1.2.3…40 and tada! was an exercise in appropriating folk wisdom for high theory. Or to put it more precisely, the idea was to show how folk sayings/proverbs –ostensibly superstitious, quaint or banal– can harbor valuable insights which can only be appreciated by means of conceptual tools not typically associated with folk wisdom. In 1.2.3…40 and tada!, for example, I speculated that this otherwise superstitious sounding saying can be read as a pithy commentary on “performativity”. Here, in the sequel to the said entry, I want to apply the same idea to another (Turkish) proverb –one that incidentally also involves the number “40″: “The master teaches the apprentice only 39 of his/her 40 tricks”.

According to the popular interpretation of this saying, the master doesn’t teach the apprentice all tricks of the trade because s/he wants to legitimize and perpetuate his authority/superiority by jealously guarding/withholding some information. There is, however, more to this saying than master’s possessiveness of his/her skills. In order to do justice to the wisdom behind this saying, we need to read it through the lens of “tacit knowledge”.

A key concept of the Austrian School (Hayek, Schumpeter, etc.) tacit knowledge denotes the kind of knowledge that is not communicable and transferrable as it eludes formulation/representation. Its elusiveness is not just a matter of complexity but stems from the fact that even those who command it do not know that they do (to put it in Rumsfeldian terms, it is the knowledge we don’t know that we know). To put it differently, it is all the information that would –inadvertently– be left out even in the most detailed and exhaustive manual/prospectus of the simplest task. It only reveals itself in the practice (of buying, selling, producing) itself. In a sense, it is the “je ne sais quoi” of economic processes.

In Austrian School the concept of “tacit knowledge” serves a certain ideological function; it is the grounds on which the followers of this school justify the superiority of free-market economies over command/planned economies. Planned economies, the argument goes, are ill-equipped to muster and utilize tacit knowledge. Free-market, on the other hand, is much better suited to garner and process this kind of knowledge; through unbridled voluntary exchange it gives the economic agents the incentives to reveal their tacit knowledge –even unbeknowst to themselves.According to Ted Burczak, however, the epistemology that informs tacit knowledge does not necessarily translate to market worship. In Socialism after Hayek, Burczak argues that the socialist quest for class justice is compatible with the social and economic theories of F. A. Hayek.

Be it in the service of the left or the right, tacit knowledge is of interest to us here insofar as it helps shed light on the meaning of proverb, “the master teaches the apprentice only 39 of his/her 40 tricks”. The Austrian reading of this saying puts the necessary incompleteness/failure of teaching in a different perspective. In this reading the master doesn’t pass on the 40th trick not because he doesn’t want to let go of this last vestige of his mastery, but because he couldn’t even if he wanted to. The 40th trick stands in for that part of his/her knowledge that is impalpable and unteachable by virtue of its tacit nature. The apprentice has to acquire it for him/herself through experience. For even the master is not a master of his/her mastery.


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39 of the 40 tricks

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