1. Jason Stanley & Timothy Williamson (2001). Knowing How. Journal of Philosophy 98 (8):411-444.
    Many philosophers believe that there is a fundamental distinction between knowing that something is the case and knowing how to do something. According to Gilbert Ryle, to whom the insight is credited, knowledge-how is an ability, which is in turn a complex of dispositions. Knowledge-that, on the other hand, is not an ability, or anything similar. Rather, knowledge-that is a relation between a thinker and a true proposition.
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Query about Knowing How
Can anyone point me towards criticisms of this paper?

I understand it was very well-received.  Is there a general consensus that knowledge-how is a variety of knowledge-that?

I tend to think of knowledge-that as a variety of knowledge-how.  I think that was Ryle's outlook, as per chapter 2 of The Concept of Mind, where he seems to regard knowledge-that as a particular set of abilities to do with language.  I thus wonder if Stanley and Williamson might have misrepresented Ryle's distinction.  Admittedly, this is just a first-blush response.  I have not yet analyzed their critique of Ryle's argument against the "intellectualist legend."

Any pointers here would be greatly appreciated.



Query about Knowing How
I have spent a bit more time with Stanley and Williamson's paper, and I invite everyone to discuss my criticism, which is available on my blog.

Here is an excerpt: 

"The paper, selected by The Philosopher's Annual as one of the ten best papers of 2001, is a criticism of Gilbert Ryle's attack on intellectualism. As I will argue, S-W not only misrepresent Ryle's argument; they misrepresent intellectualism as Ryle understood it. This suggests that there has been a widespread and profound misunderstanding of Ryle among academic philosophers."


September 5, 2009

Query about Knowing How
Hi Jason,

I had the same intuition as yours, of: "knowledge-that as a variety of knowledge-how." I found this comprehensive paper (2009) here at Philpapers. I hope it might be of some use to you in clarifying S&W's approach. The author states:
"Are S&W right? Undeniably there is a conflict between their account of knowledge-how and the letter of classic statements of the ability hypothesis, at least of the kind presented by Lewis (1988) and Nemirow (1980, 1990). After all, the classic statements of the ability hypothesis say that Mary does not gain any new knowledge-that because she merely gains new knowledge-how, while S&W’s main claim is that knowledge-how is a form of knowledge-that."

Query about Knowing How
"According to Ryle, an ascription of the form 'x knows how to F' merely ascribes to x the ability to F. However, it is simply false 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. However, she has lost her ability to do so (cf. also Ziff (1984, p. 71). It follows that Ryle's own positive account of knowledge-how is demonstrably false." 2001

While I'm not sure whether I am convinced by Ryle's argument of regress (although I'm only going by what I've read in these articles, mostly), I still tend to side with his original distinctions between knowledge-that and knowledge-how, and his association of knowledge-how to F, with the ability to F.

So, a question the above quoted passage raises for me is: How do we come to attribute "know how" to the ski instructor? How do we know that the ski instructor knows how to perform a complex stunt if they have never demonstrated such knowledge? Is it sufficient for knowledge-how that the ski instructor can tell you what's required to perform the move, without herself being able to perform the move? The ability to state in language what's required to perform the move sounds a lot more like knowledge-that than knowledge-how. She knows that X, Y and Z are required to perform the move, but she has never demonstrated knowledge of how to perform the move herself, except for the ability to provide knowledge-that X, Y and Z are required to perform the move.

The armless pianist "still knows how to play the piano", which implies that she had demonstrated such an ability prior to losing her arms ("she has lost her ability to do so"). It seems inconceivable that one could be said to know how to play the piano without ever developing the ability to actually (demonstrably) play. If you ask someone "Do you know how to ride a bike?" it is rarely because you wish them to teach you how - and even if this were the case, presumably the desired end result is that you gain the ability to ride a bike, rather than merely the ability to tell others how to ride a bike.

If knowledge (of any stripe) must be demonstrable, as I have implied, then it seems more likely that knowledge-that is a species of knowledge-how, rather than the opposing claim of the "intellectualist legend", which S&W adopt. If one has to demonstrate either an ability to play the piano, or an ability to describe what playing the piano consists in, then any demonstration of knowledge, either -how or -that, is also the demonstration of an ability (or a set of knowledge-relevant behaviours). Knowledge-how pertains to any general behavioural ability, while knowledge-that pertains only to the subset of those behavioural abilities which are typically linguistic.

