“We know more than we can tell”: Why embodied knowledge matters

How do you recognise your friend in the street? How do I know how to ride a bike? How come some people have savoir-faire and others are clueless? How does intuition work? The short answer is embodied knowledge. Even though you’ve probably never heard of it, embodied knowledge underpins something like 95% of your thinking (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999).

Information enters our consciousness on a ‘need to know’ basis and most of our everyday behaviour happens at the very edge of awareness. Some of that subconscious thinking inevitably draws on knowledge and beliefs about the world, but you don’t have easy access to that huge data bank: “We know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966).

Some knowledge – for example that Paris is the capital of France – is immediately available. This is typically called explicit or propositional knowledge and can be expressed formally in “words and numbers, scientific formulae, codified procedures or universal principles” (Quintas & Jones, 2002). But a vastly greater store of knowledge is tacit, practical and less accessible. Skills held as tacit knowledge are taught through observation, imitation, and practice. Crucially, this knowledge is embodied. Tanaka, drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, defines it as “a type of knowledge in which the body knows how to act” (2013). Sport offers some great examples. A basketball player has no time to consciously evaluate all the options before making a move: They rely on “court sense”, the ability to “take in and comprehend all that is happening around him or her” (Gladwell, 2006).

shadow of boy on seascape

shadow of boy on seascape

Embodied knowing can be extraordinarily powerful. Berenson, a 20th century art historian, could identify forged works of art using embodied knowing (Hoving, 1996). He’s not unique and many top ‘fakebusters’ work the same way. Fakebusters like Berenson are unable to specify how they knew something was a copy, but would simply say that their “stomach felt wrong” or they “felt woozy and off balance” (Hoving, 1996).

Most of can’t do what those fakebusters can, but we can tap into our embodied knowing. We all occasionally have a bodily sensation that’s meaningful. Maybe you have a bad feeling about someone, butterflies in your stomach or you just ‘got out of bed the wrong side’ this morning. These sensations are often what Gendlin calls a ‘felt sense’ and they hold embodied knowledge about how things are for you right now.

Even though I’ve been researching embodied knowing for over a decade, I’ll never fully understand it; the research is growing too fast. Academia.edu, a research website, currently lists over 329,000 papers that mention ‘embodied knowing’ and almost every discipline you can think of refers to it. Although fully comprehending embodied knowing is probably impossible, I’ve started identifying some of the key features. Even if I can’t explore the entire territory, at least I can make the first sketch map of this extraordinary landscape.

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