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Knowledge How in Philosophy of Action

  • Jennifer Hornsby (a1)


I maintain that an account of knowledge how to do something – an account which might be supposed to uncover ‘the nature’ of such knowledge – can't be got by considering what linguists tell us is expressed in ascriptions of knowing how. Attention must be paid to the knowledge that is actually being exercised when someone is doing something. I criticize some claims about ascriptions of knowledge-how which derive from contemporary syntactic and semantic theory. I argue that these claims can no more provide an understanding of what it is to intend to do something than of what it is to know how to do something. Philosophy, not linguistics, must be the source of such understanding.

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1 The Concept of Mind, 1949. At page 15 in the 2009 edition published by Routledge.

2 I take Ryle‘s ‘acting rationally’ as meant to locate the kind of action in which rational beings participate as such – intentional action as most people nowadays would probably say. Ryle's ‘perform tasks’ carves out an area smaller than what's at issue, given that ‘task’ is not naturally applied to much of what we do as agents. I settle here for ‘do something’ although it has an opposite sort of fault, carving out a larger area that what's at issue specifically in philosophy of action. (See further n.9.)

3 Stanley, Jason and Williamson, Timothy, ‘Knowing How’, Journal of Philosophy 98 (8) (2001), 411–44.

4 Stanley, J., Know How (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011).

5 T. Williamson, ‘Acting on Knowledge’, to appear in J.A. Carter, E. Gordon, and B. Jarvis (eds), Knowledge-First Approaches in Epistemology and Mind (Oxford, Oxford University Press). Quotations here are from a draft available at:

6 (IAK) is a consequence of what Stanley and Williamson say (pages 414–5 in ‘Knowing How’). I quote it from Stanley, J., ‘Knowing (How)’, Nous 45(2) (2011), 217 (although I have replaced Stanley's ‘F’ with ‘φ’ in order to signal that instances of the schematic letter are verbs).

7 See ‘Knowing how’, page 415, where it is said that what makes it clearly false that if Hannah digests her food, then she knows how to digest her food is that ‘digesting food is not the sort of action that one knows how to do’.

8 The line of thinking is present in much philosophy of action taking off from Donald Davidson's paper Actions, Reasons, and Causes’, Journal of Philosophy 60(23) (1963), 685700 . Davidson held that any action has as reason explanation – a ‘rationalization’ in his sense.

9 I leave the word ‘intentionally’ out in what follows, taking it to be everywhere implicit. Williamson avails himself of a means of ensuring it is implicit when he announces ‘Here and henceforth, ‘action’ is to be read as ‘intentional action’’. It can help to see why it should be possible to leave the word out if one accepts, with G.E.M. Anscombe, that ‘the term ‘intentional’ has reference to a form of description of events’ so that ‘descriptions of events effected by human beings’ may be formally descriptions of executed intentions’. See Intention (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1957), pages 84 and 87.

10 When P.F. Strawson argued that fear of Platonism should not be a reason to disallow that quantification into predicate-position is a feature of natural language, his examples were taken from the language of agency. (See Positions for quantifiers’, Semantics and Philosophy, ed. Munitz, M.K. and Unger, P.K. (New York: New York University Press), 6379, 1974.) It will be evident that I welcome Strawson's view that ‘staying close to the surface structure of natural language sentences [is] .. always to be aimed at if we seek to understand our own understanding of the structure of our language’ (For this, see the Introduction to Entity and Identity: And Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), in which the 1974 essay is reprinted.) But it will be important that the things we speak as if there were when we say that someone did this that or the other ‘thing’ are not properties (as Strawson seems to have supposed they were). See further the Appendix.

11 The examples are scattered throughout Stanley's Know How (2011). I've imposed a sort of ordering, starting from things that require some skill.

