Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Practical and Theoretical

In a recent piece for The Stone, Jason Stanley rejects the common distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical skill.  His goal, apparently, is to liberate society from a false and oppressive elitism. He says: "The distinction between the practical and the theoretical is used to warehouse society into groups. It alienates and divides. It is fortunate, then, that it is nothing more than a fiction."  I'm not sure why that would be fortunate.  I rather think it would be fortunate if the warehousing turned out to be for the better.  If there was a problem, the fact that it was based on a fiction would not make me feel better.  In any case, Stanley does not draw our attention to any documented evidence of any alienation or division resulting from the folk conception of a practical/theoretical distinction.  I'm not convinced the folk conception is a problem at all.  But that's not what I want to write about right now.


Stanley's piece is written for a general audience, so we shouldn't expect the rigorous analysis or sensitive attention to detail that we would want from, say, his recent book, Know How (2011), which deals with the same topic but which is addressed to professional philosophers and advanced students.  We should only expect a very broad, accessible discussion of the topic, perhaps with some provocative examples or arguments.  Of course, we would not expect the main idea of the Stone article to directly contradict Stanley's more scholarly work.  And yet, that seems to be what we find.

I've finally gotten hold of an actual copy of the book and I've just finished reading Chapter 5, entitled "Knowledge How."  It is here that Stanley applies the linguistic analysis of Chapters 2-4 to provide a general account of what it means to know how to do something.  (By the way, now that I have the book, I see that I indicated the wrong page numbers in several of my recent posts.  I had been relying on chapters which Stanley has made available online, for people who have registered for his upcoming "Meisterkurs."  For some reason, those online texts have different page numbers.)  It is here that Stanley talks about the need for postulating practical ways of thinking.

Stanley differentiates between practical and demonstrative ways of thinking, such that the former are "action-based ways of thinking" (Stanley, p. 124) while the latter is the sort of thought that arises from "just staring" at objects (ibid., 125).  According to Stanley, this distinction is straightforward and obvious.  He says (italics in original)  "Anyone who accepts that cognitive states involve ways of thinking will have to accept practical ways of thinking" (ibid., p. 123); "As Peacocke and Heidegger point out, it is a straightfoward matter to construct Frege puzzles concerning something presented to one practically and that very same thing presented to one visually.  The only objections one could possibly have to practical ways of thinking of objects come from misunderstandings about the ontology of ways of thinking generally . . ." (ibid., 129).

As Stanley has it, one would have to be utterly confused to object to his appeal to the notion of practical ways of thinking.  Clearly our cognitive capacities are divided between the action-based and the "just staring" variety. The italics leave no room for doubt.

According to Stanley, there is a difference in cognitive capacities between being familiar and competent with descriptions of a way to do something and having practical knowledge of that way.  We can think and talk rationally about actions, reflecting on their ways, qualities and consequences, without having the practical knowledge required to apply those ways in action.  How is that not a distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge?  Yet, in The Stone, he argues against such a distinction.

In The Stone, Stanley introduces the theoretical/practical distinction as follows:

There is a natural temptation to view these activities [reflection and action] as requiring distinct capacities. When we reflect, we are guided by our knowledge of truths about the world. By contrast, when we act, we are guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions. If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge.
There are actually two distinctions here:  the theoretical/practical one (which he identifies with knowing that and knowing how, respectively) and the reflection/action one.  However, he seems to be mixing things up a bit.

What Stanley would presumably say is that we can reflect practically, and not just theoretically. Practical ways of thinking can be employed in reflection as well as action. For example, we might reflect proprioceptively on our motor skills, and thus reflect via a practical way of thinking. Thus, he might say, the difference between practical and demonstrative ways of thinking is not the same as the supposed difference between action and reflection. But then, why does he say that a sharp distinction between reflection and action would amount to a sharp distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge?  Indeed, his piece is called "The Practical and The Theoretical," and his entire thesis is that there is no difference in cognitive capacities between practical skill and theoretical knowledge.

In his book, Stanley argues that when we know how to do something, we have unique cognitive capacities which are not shared by people who only have detached, discursive or theoretical knowledge about that same activity or skill. Stanley explicitly argues for a sharp distinction between cognitive capacities: having practical skill involving an entity is not the same as having theoretical knowledge of that entity. Good plumbers have practical ways of thinking about plumbing; they utilize different cognitive capacities than people who are only capable of talking at length about plumbing. Yet, according to Stanley's Stone piece, this means that knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact--precisely the conclusion he wants to reject. Despite the noble attempt to demolish oppressive social barriers, Stanley's book supports the very distinction he claims is false.