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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Counterfactual Statements of Fact

In "Are There Propositions?" (1929), Ryle interprets the word "proposition" as more or less synonymous with "statement." (See Ryle's Collected Papers Volume 2: Collected Essays 1929-1968, p. 39).  A logical result of this view is that propositional knowledge (aka "knowledge that") is knowledge related to statements of fact, linguistic or in other ways symbolic.  It would then follow that a person knows that x if and only if that person has some explicit recognition of the fact that x (via a representation of x), or the capacity to acknowledge or communicate that fact in some way.

We can understand capacities in terms of counterfactual abilities.  Thus, if a person knows that x, that person can, in some situations, explicitly recognize, acknowledge or communicate that fact in some way.  In this way, propositional knowledge is tied intrinsically to intellectual and discursive capacities.  It's no wonder, then, that Ryle identifies propositional knowledge with "the jobs of didactic discourse" in the ninth chapter of The Concept of Mind (1949) or that, in the second chapter of that book (as well as in his 1946 paper, "Knowing How and Knowing That"), he talks about propositional knowledge in terms of avowing, reciting or considering propositions.  Ryle's discussion of propositional knowledge seems consistent.

Ryle contrasts propositional knowledge with knowing how:  knowing how to do something is having a complex of dispositions and capacities to perform intelligently, where intelligent performance is marked by creativity, active learning, improvisation, and care.  This is much more than what is implied by mere propositional competence.  When a person acts intelligently, they are guided by rules--their behavior is not unthinking, but it is not necessarily intellectual, either.  It does not necessarily involve the consideration or even the acknowledgment of statements of fact.  For Ryle, being able to intelligently follow a rule is categorically different from being able to acknowledge or state a truth.  Ryle offers numerous regress arguments to prove that the former cannot be reduced to the latter.  (For a formal analysis of Ryle's regress strategy and related topics, see here.)

In his book Know How (2011), Jason Stanley critiques Ryle's regress arguments, but he agrees with the point that intelligent performance does not require the avowal or acknowledgment of any rules.  He does not, however, believe that knowing that is a matter of abilities to do with the acknowledgment or avowal of facts.  He thus challenges Ryle's view of knowing that.

I've argued in other posts at length about how I disagree with Stanley's interpretation of Ryle.  Now I want to offer a Rylean criticism of Stanley's view of propositional knowledge.  I'll focus on two examples which Stanley uses.

In one example, Stanley claims that propositional knowledge is exhibited through the opening of a door by the turn of a handle.  When a person successfully opens a door, we can attribute propositional knowledge:  They know that that is a way to open the door.  In the second example, a person might not be able to recall the sequence of numbers in a passcode, but they might still be able to enter the correct numbers into the keypad.  Thus, we can say they know that those are the right numbers, even though they cannot verbally pronounce them or otherwise identify them.  Stanley's conclusion is that knowing that something is the case is not limited to knowledge which can be discursively shared.  He says propositional knowledge is not always a matter of didactic discourse.

A Rylean would respond by supposing that the capacity to acknowledge or communicate the relevant facts is present, even if the subject cannot acknowledge or communicate them in the present instance.

In the case of opening the door, we are attributing common knowledge.  Everybody knows that that is a way to open a door.  It's something that anybody could identify and discursively share.  Any normal person could communicate, in some way or another, that that is a way to open a door.  We don't require a demonstration of their skill before we attribute this propositional knowledge.  In fact, I don't think a demonstration of competence at opening doors would even help.

Consider that cats occasionally figure out how to open doors by jumping and turning the handles.  We do not so easily say that the cat knows that that is a way to open the door, do we?  We much more easily attribute knowledge how to open the door.  When we say a person knows that that is a way to open a door, this is not because they have successfully opened a door, but because we think they're in a position to know that they did it in a particular way.  Cat's might have the know how, but they're not so obviously in a position to acknowledge or communicate the facts.

The passcode example is a little different.  In this case, we might assume that the subject has momentarily forgotten the passcode.  They once learned it and now they have to exert themselves a bit to remember it.  Surely they can remember it somehow.  They might, for example, simulate the pressing of the keys on the keypad, or they might try to remember something else which might trigger the memory of the numbers.  Either way, we attribute propositional knowledge because the subject can recall it with intellectual effort, even if they cannot recall it off hand.

There are presumably some cases where we attribute propositional knowledge even when we don't suppose the knowledge was explicitly learned as such.  Perhaps, if a person can use mental simulation or reflection to identify some fact about a procedure they know how to perform, then we are justified in attributing propositional knowledge of that fact.  The person, again, is in a position to know, and can counterfactually recognize or acknowledge the fact, even if they have never done so.  It's also worth noting that it is probably quite difficult, perhaps impossible, in many cases to decide if a person's ability to identify a fact about a known procedure is a matter of recalling a previously learned fact or if it is a case of identifying it for the first time.

Considering all of this, it is not so hard to understand the temptation to say that procedural knowledge is implicitly propositional--that if you know a procedure, you have some implicit propositional knowledge of the way to do it.  In Ryle's view, this is an error.  The fact that we can, in some cases, acquire explicit propositional knowledge from reflecting on or simulating procedures does not mean that our procedural knowledge is reducible to propositional knowledge.  It does not mean our procedural knowledge is just an implicit form of the explicit propositional knowledge.  It does not mean that all procedural knowledge is propositional knowledge.  All it means is that some procedural knowledge entails implicit or latent propositional knowledge.

The Rylean view might be summarized as follows:  A person knows that x if and only if they have the counterfactual ability to correctly acknowledge a statement of the fact that x.  This ability is neither necessary nor sufficient for attributions of knowledge how.

Perhaps Ryle is wrong.  Perhaps not.