality and objectivity in the philosophy of natural science, but his conclusions apply quite broadly to any field of inquiry where people know things. We will soon see how his notion of tacit knowledge can be thought to apply in politics, but let me first make a very brief general introduction to Polanyi’s philosophy of science.

The shortest way to introduce Polanyi’s thought might be to recount his view on Laplace’s famous conception of science. According to Laplace the ideal scientific mind would at a certain moment know the positions and velocities of all particles in the universe, would be able to calculate therefrom the future state of the universe at any given time and thus be able to predict everything we might be interested to know.

Polanyi notes the absurdity of the idea that all knowable things could be reduced to the movement of particles and wonders how this line of thought has maintained its popularity for so long. (PK p.140)

The tremendous intellectual feat conjured up by Laplace’s imagination has diverted attention from the decisive sleight of hand by which he substitutes a knowledge of all experience for a knowledge of all atomic data. Once you refuse this deceptive substitution, you immediately see that the Laplacean mind understand precisely nothing and that whatever it knows means precisely nothing. (PK p.141)

It is “precisely nothing” because atomic data – positions, velocities – are by themselves completely without meaning. On the other hand, the things we want to know and the things we actually know are meaningful. We have questions which we try to answer by investigating and we have answers to earlier questions that somebody else investigated. Even in questions pertaining exclusively to atomic physics, to the positions and velocities of particles, our knowledge has to begin with personal engagement.

The great fault of the Laplacean view of science and of much subsequent philosophizing is that it completely excludes the scientist from science. It presumes that objective facts of nature surround us and that direct observation and calculation could tell us everything we want to know about the world. The problem is that we don’t even know what we are looking for or what we really want to know unless we have some personal acquaintance with the matter at hand. The only way to conduct scientific investigations is to experience the object of investigations in one way or another.

Chemistry answers question regarding the interaction of more or less stable chemical substances, and these questions cannot be raised without experience of these substances and of the practical conditions in which they are to be handled. A Laplacean knowledge which merely predicts what will happen under any given conditions cannot tell us what conditions should be given (…). Therefore, while quantum mechanics can explain in principle all chemical reactions, it cannot replace, even in principle, our knowledge of chemistry. (PK p.394)

The primary point I wish to draw from Polanyi’s work is that the outward manifestations of scientific knowledge – observation reports, theoretical concepts and calculations – are only one part of it. A more fundamental part is the practical understanding of how a scientific phenomenon is investigated and new ideas for investigating it better. Scientists learn the practical craft of science in their training and do not have to think about it explicitly after that. This is why Polanyi calls it tacit knowledge, meaning a personal familiarity which cannot be expressed as formal criteria. No general rule will reveal to scientists how the results of a given experiment should be interpreted, how a theory is applied to the data or what further questions a given result leads to. These are all matters of personal judgment.

(…) into every act of knowing there enters a tacit and passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, (…) this coefficient is no mere imperfection, but a necessary component of all knowledge. (PK p.312)

This descriptive account of the nature of scientific knowledge questions purely theoretical and systematized models of scientific inquiry. It shows that science is not a mechanical process but an inventive one and a personal one. It also emphasizes the fact that behind the public facade of scientific knowledge there’s a realm of tacit knowledge and human experience – not one of particles moving about in no man’s land.

In politics

As far as politics is concerned, it’s obvious that the overwhelming majority of events that happen in society escape our observation and understanding. Political actors cannot personally experience even a small fraction of the events that their political knowledge concerns. They do not have direct access to social phenomena any more than other people do.

But in one sense political actors’ do have indirect perspectives which are privileged compared to those of ordinary citizens. This is because democratic political systems funnel information from different sources toward the people in power. The politician is the focal point where the observations and concerns of citizens, lobbies, experts, state functionaries and other political actors all congregate. If political decisions are difficult to reach, that is usually not due to lack of information. If anything, the cacophony of opinions is a challenge in itself.

In any case, the point I wish to emphasize is that practical political work consists of social interactions where information is exchanged and decisions are made. Politicians therefore constantly have to assess the veracity and importance of sources and pieces of information and transform them into a plan for political action which accords with their own views and the political ideals they strive to follow. True political knowledge lies in this interplay between what is and what ought to be. It is needed when politicians select and prioritize information sources (in light of their views and ideology), when they judge the truthfulness and relevance of information and when they combine information and ideology into effective political action.