12 J. Stanley, Know How, 143.

13 J. Stanley and T. Williamson, ‘Knowing How’, 442–3.

14 J. Stanley, Know How, 114.

15 Here I've put together some different formulations in Stanley. It is unclear when he means to expose linguistic structure merely, when to provide the sort of analysis a philosopher may seek, when give full dress semantics. The idea of counterfactual success is present in the propositions which he claims are known by someone who knows how to do something. But I take it that his account of linguistic structure would require the introduction of a modal verb (with a meaning somehow slightly differently from that of plain ‘can’ or plain ‘could’), which a philosopher might want to explain in terms of counterfactual success. (I note that accepting that so-called counterfactual success is a necessary condition of knowledge-how in itself does nothing to favour the idea that knowledge-how is propositional. The ‘counterfactual success’ condition might be spelt out saying: ‘If S knows how to ϕ in circumstances C, then S would ϕ if she tried to ϕ in C.’ When Katherine Hawley introduced the condition in her Success and knowledge how’ (American Philosophical Quarterly 40(1), 1931 (2003)), she was quite explicit that endorsing it ‘leaves open the question whether knowledge-how is distinct from propositional knowledge’ (20).)

16 J. Stanley, Know How, 183.

17 Ibid., 130.

18 Stanley often writes as if doing anything required skill. He sets out saying that ‘an action manifests skill in virtue of being a manifestation of the agent's knowledge how to do it’ (Know How, 5); and he sums up his view saying that ‘knowing how to do something is a kind of propositional knowledge that guides skilled actions’ (ibid., 150). It may be that Stanley's focus on skilled action is owed to his imagining an opponent who, save for cases of skill, would make no objection to his treatment of ‘know how to’. But objections to the idea that a person's knowing how to do something amounts to her possession of knowledge of propositions which guide her actions need not derive from any particular view of skill. (It is true, however, that Stanley is committed to a view about the acquisition of a skill – that it's a matter of gaining evidence providing one with the realization that certain propositions are true of oneself. This has been found objectionable in its own right.)

19 Ryle must take some of the blame for Stanley's assumption that someone's knowing how to do something can happily be called a disposition. For Ryle himself subsumed capacities in an overarching category of dispositions. When Ryle said that ‘there is at our disposal an indefinitely wide range of dispositional terms’ (op. cit. n.1, 109), he took the range to be as wide as he did because among his ‘dispositional terms’ were some of the terms he applied to what he called capacities. Ryle's terminology is owed to his thinking that he could account for capacities as ‘multi-track dispositions’. Still, Ryle never spoke of anything both as a disposition and as exercised.

20 J. Stanley, Know How, 72. A de se reading of a pronoun is one which ‘involves a first-person way of thinking’. So when de se pronouns make an appearance in linguistic theory, the first personal character of ascriptions of intentions is unearthed from the structure of sentences. I hope that §1 above made it plain that an account of action must be an account of a sort of first person thinking – that someone who intends to so-and-so is someone who could (in principle) knowingly say ‘I intend to so-and-so’. I take the representation of first person thought to be a topic in its own right which can be explored otherwise than by fathoming English syntax.

21 Stanley says that ‘No commitments about the meaning of infinitivals are needed to defend the view that knowing how to do something is a species of propositional knowledge’ (Know How, 71). In order to separate his defence of his view about infinitivals from his defence of his propositionalism about knowing how to, Stanley presents a schema whose validity he claims suffices for demonstrating that knowing how to do something is knowing something to be the case. But he does not say how the schema – which has ‘knows how to ϕ’ on one side, ‘knows that’ on the other, and ‘iff’ between – might itself be defended. (I note that however the schema might be supposed to be supported, it relies upon the idea that if a way to do something is known, then a proposition about that way is known.)

22 J. Stanley, Know How, 76.

23 J. Stanley, Know How, 76.

24 I assume that one needs a truth-evaluable sentence, with an indicative verb, to express a proposition. That assumption appears to be in place in Williamson when he seeks ‘a declarative sentence’ in place of a verb phrase so as to have intentions’ contents match those of beliefs.

25 J. Stanley, Know How, 76–80.


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