The four ways we know about the past

An example of explicit knowledge communicated across space and time, a letter from Amarna in Akkadian Cuneiform.





There are two primary types of knowledge: explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is learning that can be expressed clearly in signs, words or numbers. Explicit knowledge, because it can be codified and stored in the form of books, computer records and archives, can be handed on from person to person without direct interpersonal communication. Explicit knowledge can also be communicated and shared across both space and time in the form of broadcasts, letters, emails, books and records. Some of these records, like Egyptian hieroglyphics or Sumerian Cuneiform, are very old and provide important insights into the past. Explicit knowledge is also be held by groups of people, for example, in the form of language or the knowledge of the rules of law held by lawyers. In these instances an individual may hold part or most of this knowledge, but the entire sum of this knowledge is only held by the group.
The concept of tacit knowledge was defined by Michael Polanyi as learning that is gained through direct experience and remains intangible. Tacit knowledge is often difficult or impossible to communicate through language or other coded processes and is difficult to successfully communicate across space and time. As tacit knowledge is gained through experience it tends to be specific to an individual and a particular context, and consists of insights and intuitions as well as technical abilities. Tacit knowledge held by an individual can be manifested as a set of complex skills. For example, an individual may be able to ride a bicycle but may have no explicit idea of how they do this; they are unable to explain the process. Learning how to ride consists of an iterative process of trial and error as one learns the complexities of coordination and balance. Most skills that require comprehension of information which is too complex to be verbalised, such as recognising subtle archaeological features, the ability to see and explain patterns in raw data or the ability to overtake on a race-circuit rely on tacit knowledge gained through experience.
Tacit knowledge is also held collectively by a group or community of practice. Groups hold common views of the world or belief systems that incorporate tacit assumptions. Within the research community professional groups, like archaeologists and historians, form informal social networks or communities of practice that share tacit assumptions about their fields of research and the wider world. As these tacit views mould the way in which group members view the world, the tacit knowledge of the group will influence the nature of the knowledge gained. For example, if we use Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the scientific paradigm to characterise tacit group knowledge, then the knowledge gained by the individual member will be influenced by and will often form part of and support the general tacit assumptions of the paradigm. In instances where the tacit assumptions of the group continued to be held in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence these paradigms are referred to as group think.

The objective of archaeology and history is to increase our knowledge of the past through the study of the material remains and documents left behind by people. As archaeologists and historians we know things about the past in four different ways. We have both explicit and tacit knowledge about the past, we have knowledge as individuals and we share knowledge as part of a group or community of practice.

The realisation that we have knowledge in four ways, as individuals, as members of groups and both explicitly and tacitly is important for the development of innovative thinking. It can often be an intellectual and social challenge for the individual to think outside of the tacit assumptions held by the group of which they are a member. As a result important new knowledge discoveries are often made by individuals operating outside of groups. In order to develop new insights we need to understand how our knowledge of the past has been formed, not only though explicit discourse, but through our tacit experiences and the tacit assumptions of the groups to which we belong.


Mount, C. The four ways we know about the past. The Charles Mount Blog, June 21, 2011.

Further reading
Michael Polanyi 1966. The Tacit Dimension. Routledge and Keegan Paul.
Charles Mount 2004 Explicit data and tacit knowledge, exploring the dimensions of archaeological knowledge, in H. Roche et al. (Ed) From Megaliths to Metals. Oxbow Books
Thomas Kuhn 1996 The structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.


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