We can follow Ryle and say: knowing how to F means being able to F. We can then allow F to stand for "demonstrate knowledge-that" without contradiction.

However, if knowing how to F means no more than stating linguistically how to F without also requiring an ability to F, then if we allow F to stand for "demonstrate knowledge-how", I think we do wind up with a contradiction, or perhaps Ryle's regress.

Query about Knowing How
As I mentioned in the comments section of my blog, I found out about S&W's paper via Cath 2009, which I recently came across while looking for work on the ability hypothesis.  I also found Cath's paper helpful in interpreting S&W's analysis, though he does not question any of their assumptions or conclusions.

About knowing-how and knowing-that . . . The situation is a bit more complicated than what your analysis shows, Luke.  Noe (2005) also claims that, in order to attribute "knows how to X," somebody must first demonstrate the ability to X.  Yet, Bengson, Moffett&Wright (2009) shows that this is not the case.  The relationship between knowing how to X and being able to X is not so simple.  (Though BM&W are careful not to attribute this over-simplification to Ryle, and instead attribute it to Neo-Ryleanism.)  I address this situation in a new paper I'm working on.  I've just completed a draft, and it significantly adds to and develops (and in some cases, corrects) what I posted on my blog.  I'm hoping to have it ready for submission soon.

I don't have my draft paper online, but I would be happy to email a copy to anybody who was interested.  I would be especially pleased if any professionals would be willing to read it and offer comments or criticism.  (As a non-professional without ties to any university, I am rather hungry for professional feedback.)


Sept. 21, 2009

Query about Knowing How
Linguistically 'how' is a wh-word, which makes knowledge-how a species
of knowledge-wh.  So, to the extent that a reductionist view of
knowledge-wh is correct, one should expect the intellectualist account
of knowledge-how to be correct too.  As for papers on knowledge-wh: you
might want to look at Jonathan Schaffer's "Knowing the Answer" and the
symposium in PPR, which includes papers by Jesper Kallestrup and
myself and replies by Jonathan Schaffer.

I don't think you should read Stanley and Williamson as offering
textual criticism of Gilbert Ryle.  It is better to read them as
offering new support in favor of intellectualism, a position which was
pretty much universally thought to be dead after Ryle's fierce

As for the ability thesis: As Stanley and Williamson correctly point
out, intellectualism does not have all that many consequences for the
knowledge argument and the ability thesis.  Even if knowledge-how
reduces to a version of knowledge-that, those who want to say that
Mary doesn't learn a new fact when she leaves her black and white room
can still explain away the intuition that she does learn something new
by saying that she acquires new abilities.  So, while the
intellectualism/anti-intellectualism debate is an interesting debate
in philosophy of language, it doesn't really have any bearing on
whether type-A physicalism is true.

Query about Knowing How
"Knowledge-that, on the other hand, is not an ability... [but] a relation between a thinker and a true proposition." As in knowledge that 15 x 17 = ?

Harnad, S. (2007) From Knowing How To Knowing That: Acquiring Categories By Word of Mouth. Presented at Kaziemierz Naturalized Epistemology Workshop (KNEW), Kaziemierz, Poland, 2 September 2007. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/14517/

Query about Knowing How
After reviewing Ryle, reading a good many papers on the topic, discussing some issues with a few professional philosophers (including an in-depth and spirited email exchange with Jason Stanley about how to interpret Ryle), I've come to the following conclusions:

0.0) The reduction of knowing-how to knowing-wh is not persuasive.  Given the linguistic similarities between know-how and know-wh expressions, we could just as easily claim that the latter are variations on the former as we could claim that the former is a species of the latter.  In fact, at least some uses of know-wh expressions entail knowing-how (e.g., "knowing where to find good pizza" entails knowing how to find the right place; "knowing what to do" entails knowing how to act appropriately), so I am highly skeptical of the suggestion that knowing-how is just a kind of knowing-wh.  I rather think that many cases of know-wh entail non-propositional know-how.

