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Irish Philosophy

Philosophy & Hurling: Thinking & Playing

Stiofán Ó Murchadha on knowing how we know.

We are often unconscious of what it is we are actually doing in our actions, including while playing sports. But this is a good thing. If people were explicitly aware of all they do, two major things would follow. Firstly, they would be awed by how amazing they are as organisms; secondly, nothing would get done. Therefore, it is important that we come to intuit certain forms of practical knowledge, in order for acts like hammering a nail into a wall or playing sport to be possible.

Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958) will support us in philosophically investigating the ancient Irish sport of hurling, which is something like a cross between hockey, lacrosse, rugby – and some might add sword fighting. The first part of this article will explain Polanyi’s epistemology of knowledge – in other words, how we know what we know. After that, we will apply this theory to the game of hurling.

Killyon vs Longwood 2011
Peter Mooney 2011 Creative Commons 2.0

Tacit & Other Knowledge

Polanyi first offers a distinction between focal and subsidiary awareness. Focal awareness is what you’re consciously aware of or explicitly aware of, and subsidiary awareness is what you are less aware of or implicitly aware of. All knowledge has from-to relations because meaning is brought from the subsidiary to the focal which is part of the reason why Polanyi notes that all knowledge must begin with an act of commitment, which is belief. He writes, “We must now recognize belief as the source of all knowledge” (Personal Knowledge, 266). An example is using a hammer and nail, in which, in order for the act of hammering the nail into a wall to work, we must be focally aware of the nail and only subsidiarily aware of the hammer. Polanyi says: “When we are relying on our awareness of something (A) for attending to something else (B), we are but subsidiarily aware of A. The thing B to which we are focally attending is then the meaning of A. The focal object B is always identifiable, while things like A, of which we are subsidiarily aware, may be unidentifiable. The two kinds of awareness are mutually exclusive; when we switch our attention to something of which we have hitherto been subsidiarily aware, it loses its previous meaning” (Personal Knowledge, Preface). Therefore, subsidiary awareness provides the meaning to the focus: subsidiary awareness of the hammer is necessary for the focal awareness of the nail. So we can see that subsidiary knowledge is not only important, it is no less rational than focal knowledge. One cannot be both focally and subsidiarily aware of the same things at the same time, and if we reverse the situation, for instance to be subsidiarily aware of the nail and focally of the hammer, the act of hammering a nail into a wall wouldn’t work and would be quite dangerous, like an archer looking at the arrow rather than at the target.

Another distinction in Polanyi’s thought is between explicit and tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, according to Polanyi, means we ‘know more than we can say’. He expands this idea in Personal Knowledge thus: “Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework” (p.266). ‘Fiduciary’ means to do with confidence or trust. So, tacit knowledge is a form of commitment. Polanyi correlated his notion of a personal commitment with the distinction between subsidiary and focal awareness. In Personal Knowledge he writes, “Like the tool, the sign or symbol can be conceived as such only in the eyes of a person who relies on them to achieve or to signify something. This reliance is a personal commitment which is involved in all acts of intelligence by which we integrate some things subsidiarily to the center of our focal attention. Every act of personal assimilation by which we make a thing form an extension of ourselves through subsidiary awareness of it, is a commitment of ourselves; a manner of disposing of ourselves” (61).

Tacit knowledge is subsidiary or inexplicable, while explicit knowledge is explicable. Explicit knowledge is often associated with the sciences, and is misunderstood these days to be the only valid form of knowledge. An example of tacit knowledge, in contrast, is swimming: we cannot fully articulate how to swim, but we know how to do it nonetheless. The love of my wife cannot be fully articulated, yet I know I love my wife. Some aspects of religious belief also work in a similar way – in, say, experiencing God’s presence, or having a religious certainty without being able to articulate or make explicit the reasons for it. Moreover, explicit knowledge is not sufficient for an act itself to be known. Even if I know the physics of swimming, I cannot yet say that I know how to swim.

Polanyi notes that tacit knowledge is “indeterminable in the sense that its content cannot be explicitly stated” (Knowing and Being, ed. Marjorie Grene, 1969, p.141). Some tacit forms of knowing can be explicitly discovered to some extent: we can explain the physics of swimming. Yet other forms of tacit knowing cannot be made explicit at all. As Polanyi notes, “Things of which we are focally aware can be explicitly identified, but no knowledge can be made wholly explicit. For one thing, the meaning of language, when in use, lies in its tacit component; for another, to use language involves actions for our body of which we have a subsidiary awareness. Hence, tacit knowing is more fundamental than explicit knowing; we can know more than we can tell and can tell nothing without relying on our awareness of things we will not be able to tell” (Personal Knowledge, Preface).

