Ryle on Knowing How

One last Ryle post for the day. This was a very odd section in Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson’s Knowledge How (PDF).

Let us turn from Ryle’s arguments against the thesis that knowledge-how is a species of knowledge-that to his positive account of knowledge-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.

I’m not where Ryle offers that account. As I read him, Ryle says that knowledge how is, like most mental states, a complex disposition that has no (easily statable) necessary or sufficient conditions. To get a sample of the kind of thing Ryle does think is involved in knowledge how, consider what he says about knowing how to tie a knot.

You exercise your knowledge of how to tie a clove-hitch not only in acts of tying clove-hitches and in correcting your mistakes, but also in imagining tying them correctly, in instructing pupils, in criticising the incorrect or clumsy movements and applauding the correct movements that they make, in inferring from a faulty result to the error which produced it, in predicting the outcomes of observed lapses, and so on indefinitely. (55)

It seems to me that Ryle could quite easily say that the pianist and the ski instructor both have the knowledge how Tim and Jason assign to them, since both of them can imagine how to perform the act, can instruct, criticise and praise pupils accordingly, can infer what’s going wrong in misperformances etc etc. So while these may be counterexamples to the equation of know how and ability, I don’t see how they are counterexamples to anything that Ryle says.

6 Replies to “Ryle on Knowing How”

  1. Evidence that the same know how is exercised in imagining a movement as in performinng it: there is solid evidence that rehearsing movements in imagination improves physical performance. It also aids in recovering abilities after stroke.

  2. Brian,

    I’m a bit perplexed about your perplexity. Here are some Ryle quotes (from Chapter V of The Concept of Mind):

    “Many dispositional statements may be, though they need not be, and ordinarily are not, expressed with the help of the words ‘can’, ‘would’, and ‘able’.” (p. 126)

    (This is followed by a discussion of different uses in context of ‘can’ and ‘able’). Then:

    “There is one further feature of ‘can’ which is of special pertinence to our central theme. We often say of a person, or a performing animal, that he can do something, in the sense that he can do it correctly or well. To say that a child can spell a word is to say that he can give, not merely some collection or other of letters, but the right collection in the right order.” (then Ryle gives a list of other abilities that are typical examples of what is for him know-how).

    In short, to quote from the first paragraph of our paper, Ryle thinks that “knowledge how is an ability, which is in turn a complex of dispositions”.

  3. In support of Brian’s point (I think) sorry about the length:

    Jason and Tim’s examples of the ski instructor and the pianist are cases where an agent S has lost the ability to F but still knows how to F. But there are plenty of complex dispositions to F (among other things) that S retains in both cases (like the disposition to play the piano when one has hands). Neither case tells against an identification of S’s knowing how to ski or play the piano with such dispositions. At worst Ryle has to chuck out the middle man in “knowledge how is an ability, which is in turn a complex of dispositions”, but that doesn’t seem to be a very interesting conclusion. And even this conclusion doesn’t obviously follow, as these cases only clearly establish that knowing how to ski can’t be equated with the ability to ski. But it could still be equated with some other ability, like the ability to ski when one has legs.

    Chomsky and Anthony Kenny have a debate over whether knowledge of a language is just a complex set of abilities that goes through epicycles like this (See Chomsky’s “Language and Problems of Knowledge”). Chomsky uses the example of Juan who loses his ability to speak Spanish after suffering a head wound but then recovers this ability as his injury heals (without going through any learning process). He argues that Juan’s recovery shows that his knowledge of Spanish was retained the whole time and therefore his knowledge of Spanish cannot be equated with his ability to speak Spanish. Kenny replies that Juan did retain another ability the whole time (the ability to speak Spanish when not suffering from a head injury) and we can identify Juan’s knowledge of Spanish with that ability. Chomsky thinks that Kenny’s reply is at odds with our use of the word ‘ability’ but the interesting debate here (as Chomsky acknowledges) is not a debate over the word ‘ability’. The interesting debate is one about the make-up of the set of dispositions that one identifies knowing a language with: whether this set need only include behavioral dispositions (Kenny) or if it will have to include more clearly cognitive dispositions (Chomsky). Chomsky thinks that the Juan case tells in favor of his position.

    Likewise I take it that the interesting question in regards to Ryle is to do with the character of the dispositions that one identifies knowing how to F with. Whether one can always identify knowing how to F with purely behavioral dispositions (as Ryle seems to require) or if the relevant dispositions will have to include dispositions to have certain beliefs, perform certain inferences and other dispositions where one can’t avoid referring to internal mental states/processes when stating the disposition. I guess Ryle assumed that any mental states/processes referred to in the statement of the dispositions involved in knowing how to tie a clove-hitch would themselves ground out in behavioral dispositions but he doesn’t say much to support this assumption. (Btw Soames discusses this issue in his “Phil Analysis in the 20thC V 2”).

  4. I agree with most of what Yuri says. We can agree that knowing how to ski is an ability (more likely a vague disjunction of abilities) without agreeing that it is an ability to ski. Nothing in the passages Jason discusses makes me think that Ryle identified knowing how to ski with just that ability, for there are, as the quote I brought up shows, many other abilities that either go along with, or more likely constitute, knowing how to ski.

    But I want to disagree with one point. I don’t think Ryle thinks that all of these dispositions have to be behavioural dispositions. They could just be dispositions to produce other dispositions, and given Ryle’s anti-reductionism he might well have thought these need not ground out anywhere.

  5. One point: dispositions can be extrinsic (see, for instance, Rob Wilson’s Boundaries of the Mind). If a disposition can be extrinsic, agents’ can be rightfully said to possess them only in the right context. Think of musical ability: does knowing how to play a particular piece exist as a set of pathways or connection weights in the brain? Doesn’t it (typically) actually have as part of its realization the wider context – paradigmatically having the instrument in hand? Even the ability to whistle a tune is like this. How does the fourth line of “To her door” go? To find out, you’re going to have to hum the first three, and use them as cues for the 4th line.

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