Tacit knowledge, rule following and Pierre Bourdieu's philosophy of social science

Pierre Bourdieu has developed a philosophy of social science, grounded in the phenomenological tradition, which treats knowledge as a practical ability embodied in skilful behaviour, rather than an intellectual capacity for the representation and manipulation of propositional knowledge. He invokes Wittgenstein’s remarks on rule-following as one way of explicating the idea that knowledge is a skill. Bourdieu’s conception of tacit knowledge is a dispositional one, adopted to avoid a perceived dilemma for methodological individualism. That dilemma requires either the explanation of regularities in social behaviour as the result of the tacit representation of procedural rules (‘legalism’) or the self-conscious representation of behavioural goals (‘voluntarism’) by individuals. After explaining the apparent dilemma, I then argue that Wittgenstein’s remarks on rule following actually undermine, rather than support, a dispositional solution. Nonetheless, the philosophy of social science can survive without a dispositional account of knowledge. Such a social science needs, firstly, to embrace one horn of the dilemma, voluntarism, provided that the relevant regularities can be explained as unintended consequences of agents’ self-represented intentions. Secondly, such a social science should treat theorists’ interpretations as unifying generalizations, not hypotheses about the acquisition of tacit knowledge. Finally, where appeal to cognitive psychology can distinguish otherwise equivalent theories in social science, social science should incorporate the data of cognitive psychology concerning tacit mental processes.
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