We generally associate thinking with the mind and disregard the body’s role in thought. Yet the body has ways of knowing that the mind cannot fully articulate, and judgements and decisions must always be made by both body and mind for a physical act to be complete. Also, the cognitive process does not always develop from the mind to the body; it is in fact more often vice versa, body to mind. An example is when your body tells you it’s hungry. Intuitive judgement from the body tells you to nourish yourself, and the mind articulates that signal. So the body knows things that the mind does not. This tacit knowledge, I claim, is the basis for the epistemology of sport, and especially for the game of hurling.

Knowing Knowledge

Cognition is a result of both tacit and explicit knowledge, extending from subsidiary awareness to focal awareness, and from embodied activity to conceptual activity. We might say that tacit knowledge arises from the interaction between subsidiary awareness and bodily activity, while explicit knowledge results from the interaction of focal awareness and conceptual activity. So, since Polanyi believes that subsidiary knowledge is vital for providing meaning to focal knowledge, he’s claiming that tacit knowledge is a more fundamental and primordial form of knowing than explicit knowledge. The psychologist Paul Bloom supports this view, discussing in his article ‘Religion is Natural’ (Developmental Science, 10(1), 2007) how children come to the conclusion that the world has meaning and purpose through tacit knowledge. The physicist John Polkinghorne also noted that science itself begins with tacit knowledge, by the very fact it must begin with the tacit belief that the world is rational.

Tacit knowledge is not gained through books. Instead, we obtain it by what Polanyi calls ‘indwelling’ (Personal Knowledge, p.53). This often involves extended experiences like apprenticeships, whether in the trades or in a laboratory. To indwell an activity or situation, someone needs to be empathetic to the act or situation, or they will miss the point and knowledge will not be gained. For example, Polanyi’s aesthetic theory claims that for a symbol to work – for us to understand it – we must be empathetic to it or surrender to its meaning, yet “We do not surrender to a symbol if we are not carried away by it, and we are not carried away by it if we do not surrender to it” (Meaning, Michael Polanyi & Harry Prosch, 1975, p.73).

‘Surrender’ more generally understood is vital to the act of knowing. For instance, in order to learn skills one must submit to an authority. Polanyi notes, “The hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another… To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself” (Personal Knowledge, p.53). To learn from a carpenter one would have to submit to the way the carpenter does things, including mimicking what he or she does. Similarly with driving a car: we learn from an instructor. Eventually we practice enough to gain confidence to allow the gear stick to become subsidiary instead of focusing on it to see which gear we’re putting the car into. Eventually so ‘indwelled’, the car becomes an extension of one’s body, where one can for example know subsidiarily how close or far one is from obstacles. Without such indwelling, knowledge is incomplete and would fail. If we did not indwell the work and experience of carpentry until we eventually allow the hammer to be an extension of our hand in order to focus on the nail, we may focus on the hammer instead, and you can tell what would happen then – a swollen thumb.

Indwelling is not limited to physical acts. We can indwell our experiences in such a way that may allow insights that provide knowledge that’s more than the sum of the parts. Such a gathering of information into a meaningful whole occurs when we make sense of something. Mari Sorri gives a good example: a medical student looking at an X-ray (‘The Body Has Reasons: Tacit Knowing in Thinking and Making’, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 1994). The student sees darkened and lighted areas, and with practice and the help of the teacher, grasps what they mean. What would otherwise be random and meaningless shades are eventually recognized as a particular illness. How exactly one identifies an illness from an X-ray may not be fully explicitly specifiable, yet experience can provide confidence in doing so, even if the consultant is unable to write down exactly how to do it. Nevertheless, we can see that many parts have been integrated into a whole to make sense of reality.

Exactly how a great deal of sense is made is unknown. Judging tacit knowledge as true or false is correspondingly difficult. It is relatively easy to ascertain whether explicit knowledge is correct or not. For example, one’s explicit knowledge is that ‘2+2=4’ is correct, but the tacit knowledge aspect is what’s used when one is asked to work out what 2+2 is, and that process may evade our understanding.

