Explicit Versus Tacit Knowledge in Mathematics

  • Tom Archibald

    Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada
  • Jeanne Peiffer

    CNRS-EHESS-MNHN, Paris, France
  • Norbert Schappacher

    Université de Strasbourg, France


This workshop aimed to bring together an international group of historians of mathematics to reflect upon the role played by tacit knowledge in doing mathematics at various times and places. The existence of tacit knowledge in contemporary mathematics is familiar to anyone who has ever been given an idea of how a particular proof or theory “works” by a verbal analogy or diagrammatic explanation that one would never consider publishing. Something of it is felt by every student of mathematics, when the process of learning mathematics often amounts to training the right reflexes. In more advanced contexts, the tacit understanding that a particular technique, instrument or approach is “the one to use” in a given circumstance gives another familiar instance. Tacit knowledge, a term introduced by the philosopher M. Polanyi, contrasts with the explicit knowledge that in almost all historical mathematical cultures is associated with mathematical text. The workshop invited a use of the categories of tacit and explicit knowledge to achieve a better knowledge of how mathematical creation proceeds, and also of how cultural habits play a tacit role in mathematical production. The meeting intended to offer the possibility of significant innovation and enrichment of historical method, as well as new and compelling insight into the process of creating mathematics in different times and places. The meeting was intended to afford the opportunity for a presentation of selected case studies by leading experts and new scholars. In retrospect, as we hope these abstracts show, the results promise to be of significant interest not only to historians, but to the mathematical community more broadly.

Cite this article

Tom Archibald, Jeanne Peiffer, Norbert Schappacher, Explicit Versus Tacit Knowledge in Mathematics. Oberwolfach Rep. 9 (2012), no. 1, pp. 131–210

DOI 10.4171/OWR/2012/04