Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Practice as tact: Tact is a particular sensitivity and sensitiveness to situations, and how to behave in them, but for which we cannot find any knowledge from general principles.

 

Discussions on the relation between theory and practice (the translation of theoretical knowledge into practical knowledge and vice versa) tend to depart from the epistemological assumption of a reflective relation between theory and practice. A reflective understanding of this relation takes into consideration the implications of the psychological (or cognitive) and the social (or ideological) origins of knowledge or theory in understanding how it might relate to praxis.

 

Cognitivists and social constructivists tend to presuppose that every professional practitioner (such as a teacher, nurse, physician, or a clinical psychologist) carries socially and personally constructed “theories” or “philosophies” in their minds, so to speak. Researchers then attempt to retrieve these theories in order to find out what makes a good practitioner behave in certain ways. For example, researchers have studied the behaviors, reflections, memories, and meaning-constructs of “excellent” teachers in order to determine the knowledge that underlies their exemplary practices.

 

Whether one gives priority to theory or to practice, to the psychological or to the ideological, it seems that one cannot easily shake loose of the premised on an intellectualized theory-practice distinction.

 

From a phenomenological point of view, the notion of tact may present an alternative. Tact can neither be reduced to some kind of intellectual knowledge base nor to some set of skills that mediates between theory and practice. Rather, tact possesses its own epistemological structure that manifests itself first of all as a certain kind of acting: an active intentional consciousness of thoughtful human interaction.

 

The notion of tact has fascinating connections with music and with the moral dimensions of social interaction. Gadamer refers to the work of the physiologist Helmholtz to bring out two aspects of tact: tact as a form of human interaction and tact as a human science facility which Helmholtz had elaborated. In the first sense, tact is commonly understood as “a particular sensitivity and sensitiveness to situations, and how to behave in them,” but for which “we cannot find any knowledge from general principles.” In the second sense, tact is scholarship and Bildung, such as a sense of the aesthetic or of the historical, that the human scientist uses to do his or her hermeneutic work. Thus, tact can refer both to the intersubjective relation as well as to the hermeneutic relation between reader and text.