Friday, 21 January 2011

Opposing intuitions about knowledge-how and ability

There are some confusions that I should probably not write up for a website, even as modestly read as this one. But perhaps the knowledge that I’ve posted this will serve as an incentive to get my thoughts rather clearer. They concern two opposing views of the relation between knowledge-that, knowledge-how and ability. The problem is that the underlying intuitions just seem incommensurable.

The Rylean view starts from the claim that knowledge-how cannot be explained through the intellectualist legend according to which intelligent action is steered by grasp of a proposition. Ryle argues, instead, that ‘[i]ntelligent practice is not a step-child of theory’ [Ryle 1949:27] though the deployment of a regress argument.

If a deed, to be intelligent, has to be guided by the consideration of a regulative proposition, the gap between that consideration and the practical application of the regulation has to be bridged by some go-between process which cannot by the pre-supposed definition itself be an exercise of intelligence and cannot, by definition, be the resultant deed. This go-between application- process has somehow to marry observance of a contemplated maxim with the enforcement of behaviour. So it has to unite in itself the allegedly incompatible properties of being kith to theory and kin to practice, else it could not be the applying of the one in the other. For, unlike theory, it must be able to influence action, and, unlike impulses, it must be amenable to regulative propositions. Consistency requires, therefore, that this schizophrenic broker must again be subdivided into one bit which contemplates but does not execute, one which executes but does not contemplate and a third which reconciles these irreconcilables. And so on for ever. [Ryle 1945: 2]

It seems to me that the regress argument, or something on these broad lines, helps to undermine an intellectualist explanation of knowledge-that and is a reason to think that there is an important practical dimension, although this is better emphasised through a Wittgensteinian version. Ryle himself takes it that it establishes that knowledge-that and knowledge-how are distinct and goes on to attempt to add further semantic arguments for the distinction. I will ignore both Ryle's further arguments and the former explanationist take on what the regress argument is for. Here I will report instead the view that the argument concerns what constitutes, rather than what explains, knowledge-how: grasp of a proposition, or not.

In the light of the distinction, Ryle might be thought to owe some account of in what knowledge-how consists. It does not, according to him after all, consist in the grasp of a proposition. His positive account connects knowledge-how first to ‘intelligent capacities’ and then to dispositions (in order to head off a too close assimilation to habits).

Thus Ryle severs the connection between knowledge-that and knowledge-how and instead ties the latter to a practical capacity. Those with knowledge-how have abilities but there may be some difficulties in saying why this amounts to knowledge.

The intellectualist backlash has three elements.

First, it disputes the efficacy of the regress argument by contesting that there is a plausible single interpretation of action across the premises that sustains the regress. If the regress argument fails then knowledge-how might indeed consist in grasping a proposition, under some interpretation of that claim.

Second, it disputes the assimilation of knowledge-how and capacities or abilities.

It is simply false, however, that ascriptions of knowledge-how ascribe abilities. As Ginet and others have pointed out, ascriptions of knowledge-how do not even entail ascriptions of the corresponding abilities. For example, a ski instructor may know how to perform a certain complex stunt, without being able to perform it herself. Similarly, a master pianist who loses both of her arms in a tragic car accident still knows how to play the piano. But she has lost her ability to do so. It follows that Ryle's own positive account of knowledge-how is demonstrably false. [Stanley and Williamson 2001: 416]

The converse implication from ability to knowledge-how is also questioned.

A man is in a room, which, because he has not explored it in the least, he does, as yet, not know how to get out of. In fact there is an obvious exit which he can easily open. He is perfectly able to get out, he can get out, but does not know how to (as yet)... Martin is someone who can do fifty consecutive press ups. Let us suppose that none of us here can do that. It would be, I suggest, quite counterintuitive to say that Martin knows how to do something we do not know how to do. Rather, he is, simply, stronger then we are. He is stronger, but not more knowledgeable. [Snowdon 2001: 11]

Third, given that it is not ruled out by an effective regress argument and given that there is no plausible constitutive account based on capacities or abilities, there is a positive analysis of knowledge-how in knowledge-that terms.

There is agreement in this intellectualist backlash that part of the problem (as they see it) had been an assumption that knowledge-that had to be expressed in context free general terms. But once demonstratives are available to express conceptually articulated thoughts they can also be used to express the content known in cases of knowledge-how as well as paradigmatic knowledge-that and thus the former can be thought of as a species of the latter (without, however, there needing to be a fully reductive analysis).

[I]f we are seeking a candidate piece of information that is known to be the case in such examples as knowing how to ride a bike, it is that this sequence of actions—present to the agent and knower in the course of actions and accessed by knower as his or her actions—is a way to ride a bike. The aim of this rather rough formulation is not to slot the proposal into some standard account of knowledge, but rather, in a relatively theoretically neutral way, to indicate a candidate for what might count as the kind of information in question in such cases. The agent need not be riding a bike to have the sample actions available to him or her, because, in principle, there might be simulation devices in the context of which the agent performs the actions without actually riding a bike. [Snowdon 2004: 28]

That, however, leaves an interesting possibility. If one severs the apparent connection between knowledge-how and ability and if one uses a demonstrative thought to pick out a way of doing something as the candidate for the content to be known in knowledge-how, might one know how to do something simply in virtue of being able to point and say ‘that! is the way to do it’?

