Does a sentence only mean something because it draws on knowledge outside of itself? Take 2 + 2 = 4: is it a tautology? No: it depends on a conception of '+', which is not located within that sentence/equation. Some claim that no matter what your sentence/claim, it always relies on something beyond, a 'background' which cannot be articulated. (An attempt at articulating just pushes things back one level of regress.)

I've come across this idea in several places and it seems very important, if correct. For example, in Mortimer Adler's Ten Philosophical Mistakes, he argues that the first mistake (chapter: "Consciousness and Its Objects") is to think that we are conscious of everything in our thoughts, instead of only being conscious of the object of thought, and not the "thinking about the object". There is no "view from nowhere": the thought-stuff we use to think about can never be directly accessed unless it itself becomes an object of some other thought-stuff.

It would appear that two people cannot even communicate well unless their unarticulated backgrounds are sufficiently similar for the topic under discussion. There do seem to be ways to isolate the 'microstructure' of the unarticulated background from the ideas being discussed, like phase transitions in matter can be somewhat agnostic to the microstructure of the constituent particles (see Pigliucci's Essays on Emergence, part I). However, when this isn't done, it would appear that the way two people get their unarticulated backgrounds to 'sufficiently agree' is a somewhat mysterious process. I would like to understand this process more.

Possible examples

1. Michael Polanyi calls this "tacit knowledge" in his 1958 Personal Knowledge and 1966 The Tacit Dimension. Most briefly, as Polanyi says in Tacit (more):

we can know more than we can tell (4)

An easy example is that there is a huge difference between telling someone how to run an experiment and showing that person how to do so. While more is communicated in the latter scenario, knowledge arises in the learner which did not come directly from the teacher. Polanyi calls this "tacit knowledge".

2. Wikipedia's Charles Taylor uses the term "unarticulated background"

Following Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michael Polanyi, and Wittgenstein, Taylor argues that it is mistaken to presuppose that our understanding of the world is primarily mediated by representations. It is only against an unarticulated background that representations can make sense to us. On occasion we do follow rules by explicitly representing them to ourselves, but Taylor reminds us that rules do not contain the principles of their own application: application requires that we draw on an unarticulated understanding or "sense of things"—the background.

3. I haven't read Philosophical Investigations, but Wittgenstein's "form of life" seems to be another term:

While the term is often used in various ways by Wittgenstein, it connotes the sociological, historical, linguistic, physiological, and behavioral determinants that comprise the matrix within which a given language has meaning.

4. The sociology of knowledge gives us yet another term: "social fact", or "taken-for-grantedness". Sometimes this shows up as an inarticulable background: ask common folk why they participate in some activity and they may be unable to give you an answer that provides any deeper reason than that this is what they do, perhaps what makes them who they are.

5. Yet another term is "collective unconscious" or "collective representation":

For Jung, “My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”

What are other terms or systematic treatments of this concept? I'll try to keep the list updated:

  1. "tacit knowledge"
  2. "unarticulated background"
  3. "form of life"
  4. "social fact"/"taken-for-grantedness"
  5. "collective unconscious"/"collective representation"
  6. "context" (Is there a definition for “context”?)
  7. "rule" (How do we know how to follow a rule?)

If you do not think the terms so far are sufficiently similar, please point that out as well.

  • I would suggest asking it in conjunction with the motive you have for wanting to know more about the concept. E.g., is there a particular problem you're trying to solve related to background knowledge? Or is there a doubt you have about the validity of the concept?
    – virmaior
    Jun 29, 2014 at 21:39
  • context is another possibility Jun 30, 2014 at 4:51
  • Philosophical hermeneutics?
    – dwn
    Jan 21, 2015 at 22:27

2 Answers 2


1 In your '2 + 2 = 4' example the unarticulated background is the language in which the sentence is expressed. Unless there were a language in which words and symbols had the meanings in terms of which the sentence is framed, it would not be a coherent sentence - or at least not the coherent sentence you use the words to compose. The language is certainly the background to the sentence and the language (its terms, syntax and semantics) is not articulated within the sentence and hardly could be.

2 There's a different interpretation that can be given to 'unarticulated background'. Any sentence, or statement, assumes a background of assumptions about pervasive features of reality (e.g., time, change, causation, quality, quantity, some or all of these and more). 'The bomb exploded at 22.00 hrs and killed 46 people' : this sentence, whether true or false, assumes the reality of time, of causation, of quantity. Delete these concepts and the sentence cannot make the claim it does, yet of course it does not explicitly invoke the the reality of time, of causation, of quantity. Such are merely its 'unarticulated background'.

3 In specific 'universes of discourse' less pervasive assumptions are involved. In medicine a sentence such as 'Aspirin prevents heart attacks', made by a medical expert, entails a great range of assumptions about the chemical composition of Aspirin, the nature and function of the heart, the nature of blood and its capacity for clotting action and so on and on. None of these assumptions is present in the sentence but they form its 'unarticulated background'.

4 I question the idea that if we articulate a background, that background itself has a background in need of articulation, and so (by implication) we are drawn into an infinite regress. We stop at the level of the most pervasive features of reality. How could there be an infinite regress of thought - of backgrounds - when no mind is capable of conceiving even what such a regress would be like ? And in any case what makes the threat of an infinite regress more than a claim ? It does not appear to be an a priori truth. If it is true, it is an empirical truth - and how do we know it is even that ?


The OP asks for other terms or systematic treatments of "unarticulated background". One place to look is in the concept of mystery in contrast to problem as presented by Gabriel Marcel. A problem would correspond roughly to Michael Polanyi's explicit knowledge while mystery would correspond to tacit knowledge.

Kenneth T. Gallagher describes Marcel's idea of mystery as follows: (page 32)

A mystery, on the other hand, is a question in which what is given cannot be regarded as detached from the self. There are data which in their very nature cannot be set over against myself, for the reason that as data they involve myself.

This involvement of myself can be viewed as similar to Polanyi's "personal" knowledge.

Gallagher, K. T., & Marcel, G. (1975). The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel. Fordham University Press.

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