Thursday, 11 December 2008

Knowing how

Last night I read Stanley and Williamson’s (pictured) ‘Knowing how’ (Stanley, J. and Williamson, T. (2001) ‘Knowing how’ Journal of Philosophy, 98: 411-444). On the face of it, it is a troubling read for someone writing a book on tacit knowledge. On the assumption that, whatever it is exactly, there is a strong connection between tacit knowledge and know-how, it seems reasonable to hope that know-how, or knowledge-how, is importantly distinct from knowledge-that even whilst it retains the rights to the title ‘knowledge’. Stanley and Williamson argue that this is not so. Knowledge-how is not distinct from but merely a form of knowledge-that.

The paper divides into three sections with four main areas of argument.

In the first, Stanley and Williamson take issue with the modern father of the distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that: Gilbert Ryle. They argue both that Ryle’s regress argument for the priority of knowledge-how over knowledge-that does not work. They also argue against Ryle’s positive claim that knowledge-how is an ability (on the basis that one can retain know how even if one has, for practical reasons, lost an ability actually to perform an act).

In the second section they present a detailed summary of syntactic and semantic analyses of statements ascribing a variety of forms of knowledge including both knowledge-how and knowledge-that. Although the analysis they offer is way beyond my competence in the field, the gist of the argument seems to be that neither relevant syntactic nor semantic work draws any important distinction between these two forms of knowledge.

The third argument area grows from this. Statements ascribing knowledge-how to subjects can take the broader form of a knowledge-that ascription.

Suppose that Hannah does not know how to ride a bicycle. Susan points to John, who is riding a bicycle, and says, ‘That is a way for you to ride a bicycle’. Suppose that the way in which John is riding his bicycle is in fact a way for Hannah to ride a bicycle. So, where the demonstrative ‘that way’ denotes John’s way of riding a bicycle, (28) seems true:
(28) Hannah knows that that way is a way for her to ride a bicycle.
Relative to this context, however:
(29) Hannah, knows [how PRO, to ride a bicycle].
seems false… Where the demonstrated way is the only contextually salient way of riding a bicycle, (28) and (29) ascribe knowledge of the same proposition to Hannah. But this proposition is ascribed under different guises. In (28), knowledge of the proposition is ascribed to Hannah under a demonstrative mode of presentation. In (29), Knowledge of that proposition is ascribed to Hannah under a different mode of presentation, what we call a practical mode of presentation.
[ibid: 428-9]

This gives rise to the following account of know-how.

So, here is our complete account of knowing-how. Suppose modes of presentation are semantically relevant. Then (29) is true relative to a context if and only if there is some contextually relevant way ώ such that Hannah stands in the knowledge-that relation to the Russellian proposition that ώ is a way for Hannah to ride a bicycle, and Hannah entertains this proposition under a practical mode of presentation. [ibid: 430]

Finally, they anticipate a number of plausible objections to their proposal, closing with this comment.

All knowing-how is knowing-that. Neglect of this fact impoverishes our understanding of human action, by obscuring the way in which it is informed by intelligence. [ibid: 444]

I’m going to have to think rather more carefully about the argument against Ryle’s regress. Given that I have always thought of Ryle as expressing an argument akin to Wittgenstein’s rejection of what McDowell calls the master thesis, I’ve never thought carefully about how exactly Ryle’s version of that broad consideration works. So there are two things for me to do about this section: to rethink Ryle in the light of Stanley and Williamson and to see whether their argument counts against Wittgenstein.

The second and third points, however, do not seem to be too worrying on this first encounter, however. Firstly, there is something reassuring about the idea that know-how can be expressed given a sufficiently broad construal of language. The suggestion is like McDowell’s expansion of the space of concepts outside antecedently prepared bits of language to embrace, eg, colour patches. This in turn recalls Wittgenstein’s comment.

What about the colour samples that A shews to B: are they part of language? Well, it is as you please. They do not belong among the words; yet when I say to someone: “Pronounce the word ‘the’ “, you will count the second “the” as part of the language-game; that is, it is a sample of what the other is meant to say. It is most natural, and causes least confusion, to reckon the samples among the instruments of the language. [Wittgenstein 1953 §16]

So the idea that one can say what way things should be done demonstratively – and thus say what a subject understands – is not too unfamiliar. Better, surely, to embrace this idea than either Adrian Moore’s mysterious ineffable understanding or Harry Collins’ scepticism about such tacit knowledge. (Collins calls such knowledge capricious and says that one cannot reliably determine whether it has been passed on. This surely relies on a false contrast with knowing-that.)

But on the other hand, to encode knowledge-how as knowledge-that requires not only this use of a demonstrative to pick out the way, eg., a piece of music should be played, it also involves distinct modes of presentation for a non-violinist conductor and the leader of the orchestra. In an obvious sense, one of them does not know how to play the piece that way, even whilst she knows that that is the way to play it. But characterising this ‘practical mode of presentation’ is surely what was of interest about the putative distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that.

My hunch is that this might leave things like this. Broadly Rylean and Wittgensteinian arguments against a Cartesian and cognitive account of intentionality still imply that knowledge-that depends on knowledge-how. (This point, I suspect, survives in the account yet to be given of a practical mode of presentation.) But once language or intentionality is taken for granted (being lazy: once we can take for granted that we are in the space of reasons), then know-how can be expressed linguistically, providing one has a sufficiently broad conception of language in play.

PS. Having now looked at papers replying to Stanley and Williamson by Alva Noë, Ted Poston, John Bengson and Mark Moffett, and Elia Zardini, I plan to return to this issue in late January.