The thing that separates political knowledge from expert knowledge and public opinion is the normative influence of ideology, a set of ideas aiming for a transformation of society. It is fundamentally different from the neutral realms of objective expertise and common subjective opinion. This is where the analogy to Polanyi’s philosophy of science comes to life. Just like scientific knowledge seems on the surface to consist only of objective facts – moving particles and rules of calculation – so too does political knowledge often seem to pertain to facts – the economic, diplomatic or social state of the nation, for instance, however it might be conceived. If this would be all, then political decision would always have to be self-evident once all the relevant facts have been considered, just like the answer to any scientific question was presumed self-evident once the scientist knew the coordinates and velocities of all particles.

But obviously that isn’t the case. A rational political decision requires not just information but an ideological vision of how society should be improved. Facts by themselves say nothing about how things ought to be. The personal and tacit knowledge of the politician lies in interpreting societal information through his or her ideology in a manner which produces practical results. For politicians are always opposed by forces which prevent them from reaching their goals directly. This is the basic nature of a functioning political system, opposition and multiplicity. Multiplicity of information, of ideologies, of ideas and actions. No single politician, party or ideology never wins out over the others. Politics is a game of small, incremental victories and losses.

Skillful politician know how to work in the general direction that their ideology prescribes by small particular decisions. The steps they take will as a rule not lead straight towards their ideals. There will plenty of be sidesteps and compromises, one step back today so that two steps forward may be taken tomorrow. Politicians therefore need tacit political knowledge and practical experience to know whether or not they are working in the right direction.  Just like science, politics includes an element of knowledge which is personal and cannot be reduced to analytical and formal models. And this ideologically informed tacit knowledge is what really separates the knowledge that politicians possess from the knowledge that social scientific experts or citizens possess.

Judging politics

The idea of tacit political knowledge is a useful complement to what I wrote about system effects in my earlier essay Other Things Not Being Equal. There is no such thing as a perfectly controlled political action in a system were multiple ideas and interests are in conflict. A democratic political system is too complex to be rationally controlled by a single group or individual. This is how it should be. It’s precisely the lack of complexity which marks dictatorial political systems.

Rational actions are nevertheless possible even in a complex democratic system, but I’ve tried to argue in this essay that political actions are not 100% rational in the sense of being justified by precise decision criteria and correct information. There is an important tacit element in the political knowledge of decision-makers. In general terms we can say that people acting in a complex system gain an intuitive feeling for how the system works without being able to articulate and theorize this intuition. This is Polanyi’s basic idea which I have applied to politics.

Returning to the tasks I set for myself at the beginning, i.e. the clarification of politicians’ working knowledge in relation to expert knowledge and public opinion, I note that we should not and need not expect great social scientific knowledge from politicians. Not only is extensive factual knowledge hard to achieve, but an excessive concern for neutral knowledge would probably impede the efficacy of political action rather than promote it. And similarly for public opinion, the fact that political knowledge has a tacit dimension means that voters cannot reasonable expect to judge political decisions by their immediate outward appearance. What looks like indecision and backtracking from the outside may be a set of small victories on the inside. Tacit knowledge, in science as in politics, is quite invisible in day-to-day affairs.

This doesn’t mean that politician always knows best, that they’re infallible or beyond criticism.  The political system is abused by many corrupt politicians who utilize it for personal profit or merely to ensure re-election. Other politicians are just dumb or pledge allegiance to an inane ideology. Misuse and stupidity of that kind must always be exposed and criticized. But the point I wish to make, with regard to good politicians and bad, is that we must think twice before judging whether a politician is knowledgeable or not and we should expect politicians to disclose publicly such information which enables informed judgment in this matter, especially before elections. All politicians seeking re-election should publicize 20 of their most important personal decisions taken during the previous term, supplemented with a) the information they possessed when the decisions was made and b) their retrospective interpretation of each act in terms of their ideology.

That kind of disclosure would allow voters to do make judgments that go beyond the candidate’s ideological rhetoric or the societal data he or she recites in debate. Voters could judge whether or not the candidate actually lives up to their standards for political knowledge. A prospective representative should be present to the voters a reasoned account of their practical results. The least we can do as voters is to abstain from supporting candidates whose accomplishments are insufficiently reported in this regard.


(PK) Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, University of Chicago Press 1974.

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