Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Opaque Contexts and Knowing How

Updated on July 1, 2012.  See bottom.

On page 229 of Know How (2011), Jason Stanley argues that ascriptions of knowing how create opaque contexts, which (he claims) implies that knowing how to do something is conceptual.  An opaque context is one in which co-extensive terms cannot be substituted without changing the truth-value of an expression.  Stanley is responding to the relatively familiar view that procedural knowledge or knowledge how is non-conceptual.  If it is non-conceptual, then why would it create opaque contexts?

Stanley quotes David Carr to prove that knowing how ascriptions create opaque contexts:

Suppose a famous dancer was to perform before an audience, an item from his
repertoire to which he has himself given the following title:   
(12) A performance of Improvisation No. 15   
To the astonishment of a member of his audience who just happens to be an
expert on communications, the movements of the dancer turn out to resemble an
accurate (movement perfect) semaphore version of Gray's 'Elegy', though the
dancer is quite unaware of this fact. We may describe what is seen by the
audience member as follows:   
(13) A semaphore recital of Gray's 'Elegy'

although we can describe the dancer as knowing how to bring about (12) we
cannot reasonably suppose that he also knows how to bring about (13). Even
though (12) and (13) are…but different characterizations of the same action, we
cannot safely switch these characterizations in knowing how contexts. So it
appears that sentences about knowing how, unlike those about ability, are truly
non-extensional. 
Stanley concludes:
A performance of Improvisation No. 15 is the same event as a semaphore recital of
Gray's 'Elegy'. But knowing how to do one does not entail knowing how to do the other.
Carr’s example shows that one may know how to ĭ without knowing how to Ȍ, even
though ĭ-ing and Ȍ-ing are the same actions. 

I find this wholly counter-intuitive.  Imagine the dancer, after performing, is confronted with the astonished member of the audience, who says, "I didn't know you knew how to perform a semaphore recital of Gray's 'Elegy.'"  The dancer might properly reply, "But I don't know how to do that!"  The audience member may then say, "But you just did!"  In which case, the dancer would rightly say, "A ha!  How funny!  I didn't realize it."

Stanley is, or at least should be, open to the idea that learning how to do something is acquiring a skill.  Yet, it would be absurd to say that, by virtue of this brief conversation, the dancer acquired the skill of performing a semaphore recital of Gray's 'Elegy.'  Yet, we can say that the dancer has learned that his dance is a semaphore recital of Gray's 'Elegy.'  He can now perform the dance under that description.  So should we say the dancer knows how to bring about (13) after the conversation, but not before?  Did the dancer acquire a new skill by learning that the same dance can be known under a different description?

If (12) and (13) are really coextensive (which is hard to imagine, but okay), then why not say the dancer knows how to bring about both?  The dancer might not know that he knows how to bring about both, which is why he needs to be told that (12) and (13) are coextensive before he can bring about the action as a response to a request to bring about (13).  But he still has the know how.

What is clear is that the dancer knows how to perform the action designated by (12) and (13), but only knows the action under one of the two descriptions.  This is a limitation in his declarative knowledge, not his know how.

We might suppose that the fact that (12) is an improvisation is important.  Maybe the implication is that the dancer, in improvising, does not have a clear conception of each of the movements, and so could not produce them on demand.  Maybe that is why we are supposed to think he does not know how to bring about (13).  The audience member might tell him that he had just brought about (13), and ask him to do it again, and the dancer might not be able to.  He might improvise on the theme designated by (12) and fail to bring about (13).  But in that case, the action types designated by (12) and (13) are not co-extensive, and so the argument for an opaque context collapses.

Either way, there is no opaque context here.  I don't see how one could argue for opaque contexts with respect to knowledge how, which suggests knowledge how is not propositional.

UPDATE:  I have a few more thoughts about why (12) and (13) are presumably not coextensive.  It is entirely plausible that they have different intentional properties.  Unlike (12), which entails an intention to improvise on a certain theme, (13) entails an intention to communicate something about Gray's 'Elegy.'  What defines (12) and (13) are not just the bodily movements carried out during the performance, but also causal-historical factors which define their intentional properties.  It is reasonable to assume that intentional properties supervene over or in some other way extend with respect to causal histories, in which case (12) and (13) are not coextensive.