Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Of Subsidiary And Focal

I had read about the concepts of subsidiary knowledge and focal knowledge, dimensions of tacit knowledge, as propounded by Polanyi. So? Well ... the other day, i actually experienced this.

Over the years, i have managed to build an understanding of the Bengali language. I can read the language, although with a considerable amount of effort (though writing is something i am still struggling with, given the differences in the spoken and written language, but thats another story altogether ...). The other day, i managed to lay my hands on a collection of stories of Feluda, written by Satyajit Ray (and yes, i do believe the character was primarily modelled around Soumitra Chatterjee, while  Santosh Dutta was just the right actor for Jatayu).

So what, you might ask. Exactly ... not much. I have really enjoyed reading these stories ... they are available in an English translation. However, this one is the original ... written in the Bengali language (Bangla). And, this is when i realized ... while i could read the book (although haltingly), i just wasnt enjoying the stories as much as i had enjoyed them in the English translation. This was because most of my attention was taken up trying to understand whats written in terms of deciphering the language, rather than focussing on the plot of the story. And this is where i realized the importance of "subsidiary" knowledge. When reading a text in a language we understand, we dont have to focus on trying to understand the language, but rather, we need only try to understand the concepts which are written there.

What this highlights is the fact that even when we talk about knowledge, knowledge is not a simple, single-layered entity. Rather, most knowledge is multi-layered, in that it consists of a number of layers of meanings, and we need to understand all of them in order to make sense of it. For example, one would not be able to understand the mathematics behind the theory of relativity without first understanding basic algebra. And this is where illustrations, examples ... concepts which serve to simplify some of the concepts come in handy. This is an important concept to understand, both for trying to understand the representation of knowledge, as well as for training professionals.


Anonymous said...

I now understand what exactly u mean by subsidiary knowledge and focal knowledge! Because, being a bong, I know what pleasure you reap, when you read Feluda in bangla rather than in English - cos I have read it in both the languages, but i could feel the "bangaliyana" of the sotries in bangla, which was somehow missing in the English Version.

But now I understand for someone like you, who doesnt know Bangla well (its ok, not everybody is perfect), reading it in English is perhaps a better option. I get a same kinda feeling, watching English movies, because all my concentration goes into understanding the dialect, thus missing the concept!

Atul said...

point ... except for the perfection! :-) yes, i can understand what you are saying ... though, Feluda is Feluda!

Anjali said...

also like the cultural context in a language cannot be translated but can be transliterated. In knowledge too it's that first hand experience of thing that is woven in is not easy to decipher.

Atul said...

which is why i believe that context is important to creating knowledge.