1.0) Stanley and Williamson (S&W) profoundly misinterpret Ryle.  Hetherington (2006) and Sheiber (2003) have already pointed out how S&W misrepresent Ryle's argument against intellectualism, though neither they nor anyone else has yet to identify the full extent to which S&W misinterpret Ryle's knowing-how/knowing-that distinction. 

1.1) S&W wrongly take Ryle to suppose that "knowing how to X" amounts to "being able to X."  For Ryle, knowing-how is not a single-track function and does not correspond with a particular action type.  Knowing-how entails an indefinitely heterogenous set of dispositions and competences to intelligently apply criteria, where intelligent performance entails creativity and active learning. 

1.2.0) Ryle distinguishes between applying criteria (following a rule) on the one hand, and grasping a proposition on the other hand.  I think S&W overlook this distinction, and that is at least partly why they misunderstand Ryle. 

1.2.1) Interestingly, I've just today found Millikan 1990, in which she argues for the same distinction (without observing any connection to Ryle) on the grounds that the former case--in which rules are not expressed as such--is a matter of what she calls "biological purposiveness."  She is critical of a straight dispositional analysis, though I think her analysis complements Ryle, whose view of intelligence is not a matter of simple dispositions, but of complex dispositions involving creative development--and I do not think Ryle would object to defining creative development in biological terms.

1.3)  I suggested earlier that, for Ryle, knowing-that was a species of knowing-how.  I was mistaken.  Pace S&W, Ryle does regard knowing-that in terms of abilities; however, Ryle does not thereby suppose that knowing-that is a variety of knowing-how--for, again, knowing-how is not simply abilities.  Pace S&W, Ryle's knowing-how/knowing-that distinction is not a distinction between abilities and something else.  Rather, it is a distinction between intelligence on the one hand, and abilities pertaining to the jobs of didactic discourse on the other.  Knowing-how is more basic, such that knowing-that implies knowing-how; though knowing-how often involves knowing-that.   Neither is a species of the other, and the two are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, as Wiggins (2009) observes, they need not always be separable in practice.

2.0)  S&W fail to make a compelling case for knowing-how as a species of knowing-that.  Many criticisms of S&W's positive account of knowing-how are in print, though I do not think the full extent of S&W's faulty reasoning has been exposed.  I will briefly describe some original criticisms I have developed.

2.1.0) According to S&W, if a knowledge ascription can be interpreted in terms of an embedded question, such that the knowledge ascribed is knowledge of the answer to that question, then said knowledge must be propositional.  Yet, it is not the case that every answer to a question is a proposition.  The question "how could you swim?" can be answered with a performance, and not with a proposition.  Thus, when we ascribe knowing-how, we might be ascribing non-propositional performative competences, as Ryle and others have argued.  Thus, S&W may be correct that "knowing how" expressions (of the relevant sort) do contain embedded questions of the form, "How could you X?"; however, it does not follow that the ascribed knowledge is propositional in nature.

2.1.1)  S&W note that, depending on the communicative purposes, the relevant sort of knowledge ascriptions can either be interpreted as mention-some or mention-all, depending on whether the ascribed knowledge is of every correct propositional answer or only of a subset of all correct propositional answers.  If communicative purposes suggest that some know-how expressions ascribe non-propositional competences, we should allow for a mention-none reading, such that the ascribed knowledge is not of any propositional answer, but rather of a non-propositional capacity to perform intelligently.

2.2.0)  S&W overlook an important linguistic difference between knowing-how and knowing-that expressions. As Ryle notes, it is common to ask for reasons for one's propositional knowledge, but not for knowing-how.  This suggests that knowing-how is not analyzable in terms of justified true beliefs.  To make this clearer, consider the difference between asking "How do you know how to X?" and "How do you know that X?"

