Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Practical Ways of Thinking


Jason Stanley says that we must understand the need for practical ways of thinking if we are going to understand what it means to know how to do something.  His thesis (Know How, 2011, p. 130) is this:  "What happens when I acquire skill in the activity of catching fly balls?  What happens is that I come to the realization that a certain way of catching a fly ball, which I think of practically, is a way that will give me counterfactual success in fly ball catching."  Thus, one must not simply have a properly practical way of thinking about catching a fly ball; one must also realize that they have this practical way of thinking about that way.  One must thereby come to the conclusion that the way is a good way of doing it.

Stanley's account implies two ways of thinking:  The first way is the practical one, and the second is the way of thinking about the practical way of thinking such that it is about a good way of acting.  Is this second way of thinking also practical?  It must be contemplative or analytical, as it requires assessing the merits of one's practical way of thinking.  It does not seem to be action-based in the way that practical ways of thinking are supposed to be action-based.  That is, one does not employ one's evaluative way of thinking about one's practice whenever one practices.  When one engages in intelligent practice, one employs the practical way of thinking without reflectively thinking about it as such.  If one is employing knowledge, then, it is of a decidedly practical kind and does not require the other, intellectual kind of knowledge.  Yet, Stanley says our know-how involves knowing that our way is a good way.  It is not just practical knowledge.

If I am properly understanding Stanley's account, it is not intuitive. If we have a practical way of thinking about catching a fly ball and if we utilize this way of thinking in the catching of fly balls, then why couldn't we say that we therefore know how to catch fly balls?  Why must we have a separate act of realizing that we have this practical way of thinking?  Isn't the know how evident in the way of thinking itself, and not in the realization that one has a good way of thinking?  Doesn't one manifest the practical knowledge, and not the intellectual knowledge, when one intelligently catches a fly ball?

Stanley's analysis requires that the same ways of thinking we employ in thinking about our performance are integral aspects of our performance.  This is obvious from the fact that he argues for the existence of practical ways of thinking by observing the ways we think about our performance.  According to Stanley's analysis, practical ways of thinking are evidenced by reflection in ways which suggest proprioception or introspection.  He writes:  "It is simple to imagine cases in which one thinks of a way of acting (say, a way of playing a piano) in such a manner as to be surprised by the discovery that a given demonstratively presented (or explicitly described) way of thinking of that method of playing a piano is a way of thinking of the same method of playing" (ibid., p. 123).

Perhaps that is true, but what is the pianist doing when he thinks about a way of playing the piano?  As a pianist, I can offer my own introspected answer:  I might think about how to move my fingers and other parts of my body.  This would normally involve proprioception.  I am more likely to think about the look and sound of the keys, which is more auditory and visual memory.  I might also think about interpretative issues, like phrasing, tempo and so on, which can be more abstract, and not so much a matter of imagining myself producing or hearing the sounds.  A lot can be counted as ways of thinking about ways of playing the piano, and presumably many different ways of thinking can be involved. Perhaps a number of them are what Stanley would call "practical," but I'm not sure which.

Perhaps the most relevant sort of thinking about my performance (I think) is propriocepting a simulated performance.  This sort of activity might be generally categorized as employing a particular way of thinking and, yes, I think it is plausible that one can understand music in this way without being able to identify a given description or demonstration of what it is that one is thinking about.  However, I don't see how this helps Stanley's argument.

For one thing, it is not clear that Stanley wants to restrict "practical ways of thinking" to the proprioception of simulated motor activity.  If he did, then he would need an argument for why we should think that such ways of thinking are involved in actual performances, and not just simulations. Stanley does not think a conscious act of reflection must accompany the intelligent employment of one's motor skills. He balks at the idea that one must consciously avow the propositions which guide one's intelligent performance. But then, why associate a reflective capacity of proprioception with knowing how to act?

I must conclude that it is not clear how we are supposed to understand practical ways of thinking. Stanley's appeal to Peacocke is unfortunately not instructive. Peacocke writes: "What seems to be constitutive of these [action-based] ways of thinking is that when a thinker acts on an intention to perform an action thought of in one of these ways, he tries to act in a certain way (and does so in favourable circumstances)" (ibid., 124). I'm not sure what this means. Is the intention the object of thought, or is it the action which is thought of practically? Is Peacocke saying that one can act on intentions which are thought of in various ways, and one of those ways is action-based? In that case, we can act on intentions which are not thought of in an action-based way; in which case, being action-based has no consequences for whether or not an intention can be acted upon. What, then, does it mean to say that an intention is action-based?

Perhaps Peacocke means it the other way: The action is thought of in an action-based way. One may thus intend to perform an action which one thinks about in an action-based way, and the only way to carry out that intention is to carry out the action. However, Peacocke is not talking about what constitutes an intentional action. He is rather talking about what constitutes a practical way of thinking, and the way of thinking can be employed without carrying out the action, as when one reflects on one's abilities to perform. The pianist can think about ways of playing without actually playing. The actual carrying out of the intention to act cannot be constitutive of the way of thinking--in which case, Peacocke's view is self-contradictory.

Stanley's appeal to Heidegger is not more persuasive. Heidegger's claim is that when we use tools we engage more primordially with them. The suggestion is that our attitude becomes less intellectual or reflective and more active and procedural. The hammer, for example, is no longer an external object but a part of our own action. But again, does this show that knowing how to use a hammer requires the realization that one has this way of thinking about the hammer such that it is a good way to use the hammer? Or does knowing how to use the hammer just involve having the capacity to intelligently use the hammer, whether or not one has realized anything about one's way of using it?

In sum, the notion of practical ways of thinking is not clearly defined. It might refer only to the proprioception of motor simulations, but in that case it does not have a straightfoward connection to intelligent performance. Stanley's thesis seems to be that some intellectual reflection is necessary to turn one's practical thinking into practical knowledge, or know-how. Yet, he says no such reflection is necessary to employ one's know-how in practice. He says this because he knows that a regress argument is looming whenever such reflection is called upon. We might wonder, though, if a regress argument is still looming: If one must intellectually acknowledge one's practical way of thinking as a good way of thinking, mustn't one have a practical way of doing that? Mustn't one be skilled in the appraisal of that practical way of thinking? And so on, ad infinitum?