Judging tacit knowledge is even more difficult when judging aesthetic or sporting activities, such as hurling. Judging a good hurler requires not only knowing the rules of the game, but also tacit knowledge of how to play it. So there can be no exclusively explicit criteria to judge a good hurler: rather, the judging must be left to those who have demonstrated expertise in the game, and so have proven their ‘tacit worth’ over and over again. We cannot provide a mathematical equation to judge a good hurler, then, but we can certainly trust the knowledge of experts. Polanyi writes: “What then can we do? I believe to make this challenge is to answer it. For it voices our self-reliance… and it asks our own intellectual powers, lacking any fixed eternal criteria, to say on what grounds truth can be asserted in the absence of such criteria. To the question ‘Who convinces whom here?’ it answers simply ‘I am trying to convince myself.’… we must accredit our own judgment as the paramount arbiter of all our intellectual performances” (p.265). So tacit knowledge must involve confidence in personal judgment, as well as being part of a community seeking truth: ultimately, as Polanyi notes, “The freedom of the subjective person to do as he please is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to act as he must” (p.309). But the judgements of experts are not held to be merely one subjective opinion among others.

Hurling Knowledge

So how do Polanyi’s ideas about knowledge apply to the great and ancient game of hurling?

When I was learning to play the game, I often wondered how I did something, and troubled myself over trying to explicitly measure or explicitly try something again to get the same result. Of course, I eventually came to learn how to trust and surrender to (that is, to indwell) the game, and to learn from others around me.

The distinction between focal and subsidiary knowledge applies to all artistic and sporting forms, albeit some are more based on subsidiary knowledge, and some more focal-based. Yet all forms have from-to relations, requiring knowledge to be brought from the subsidiary to the focal. When first learning to play hurling, a man (the game as played by women has a different name: camogie) is mostly focally aware of what he’s doing, before he gains enough experience to allow some of that knowledge to become subsidiary. Subsidiary awareness is lacking at the start, and this is why the beginning hurler does not play well. (If an experienced hurler were required to focus on his subsidiaries, he would fail to play well too.) For example, the beginning hurler is watching the hurley (his stick), its angle, how his hand is gripping the hurley, and so on. What a practiced player would normally be only subsidiarily aware of is here being brought into focus, making the playing difficult and confusing. In my own beginnings, I used to watch the hurley’s balance with the sliotar (ball) on it, only to find that I could never balance the sliotar on the hurley, because I focused on the hurley and was subsidiarily aware of the sliotar, when I needed to be focusing on the sliotar and be only subsidiarily aware of the hurley. Or, as we noted earlier, in hammering a nail into a wall, to focus on the hammer while being subsidiarily aware of the nail would lead to painful failure.

Both bodily and conceptual knowledge are important in hurling, with the bodily being more important. The hurler must be confident in his body and trust its reactions. Strange to say that we need to trust our bodies, as one can easily forget one’s body when being conceptual, in the way that a philosopher deep in thought and on the verge of a breakthrough may forget to eat. But the hurler needs to be comfortable with his body in order for the hurley to eventually be an extension of his body. The body has to be able to interpret the hurley as if in conversation with it, sussing out its weight and size to intuit if this hurley suits their body or not, since a good match needs to be made in order to play as well as one can. One way I matched a hurley with me was closing my eyes to see if I could feel the tips of the grass by swinging the hurley as if it were an extension of my arm. In this sort of way, bodily judgements can be just as cognitive as conceptual judgements, and therefore, just as worthy of trust. But hurling relies upon tacit knowledge more than explicit knowledge, because playing it well results mainly from the interaction of subsidiary awareness and bodily activity.

In order to know the weight, power and striking capability of the hurley by subsidiary awareness and bodily activity, one must indwell it, as if it’s an extension of one’s body. A deep trust is required for this to work, in the same sort of way a deep trust is required to truly understand a religion. Hurling is like a religion to the extent that both rely on tacit knowledge. To reduce either hurling or religion to one’s explicit knowledge would reduce its greatness, as we fail to properly indwell such knowledge, in the acts of playing or praying. (Often when playing I have to switch to praying, especially with a minute left on the scoreboard!)

