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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jason Stanley's "Know How"

I've been wondering when Jason Stanley's book, Know How, would come out. I wasn't watching closely enough, cuz it's been out for a few months now and I didn't know it. I searched inside the book on amazon, and was happy to see that he acknowledges me as one of the people whose comments "occcasioned changes" to the book. I'm eager to see how he develops his criticism of Ryle and his epistemological views. I was only able to read up to page 6 on amazon, but I'm anticipating a big problem already.


It's clear from the outset that Stanley wants to give Ryle more credit than he has done in past publications. I don't know what, exactly, he wants to give Ryle credit for, but he says on page 2 that he wants to "distinguish Ryle's correct insights about action from his incorrect conclusions about the relationship between knowing how to do something and knowing that something is the case." That's a welcome addition to Stanley's previous scholarship on Ryle.

Stanley then spends a few pages laying out the agenda and strategy behind Ryle's distinction between knowing how and knowing that. He weeds out a possible appeal to verificationism in Ryle's argument, which is particularly odd since Ryle was a critic of the verificationist program. I'm not sure that Ryle was appealing to a theory of meaning in the passage Stanley quotes. Nor am I sure what Stanley ultimately makes of it. I'll have to read more to find out.

My problem with where Stanley seems to be going comes a bit later, when he writes (on page 5): "If Ryle can show that knowing how to do something is identical to a disposition or an ability, then on the assumption that knowledge of a truth is neither a disposition nor an ability, he will have refuted the intellectualist view that actions have intelligence properties in virtue of guidance by propositional knowledge." This looks very similar to the interpretation of Ryle that Stanley and Williamson advanced in 2001. My problem is that it does not seem to be a fair account of how Ryle proceeds.

As I've observed in the past (click on any of the tags at the bottom of this post), Ryle regards knowing-that-something-is-the-case as just as much a matter of abilities and dispositions as knowing-how-to-do-something. The difference is not between abilities and something else, but between abilities to act intelligently and abilities related to the jobs of didactic discourse. These are not mutually exclusive areas of ability, either.

I presume Jason Stanley is aware of my own thoughts on this topic. It seems, however, that they were not among those that occasioned changes to his monograph. I won't jump to any conclusions about the value of Stanley's treatment of Ryle. However flawed his approach may be, it is probably full of interesting insights and observations, and I look forward to reading it.

In any case, Ryle is only central to the first chapter. The rest of Stanley's book looks equally interesting. I get the impression that he is primarily out to challenge dominant conceptions of propositional knowledge. As he suggests in this recent interview with Richard Marshall, he thinks of propositional knowledge as something grounded in emotional investment and practical action, and not something mysteriously generated by disembodied minds contemplating Truth in a vacuum. I appreciate that. I even agree with it. But our approaches are quite different. Not just in our differing interpretations of Ryle, but in our opposing sympathies in the philosophies of mind and language in general. We just seem to have different ideas about how to paint the right epistemological picture. I'd like to think we're not all that different after all, but it'll probably take a lot of work for me to figure that out.