In The Tacit Dimension Michael Polanyi presents an insight about preconscious, unarticulated knowing, which shows that perception constructs an integrated unity of our sensory experiences in order to construct meaning. This model formed in the mind of a relationship of the whole to the parts encompasses the totality of what we take in from the world, and, as such, functions as and manifests itself by extension in the medium of language.
The psychology of art has long since established Hermann von Helmholtz’s theory of “unconscious inference,” establishing the idea that the origins of all perceptions are incomplete and “fill in” what is not there. The ambiguity of the particulars of discrete parts only manifests a stable whole when this infrastrastructure conforms to the rules of a system. Perception, like language, is a constructed mode of experience.
When we view a work of art, our initial unspoken perception is taken in almost immediately. We respond to the medium and the techniques and the expressive embodiment of an idea unconsciously. In actuality, our eye seeks out those elements of an artwork that best convey this message, or, at least, we seek to complete the inference. Polanyi describes the operations of tacit knowledge similarly: a kind of anticipatory knowledge.
Polanyi also defines tacit knowledge as embodied perception. The same principle of parts and wholes and the extension to bodily indwelling applies to speech, i.e., the words we choose and feel ourselves speaking and how we picture the structure of a sentence. In his typical fashion, Jasper Johns liked to vacate the viewer of this experience of bodily indwelling and also rob the viewer of a sense of wholeness. His Voice, part of the Device series from 1964-67, alludes to the operations of language, or its absence, as a mechanical extension of part of the body. The instrument that constructs the faded gray arc is a prosthesis of the body, demarcating a path that remains incomplete and signifies something of the notion of a dissipating mark, a gesture so faint it is like the breath of the voice without there being audible words.
Johns’ painting is a statement of refusal, a denial of what tacit knowledge aims to overcome: direct perception only supplies the minutiae of what is accessible to us as most of everything in this world escapes perception. Yet, his anti-visual stance teaches us that to decode the world of sensory experience we must actually embrace the imperfections of our perceptions. The empirical stance must be replaced by the analytical. Instead of asking what something means, we need to ask ourselves just how is it that something represents an idea. We will never know the why or the intention of a painting, or for most anything else in this world, but we can answer how something functions the way it does.
When we read something, or likewise when we listen to someone speak, this reality is intransitory, and a disconnection occurs, as the voice loses its origin. On the receiving end of both writing and speech, the person who beholds the subject may decode that language like a mental model or a myth. The mythical element of literature is the ground by which it both participates in and violates; what is evident to direct perception lies on the basis of various ethical, religious, and social structures from life with which it has a structural relationship. Just as with vision, in the perception of language, this knowledge is constructed and relies on a feeling of bodily indwelling.
In a sense, we are both dependent upon but also limited by our perceptions being grounded in our bodies. Insight happens, when, built upon the data of sensory perception, we become translational mediators, forming structures or formularies, and by decoding and interpreting the phenomena at hand. In the last analysis, the models we create allow for our perceptions to open up and expand, discovering things and having insights, to even fathom a world, or experience, that transcends human perception.