Reading Gilbert Ryle ‘Knowing How and Knowing That’

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The traditional doctrine contends that intelligence ‘knowing that’ is distinct from the practical application of intelligence ‘knowing how’. Intelligence does not influence action and is expressed in regulative propositions: I know that the car is red, for example. Practice, or impulse, is not expressed in regulative propositions and effects some kind of action: I know how to ride the bike. For Ryle, this is a fallacy. He argues that intelligence is directly exercised, and that intelligent performance ‘need incorporate no ‘shadow-act’ of contemplating regulative propositions’. That is to say, there is no gap between theory and practice and consequently no requirement to postulate a ‘go-between’ faculty i.e. one which mediates between intelligence and action.

Ryle argues that the prevailing traditional doctrine leads to two regresses. This will form the main part of his argument against the traditional doctrine, in favour of his view that there is no gap between theory and practice. First, he uses an example to demonstrate that the traditional doctrine results in an infinite regress: if no-one possessed any money, no-one could get any money on loan. Second, the ‘go-between’ faculty mentioned above must be able to fulfil two functions that would appear to be mutually exclusive in the traditional doctrine’s own terms. For the ‘go-between’ faculty must be able to influence action – unlike theory – as well as being amenable to regulative propositions – unlike impulses. Thus a tripartite system emerges: 1) faculty of intelligence contemplates but does not execute action; 2) faculty of impulse executes but does not contemplate; 3) faculty of ‘go-between’ reconciles these irreconciliables.

Proponents of the traditional doctrine are guilty of a type mistake, in that they believe that an adverb (a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word-group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc.) adds something else to the act; in other words, the adverb expresses the intelligent part of an act. Ryle argues that these ‘special internal acts’ are actually the ‘modus operandi’ of the action. For example, to dance gracefully or clumsily relates to the way in which the motion is executed, not to a special act of intelligence added on to the action of dancing. This points to intelligent actions as single, not tandem, operations.

Ryle then states two theses:

1) Knowledge-how cannot be defined in terms of knowledge-that

2) Knowledge-how is a concept logically prior to knowledge-that

Let’s unpack these arguments. The first thesis can be explicated by way of an analogy; Ryle uses the example of a chess player. If knowledge-how were equitable to knowledge-that, a grandmaster chess player would be able to teach a stupid chess player how to play chess – and how to play it cleverly. In reality, you can’t teach a novice how to play to the same standard as the grandmaster, just by feeding him facts about the game. The ‘intellectualist’ (Ryle’s opponents) would argue against this by saying that he never really or fully knew the truths about the game that the grandmaster was imparting, but Ryle argues that, if the novice were stupid, then a) he would not be able to recall the appropriate rule at the time of making the move, and b) even if he did recall the appropriate rule, he might be stupid to follow it:

‘In other words, it requires intelligence not only to discover truths, but also to apply them, and knowing how to apply truths cannot, without setting up an infinite process, be reduced to knowledge of some extra bridge-truths.’ (6)

In other words, knowing a rule (knowing-that) is knowing how to put it into practice: knowing a set of rules for something, like the chess game or how to act morally, does not necessarily mean that one knows how to do something cleverly. Ryle argues that the ‘intellectualist psychological myths’ cannot account for this because they assume that knowledge-how is reducible or equitable with  knowledge-that. The gap between theory and practice still remains, because in order to posit a premise and conclusion, the intellectualist would have to posit a further step that details propositions about the implications of the conclusion by the premise.

The second thesis is related to the above, in that if knowledge of a rule does not dispose one to act in a certain way, the idea that knowledge-that is prior to knowledge-how falls down. Ryle wants to go further than this and argue that knowledge-how – traditionally seen as the inferior process – is actually logically prior to knowledge-that. We actualise propositions through what we do; for instance, knowledge that one can ride a bike is actualised – put into practice – when one gets on the bike. It is possible to state the reasons for one’s actions – propositions about the action of peddling, but these reasons (the criteria for the success of the action) must be realised in the performance of the action – peddling away: ‘In short, the propositional acknowledgement of rules, reasons or priniciples is not the parent of the intelligent application of them; it is a step-child of that application.’ (9)

The failure of the intellectualists, according to Ryle, rests on the ‘assumption’ that rational behaviour is equated with internal systems of reasoning, such as judging or reflecting. However, even the process of persuading ourselves of the validity of an argument can be done cleverly or stupidly. Thus, one cannot say with certainty that rational behaviour is equal to internal reasoning. The process itself results in an infinite regress: ‘The assumption…credits the rationality of any given performance to the rational execution of some anterior performance, which would in turn require exactly the same treatment’ (10).

Rules, like spectacles, are for looking through, but we don’t look at them. Similarly, ‘rules, like birds, must live before they are stuffed’ (11). Ryle wants to argue that the intelligent application of rules normally does occur without consideration of them in theory. Consider the example of the bike; one does not revert to the laws of motion before riding a bike, but nevertheless one is able to propel oneself forward and maintain that motion whilst balancing. Ryle uses the example of smoking; he might persuade himself of the negative aspects of smoking, but this does not mean that he obeys the argument that he should not smoke. In this way, we see that actions do not normally revert to theory for wisdom, and hence why knowledge-how is logically prior to knowledge-that.

Moreover, we can extract principles from actions but these resist being put in the indicative mood and more naturally fall under imperatives i.e. ‘they belong to a manual for novices’ (12). According to Ryle ‘bogus ethico-epistemological questions’ melt away when one gets to grips with knowledge-how as logically prior to knowledge-that, for knowing-how to behave is exhibited by correct behaviour, not by the issue of propositions or prescriptions: ‘Moral imperatives and ought-statements have no place in the lives of saints or complete sinners. For saints are not still learning how to behave and complete sinners have not yet begun to learn’. (14)

Knowledge-how cannot be built up from pieces of knowledge-that; for instance, propositional knowledge about cooking – beating an egg, whipping cream, making a batter – does not consolidate into the application of that knowledge in the practice of making a cake. Drilling knowledge, like multiplication or grammar tables, does not make one a mathematician or linguist, precisely because the skill of thinking teaches one to use knowledge. You are the judge of your performance. Such knowledge is not imparted but inculcated, which, according to Ryle, process that bodies of knowledge are knowledge-how, for example the discipline of philosophy or sociology: ‘The advance of knowledge does not consist only in the accumulation of discovered truths, but also and chiefly in the cumulative mastery of methods’ (15).

In sum, you cannot be said to have knowledge of a fact unless you can exploit it; the process of exploitation is itself an intelligent operation. One can possess knowledge in the manner of a museum collecting pieces for display, and this is distinct from the ‘workshop-possession’ (16) of knowledge that actualises propositional content, allowing us to make sense of it through use.


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