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  • Tacit Knowledge in Vitruvius*
  • Serafina Cuomo

This paper is an experiment in taking a notion current in the history of modern science and technology—the notion of tacit knowledge—and seeing how it might work when applied to an ancient text like Vitruvius’s de Architectura. Like any preliminary experiment, it is tentative and has no claim to generality until and unless it is more widely applied to, and replicated with, de Architectura and other similar texts from antiquity. In that sense, this paper is also an attempt to encourage future studies. It may well be that a full recognition of the “tacit dimension” of those ancient treatises that are primarily devoted to communicating knowledge of how to make things (aka “technical” treatises) will substantially change our understanding both of those texts and of knowledge practices in Greek and Roman antiquity.

I will first briefly describe what historians of science and technology generally mean by tacit knowledge. Then I will look closely at some passages in Vitruvius which, in my view, provide evidence of such knowledge. Finally, I will argue that employing the notion of tacit knowledge can not only help us understand and interpret the text, but also enrich our reconstruction of the context within which that text was read, used, and made sense of by its contemporaries. In other words, applying a notion from the history of science and technology could be of benefit both to the scholarship of de Architectura as literature and to the reading of it as historical evidence for ancient architecture, Roman “science,” and the Augustan period. [End Page 125]


The founding father of the notion of tacit knowledge is Michael Polanyi, whose The Tacit Dimension was published in 1967.1 In more recent times, however, the name most associated with tacit knowledge (in English-speaking academic circles at least), is Harry Collins, sometimes working with other sociologists of science such as Trevor Pinch. Because my aim is not to write a history of the concept of tacit knowledge but to derive a useful interpretative category, I will mostly draw on Collins’s work and that of his coauthors.

In a nutshell, tacit knowledge consists of the things that we know and, in particular, the things that we know how to do that are very difficult to express in words. A typical example is riding a bike or, indeed, most craft activities such as carving stone, knitting, blowing glass, or even more quotidian ones, such as cooking. Most of the scholarly literature, however, is about scientific practices, and specifically those, including experiments, which have a strong practical, technical, or manual component.

“Tacit knowledge has been shown to have an influence in, among other things, laser-building, the development of nuclear weapons, biological procedures … veterinary surgery,” and how to measure the quality of sapphires (Collins 2001.71). That not all knowledge is verbal becomes evident particularly when knowledge has to be transferred, taught, or communicated. Consequently, studies of tacit knowledge focus on training and apprenticing or, in general, on learning and acquiring knowledge.

While there is a consensus about the general features of tacit or personal knowledge, and various incarnations of it are found in, for instance, the recent scholarship on pedagogy,2 debate continues on some of the specifics. One of the main points of contention is whether all tacit knowledge can eventually be articulated with words once it has been identified and made the explicit object of enquiry or discussion, or whether, as Polanyi believed, there will always be an element of tacit knowledge which is ineffable and irreducible to spoken communication. Historically, it would appear that some knowledge once assumed to be tacit can be articulated at a later stage, especially when there is conflict, dispute, or a problem of [End Page 126] replication. Whether that is the case for all the knowledge content implied in a scientific or technical practice remains contested.

Without taking sides on this particular point, what I think is useful for our present purposes is the idea that if most “knowledge-how” is tacit, and a fortiori if some “knowledge-how” will always be tacit, the only effective way of transmitting it is...


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