The Fallacious Knowing-How, Knowing-That Distinction

Over at the Stone, Jason Stanley offers some thoughtful remarks on the fallacious distinction between the practical and the theoretical, or rather, between practical and theoretical knowledge. Stanley examines the case to be made for the dichotomy between reflection–‘guided by our knowledge of truths about the world’–and action–‘guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions’:

If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge.

Stanley dismisses this distinction by way of considering and rejecting different ways in which a ‘bright line’ could be drawn between practical and theoretical knowledge (for instance ‘talking’) and concludes with:

The plumber’s or electrician’s activities are a manifestation of the same kind of intelligence as the scientist’s or historian’s latest articles — knowledge of truths….The distinction between the practical and the theoretical is used to warehouse society into groups. It alienates and divides. It is fortunate, then, that it is nothing more than a fiction.

I find Stanley’s analysis congenial, though I would collapse the distinction from the other direction. That is, I consider ascriptions of knowledge to be recognitions of practical abilities: to know a ‘truth’ is to bear a particular practical relation to the world, of being capable of interacting with the world in particular ways; of making some kinds of judgments and not others; knowing-that is a species of knowing-how.  To ascribe knowledge is not to recognize a special mental state, distinguished by some peculiar, yet-to-be-specified relationship with a proposition. Knowers are doers first and foremost. To know something is to be either doing or to be capable of doing (like making certain utterances and not others, for instance). A knower is distinguished from a non-knower by his actions, by his placement within a nexus of active relationships.

There are some advantages to thinking of knowledge in these terms. It makes more continuous the relationship between humans, animals, and other entities in the world such as sophisticated machines; animals can ‘know’ too, even if they cannot be understood as knowing propositions. To confine ourselves to propositional accounts of knowledge is to make human knowledge a singularity in the natural world; it means we cannot meaningfully make claims like ‘My cat knows the mouse is behind the door’ (or at least when we do it is by making a distinction between ‘animal’ and ‘reflective’ knowledge); it fails to acknowledge the cat’s particular interactions with its environment. It prompts meaningless questions like  ‘Who does the knowing?’ when it comes to ascribing knowledge to sophisticated systems such as robotic currency traders.

The long, protracted disputes in epistemology bear adequate testimony to the futility of trying to think of knowledge in excessively mentalistic and semantic terms. Thinking of knowledge as a species of interaction, a description of an agent enmeshed in his world and distinguished from others that don’t know what it does by its actions, clears up many of the puzzles created by traditional epistemology. This understanding of knowledge has its own distinguished pedigree in the history of philosophy, of course, most notably in Wittgenstein, Dewey and Nietzsche. Hopefully, I’ll be able to spin those views out a bit more here in future posts.

7 thoughts on “The Fallacious Knowing-How, Knowing-That Distinction

  1. I don’t think the distinction is fallacious. In fact, I think it is one of the most important “discoveries” made in philosophy in the twentieth century. (And in truth, it predates that. The distinction is crucial to Aristotle’s depiction of the acquisition of moral virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics.)

    Stanley simply doubles down and ignores–or misunderstands–the key Rylean arguments for why knowing-how is distinct from knowing-that.

    As for your point….it’s actually Ryle’s. Ryle makes the point that not only are K-H and K-T distinct, but that K-H is *prior* to K-T, because the acquisition of knowledge and the process of justification are themselves abilities or skills.

    Sorry, but I’m not impressed by Stanley at all. Ryle would wipe the floor with him on a debate on the subject. It’s easy to argue against people who are dead.

    –Dan K.

  2. Dan,

    On reading Stanley a bit closer, I’m inclined to think my disagreement with him is stronger than I’ve indicated above. I think knowing that is just knowing how (in various ways). Isn’t it different from Ryle’s point?

    1. I think your point is substantially the same as Ryle’s. Here is the relevant quotation:

      “I now want to prove that knowing-that presupposed knowing-how.

      To know a truth, I must have discovered or established it. But discovering and establishing are intelligent operations, requiring rules of method, checks, tests, criteria, etc. A scientist or an historian is primarily a man who knows how to decide certain sorts of questions. Only secondarily is he a man who has discovered a lot of facts….

      He couldn’t discover any particular truths unless he knew how to discover.”

      From “Knowing How and Knowing That” in Collected Papers, Vol. 2, p. 224.

      1. Dan,

        Thanks for the pointer. The lines beginning “A scientist..” are very useful. So, are you suggesting that Ryle’s showing that knowing-that presupposes knowing-how actually ends up showing that knowing-that is just a kind of knowing-how?

  3. Yes, I would agree with that characterization.

    One of the interesting things about this is that it erases some of the categorical boundaries between knowledge in science and knowledge in areas like ethics. This is one of its great appeals to me.


  4. One more thing (sorry, but this is one of my main areas of interest). The distinction also suggests that our current model of education is terribly flawed, inasmuch as it is almost all, collectively, an exercise in teaching people to “know that.”


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