This rather odd thought (the 'Odd Thought') is further reinforced by a pair of observations which might be used to support intellectualism:

1) As both Moore and Snowdon argue, there is no tidy semantic marker to indicate distinct two kinds of knowledge: knowledge-how and knowledge-that. Knowledge-how is no more special than knowledge-when, where, whether or why. All are answers to implicit questions.

A better clue would be the use of the infinitive. However ‘The important difference between its use in ‘knows how the getaway was made’ and ‘knows how to charm people’ is not the difference between two senses of the phrase, as it were a “propositional” sense and a “practical” sense. It is rather the ensuing difference between the finite verb and the infinitive.’ [Moore 1997: 168] But that also applies to the case of knows-when. The difference (between finite verb and infinitive) is between corresponding implicit questions about how things are and what to do rather than between distinct kinds of knowledge.

2) Cases of knowledge-how to do something can simply be cases of having knowledge-that. To know how to escape might be to know that one can escape via the laundry, that a way to escape is via the laundry. Such cases blur the apparent boundary between knowledge-how and knowledge-that. To know how to spell ‘comma’ is nothing other ‘than knowledge that it is spelt ‘c’, ‘o’, double ‘m’, ‘a’’ [ibid: 171].

S knows how to get from London to Swansea by train before midday. S’s knowing how to do that surely consists in knowing that one first catches the 7.30 a.m. train to Reading from Paddington, and then one ... etc. [Snowdon 2004: 12]

Seen from the Rylean perspective, this rather odd thought suggests a kind of irony. The intellectualist backlash captures knowledge-how in knowledge-that terms only at the cost of not accounting for the practical aspect of knowledge-how which seemed the most important thing about it to the Ryleans. If an always dyspraxic but skilled at teaching ski instructor reports that she knows the component moves in the Russian team’s final stunt but would never have been able to do it herself, it will, surely, sometimes be correct to say that she knows how to do the stunt and sometimes not, depending on context, on what is being asked. But it seems odd if that distinction - can she do it or not? - is simply missing from the analysis. (The intellectualist seems to have a quite different target notion in mind: one linked to content, to the possibility of Gettier examples, but floating free of abilities. Their view makes it easier to see why this is a matter of knowledge but misses the sometimes practical implication of an ascription.)

Stanley and Williamson themselves, however, avoid the possibility of the Odd Thought as the following lengthy quotation makes clear:

(26) John believes that that man has burning pants.
(27) John believes that he himself has burning pants
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. This case parallels (26) and (27). 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]

Thinking of a person as oneself entails being disposed to behave in certain ways, or form certain beliefs, given relevant input from that person. Similarly, thinking of a place as here entails being disposed to behave in certain ways, or form certain beliefs, given relevant input from that place. Analogously, thinking of a way under a practical mode of presentation undoubtedly entails the possession of certain complex dispositions. It is for this reason that there are intricate connections between knowing-how and dispositional states. But acknowledging such connections in no way threatens the thesis that knowing-how is a species of knowing-that. For example, such connections are also present in the case of first-person thought. But this in no way threatens the thesis that thought about oneself is genuinely propositional. It is simply a feature of certain kinds of propositional knowledge that possession of it is related in complex ways to dispositional states. Recognizing this fact eliminates the need to postulate a distinctive kind of non-propositional knowledge. [Stanley and Williamson 2001: 430]

This however introduces three distinct cases:

i) having context-dependent but merely spectator knowledge that that! way is the way to do something.

ii) having context-dependent knowledge that that! way is the way to do something under a practical mode of presentation

iii) being able to do it

where ii does not imply iii, and thus even grasp of a practical mode of presentation does not imply capacity.

I thus wonder about their schematic ski instructor case. If she has been able to ski but, this month, has a broken leg, she can, presumably, think about a way of ski-ing under a practical mode of presentation even though she can’t actually exercise it today. (She can, likewise, think first person thoughts even if she cannot move about much, either.) But if she merely knows how to do a stunt because she knows that it has the following steps (cf Moore and Snowdon's examples above), then, surely that is not enough to merit ascription of a practical mode of presentation. But then surely the ascription of this mode will have to tie knowledge-how back to ability again in some way since, after all, and the interesting difference will have to do with practical ability rather than ways of ascribing content which is common both to the spectator and the agent? (If so we may have to say that she is able to do the stunt, but just not now, not having functioning legs. Just as a piano player is able to play the piano but only if there is a piano available to be played. In saying this we would go against Stanley and Williamson's own view that knowledge how does not imply ability, of course.)

This leaves me with a number of confusions. What does the practical mode of presentation do for Stanley and Williamson given that they do not think that knowledge-how implies ability? If knowledge-how to do something can merely consist in knowledge-that, is this really the same notion captured by the Ryleans as knowledge-how? And how can the opposing intuitions about whether knowledge-how can sustain Gettier examples where one has the relevant ability but somehow lacks knowledge, be decided?

I suspect that the only way to deal with the underlying opposing intuitions is to ignore the semantic markers (especially 'knows how to') and maintain that we use the phrase in two senses: one implying ability and one not, the former being immune to Gettier cases and the latter not and context making it clear which is in play (with a nod to Travis, perhaps).