Judging Knowledge

Tacit knowledge means knowing more than one can say, and it’s quite evident in hurling. No hurler could ever fully explain what they’re doing while playing the game. Since it is correspondingly very difficult to identify how hurling is played, managers and commentators are often critical, because it is easier to spot what is not good hurling than what is. But managers can never tell a hurler how to play; instead they must help the hurlers grow in confidence and trust in knowing how without being able to articulate that knowledge. Where one can be explicit about hurling to some degree, one finds himself becoming a poet.

What do I mean? What we can speak or articulate about hurling is limited, and so we must use poetic devices such as metaphors, since one must speak indirectly about what one cannot fully articulate, and hurling is primarily tacit in nature. One common metaphor used is, ‘hurling is a battle’; and to keep an eye on the opponent close to you is to ‘mark your man’. Another image I often found being shouted at me was “House, house!” That was because I was slow, so my teammates would often warn me of an opponent coming close to me.

Defence Forces vs BOI 2010
Irish Defence Forces vs Boi Hurling, 2010 Creative Commons 2.0

When beginning to play, one must submit to the authority of the managers who know the game and also submit to the more experienced hurlers and mimic their way of playing, until one is confident enough to play one’s own way. After some practice, the hurler will gain skills that have become subsidiary, and not long after, the hurler will integrate more skills into a more complete whole, to gain a deeper understanding of the game and those with whom they play. The skills will become part of the subsidiary awareness and general bodily cognition, through which the hurler can be said to be properly indwelling the game, and now knows the game more than anyone who only knows the explicit form of the game, namely, the rules. Once we come to know the game well, after the integration of many subsidiaries into a whole, we can even see when our teammates might not be playing well. The whole truth of the game, therefore, starts to come into focus out of all the subsidiary knowledge one acquires.

Learning to judge a hurler as good or bad also comes after a lot of experience, the experience which provides nearly all tacit knowledge. Again, no criteria can be explicitly made to identify a good hurler. Rather, whether a player is judged good enough to play or not is known through a whole range of tacit experiences and empathetic indwelling through knowing the game and the player to some extent. A level of resonance takes place in which the judge can identify with many aspects of the hurler. For example, at senior level when one is ‘soloing the sliotar’ (balancing the ball on the hurley while running at high speed), and happens to lose the balance of the sliotar, an experienced hurler will know that this is a basic mistake because this is expected to be highly configured at this point. The experienced hurler watching will know almost by feeling the mistake. When a hurler strikes a sliotar, experienced hurlers will also tacitly know where to run to intercept it. Asking a hurler how they knew where the sliotar was going to land is not fruitful. All they can really say is “I just knew.”

There is a more objective way of judging a hurler. Playing with others will make it apparent how good or bad a hurler is, as being a good hurler is more than being a skilled individual player. It also requires being part of the team and reading the game. Therefore I can learn a lot about a hurler by watching how he plays with others.

To be a good hurler, the hurler must aim for universal greatness. This hurler will not only play well individually, but know when to step back or to sacrifice his own glory for the team’s benefit. For example, if my team is down two points with only a few minutes left to go, to score a goal – which will bring my team ahead by a point with a good chance of winning – I can run through many hurlers with a high chance of injury, knowing I will not be able to run at such speed again. Here my actions are good, whereas if I played a similar move earlier in the game it may be considered a bad move, since it leaves me out of breath. But this is the result of a universal rather than a more individualistic intent. Therefore, aiming for universal good and truth is a sign of a good hurler.

Ultimate Knowledge

To conclude, the idea of tacit knowledge as developed by Michael Polanyi is very insightful for the ancient Irish game of hurling, and indeed for all sports and arts in general. We identified subsidiary and focal knowledge, the bodily activity, the tacit and explicit and indwelling aspects of hurling, as well as judging whether a hurler is good or not.

Polanyi identifies tacit knowledge as fundamental to all acts of knowing, whether in the arts or in the sciences. The arts of course rely on tacit knowledge more. If art relied primarily on explicit knowledge, the act of painting or playing an instrument would fail, and there would be no genuinely good art. Conversely, if the sciences focused on tacit knowledge primarily, their acts of knowing would often fail, and we would have no good scientists.

In exploring the epistemology of hurling, both in thinking and playing, the awe and wonder of the sport is highlighted, and a deeper appreciation of the game is reached. This shows that Polanyi has here secured some of those insights that philosophy can offer to all aspects of life.

© Stiofán Ó Murchadha 2024

Stiofán Ó Murchadha is a PhD candidate in Philosophical Theology at the University of Exeter.

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