2.2.1) In asking "how do you know that X?", we are asking for a justification for the belief in X.  If we accept the justification, then we may believe that the person knows that X.  Furthermore, if we believe that a person knows that X, it follows that we believe that X.  If we are justified in accepting their justification, then we know that X.  Thus, in paradigmatic cases, answering the question "how do you know that X?" can give one's interlocutor knowledge that X. The situation with knowing-how is quite different.  In common cases, asking "how do you know how to X?" is not asking for a justification for a belief.  It rather asks for an account of a skill or competence.  Furthermore, we can accept the answer, and so accept that somebody knows how to X without thereby believing that any particular w is a way to X.  We need not have any knowledge of any way of X-ing.  (For example, I can be justified in believing that Irina knows how to perform a complex ski jump called the quadruple salchow, even though I have no idea what that is and have never seen one performed.)  We can be justified in accepting the account without knowing of any way to X that it is a way for anybody to X.  Thus, in common cases, correct answers to the question "how do you know how to X?" cannot give one's interlocutor knowledge how to X.  It is worth noting that there are some cases in which an answer to "How do you know how to X?" can give a person knowledge how to X.  For example, if asked "How do you know how to find good pizza?", one could answer by describing in detail how one found a good pizza place.  The information required to find the pizza place may be communicated in the answer; and, presuming that the interlocutor has enough know-how to put that information into practice, the interlocutor may thus learn how to find the good pizza in question.  This shows that, in this and similar cases, know-how involves propositional knowledge.  This is not a mark against Ryle, however, as Ryle argues that all but the most primitive cases of knowing-how entail propositional competence.

2.2.3) Being justified in believing that a person knows how to ski does not entail knowing how to ski.  However, being justified in believing that a person knows that Obama is POTUS entails knowing that Obama is POTUS. If knowing-how were just a case of knowing-that, this asymmetry should not appear. 

2.2.4) The above suggests that, unlike knowing-that, knowing-how cannot always be analyzed in terms of justified true beliefs, or propositional knowledge.

2.3.0)  The inadequacy of S&W's linguistic analysis is also evident in their appeal to practical modes of presentation (aka "practical guises").  I submit that no such mode of presentation exists; or, rather, that all modes of presentation are practical, in so far as modes of presentation entail dispositions to behave, and that S&W have not presented a compelling argument for any particular kind of mode of presentation. S&W claim that the argument for practical guises is the same as that for first-person guises.  This is not true.  The argument for first-person guises is significantly different from their argument for practical guises. In the argument for first-person guises, we are introduced to John, who sees his pants burning in a mirror but thinks he is looking out a window.  He therefore does not believe that his pants are on fire, though he believes that that man's pants are on fire.  Yet, "his pants are on fire" and "that man's pants are on fire" are said to express the same proposition, for John is that man.  Thus, the complement clauses in the following two belief attributions are said to express the same proposition: 

    a) "John believes his pants are on fire."
    b) "John believes that man's pants are on fire."

While (a) is false, (b) is true.  To avoid contradiction, it is supposed that John entertains the same proposition under different modes of presentation.  The different modes of presentation are practical in nature, in that they determine how John acts intelligently.  It is particularly significant that the notion of modes of presentation explains why the same sentences can be used to make the same statement, even though John would not use the same sentences to make the same statement.  That is, while somebody in a priveleged position would use "that man's pants are on fire" and "his pants are on fire" interchangably in this context, John would not.  This is precisely why we reject (a), and not (b). To create a similar situation, S&W introduce Hannah, who cannot ride a bicycle, but who sees a cyclist on television and is told that that is a way for her to ride a bicycle.  She is still sitting on the couch, so it is granted that she does not know how to ride a bicycle in the performative sense.  Yet it is supposed that Hannah does know of a way to ride a bicycle such that it is a way for her to ride a bicycle.  According to S&W's linguistic analysis, the complement clauses in (c) and (d) express the same proposition: 

    c) "Hannah knows that that is a way for her to ride a bicycle."
    d) "Hannah knows how to ride a bicycle." 

