The Role of Tacit Knowledge in Religion

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The Role of Tacit Knowledge in Religion

ABSTRACT: Clarity concerning what kind of knowledge a religious person possesses is of the utmost importance. For one thing, J. Whittaker remarks that believers must have some knowledge that enables them to make the distinction between literal and non-literal descriptions of God. (1) In the believer's perception 'God is a rock', but not really a rock. God however really is love. Whittaker suggests that making this distinction requires knowledge that cannot be metaphysical or experiential, but a more basic form which he terms 'practical' knowledge. Without going into his discussion of the metaphysical and experiential view, I would like to elaborate on this notion of knowledge in three steps. Firstly, I want to consider a short passage in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (A 132-3 / B 171-2) on judgment. This passage points out that we necessarily know more than we can say or state. Secondly, Michael Polanyi's account of tacit knowledge will be introduced to see what 'religious tacit knowledge' could mean to be. Thirdly, analysis of a text from Meister Eckhart's Reden der Unterweisung will aim to show the relevance of this notion of practical (or tacit) knowledge in religious contexts.

1. Kant on judgment in the Critique of Pure Reason

With the expression 'practical knowledge' no reduction of all forms of knowledge to the world of the tactile is intended. It does, however, commit us to the view that knowledge can never be purely notional. There is in the acquisition of knowledge an element which Gilbert Ryle has termed 'knowing how'. Calculating can be a merely mental operation (as in mental arithmetic), but that doesn't take away the fact that one has to know how to calculate. It is in this sense of 'art' that the word 'practical' has to be understood.

Western philosophy seems to be marked - from its early beginning - by a certain intellectualism. Intellectualism is the conviction that wants to install a strong distinction between knowledge and abilities, between theory and practice. The theoretical knowledge-act is characterised as a purely mental event, as a kind of contemplation, while any form of practice or ability is seen as an application of previously acquired theoretical knowledge. The distinction values theory over practice because, in this view, practice depends on theory and not the other way round.

In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant dedicates a text to judgment entitled 'Of the transcendental faculty of judgment in general' ('Von der Transzendentalen Urteilskraft überhaupt' A 132-3 / B 171-2).

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