As in the case of John's burning pants, we are willing to accept (c) but not (d).  S&W claim this means that the proposition in question is entertained under different modes of presentation.  Thus we are to suppose that Hannah's lack of performative competence is just a matter of her not entertaining the same proposition under the right mode of presentation. It is hard to compare beliefs about burning pants with capacities to ride a bicycle, and it does not seem that gaining competence at cycling is a matter of learning how to entertain a proposition under a new mode of presentation--at least, not if entertaining propositions constitutes belief.  It is hard to see why we should think of beliefs and competences in the same way, when they seem so dissimilar.  We might be willing to give S&W the benefit of the doubt here, or at least to suspend judgment, if there was no evidence of any significant linguistic differences between the use of knowing-how and knowing-that expressions, and if it were true that the case of Hannah the cyclist was exactly like the case of John's burning pants.  However, as I have argued, there is a significant linguistic difference.  Furthermore, the cases of Hannah and John are remarkably different, as I will now show. Unlike the complement clauses in (a) and (b), the complement clauses in (c) and (d) cannot be used to make the same statement.  There is no priveleged position in the case of Hannah, such that a person could use the complement clauses in (c) and (d) interchangably.  Nor is it the case that Hannah is disposed to use one sentence (identical to the clause in (c)) to express her knowledge, but not another sentence (identical to the clause in (d)) which could also be used to express the same knowledge.  So the analogy to the case of John's burning pants fails.  The argument for first-person modes of presentation cannot be used for practical mods of presentation. Perhaps an adjusted argument for practical guises could work, though there is good reason to suppose this is not the case.  Practical modes of presentation are supposed to be practical in some way over above the way in which other modes of presentation are practical.  S&W have a particular sort of practicality in mind; specifically, it is a practicality that does not entail any conceptual grasping of a proposition.  S&W's point, in arguing for practical modes of presentation, is that exercises of knowing-how do not necessarily entail the intellectual grasping of a proposition.  Of course, this is precisely Ryle's point--it is the essence of anti-intellectualism.  (Indeed, S&W confuse the nature of intellectualism.  They think intellectualism is the thesis that knowing-how is a species of knowing-that, when in fact intellectualism is the thesis that intelligent behavior is the result of intellectual acts of grasping true propositions.  S&W are not intellectualists as Ryle uses the term.  We should rather say that, in arguing that knowing-how is a species of knowing-that, S&W are propositionalists.)  This is also what Millikan means when she says (following Wittgenstein) that purposiveness (at its most basic, biological level) is not representational. S&W want us to think that non-representational purposiveness entails entertaining a proposition under a practical mode of presentation; however, it is not clear how one could entertain a proposition under a mode of presentation without representing that proposition.  The notion of a non-representation mode of presentation is incoherent.  There is no reason to think of non-representational competences as being propositional; in fact, linguistic analysis suggests that they are not propositional.  S&W overlook linguistic differences and manufacture an incoherent mode of presentation to make them look propositional.  It is better to just suppose that no proposition is entertained.

2.4) Though I do not stand by all of Alva Noë's points--I do not think he is always accurate in his presentation of Ryle, or compelling in his criticism of S&W--I agree with his assertion that S&W want to give us Ryle's own knowing-how/knowing-that distinction in a new garb (Noë 2005).  However, because it ignores linguistic differences between knowing-how and knowing-that expressions and because it relies on a fallacious argument for an incoherent mode of presentation, S&W's formulation is not tenable.

Jason Streitfeld
Feb. 14, 2010


Stephen Cade Hetherington (2006).  “How to Know (That Knowledge-that is Knowledge-how)” in Stephen Cade Hetherington (ed.) (2006). Epistemology Futures. Oxford University Press., pp. 71-94.

Ruth G. Millikan (1990). Truth, Rules, Hoverflies, and the Kripke-Wittgenstein Paradox Philosophical Review 99 (3):323-53.

Alva Noë (2005). Against Intellectualism. Analysis 65 (288):278–290.

Joseph Shieber (2003). “What our Rylean Ancestors Knew: More on Knowing How and Knowing That” in Pre-Proceedings of the 26th International Wittgenstein Symposium. Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, Kirchberg am Wechsel, pp. 328-330.

David Wiggins (2009).  “Knowing How To and Knowing That.” In Wittgenstein and Analytic Philosophy: Essays for P.M.S. Hacker, Hans-Johann Glock&John Hyman, eds. (Oxford University Press).

Query about Knowing How
I would like to note some corrections I've made concerning my previous arguments and views on Ryle and Stanley&Williamson.  Rather than post lengthy arguments and exegesis here, I'll just link to a couple of recent blog entries which correct and expand upon my previous arguments.

Stanley & Williamson's "Knowing How," Revisited

Ryle On Rules And Creativity

Any comments are welcome either here or at the original blog.

Sept. 4, 2010