Friday, June 8, 2012

Stanley on embedded questions and related topics

I've just finished the first chapter of Stanley's Know How (2011).  He ends by summarizing Ryle as follows: "According to Ryle, one knows how to do something if and only if one bears an intellectual relationship to an action type."  This is wrong in two ways.  First, Ryle does not suppose all knowing how is intellectual.  That's precisely why he frames his version of knowing how against intellectualism.  Not all intelligence is a matter of intellect.  Second, Ryle explicitly denies that knowing how can be defined in terms of particular action types.

In any case, Stanley makes a very strong argument on pages 48 to 51.  Ryle (1949) claims that the fact that we do not say "believes how to do something" is evidence for a strong type distinction between knowing how and knowing that.  Stanley observes quite persuasively that the verb "believe" does not take embedded questions, and so this is not a peculiarity of constructions involving "know" plus "how."  We do not "believe where something is" or "believe why something happens," he notes.  So, if his version of intellectualism is correct, the fact that we don't believe how to do things is only evidence of the fact that attributions of knowing how contain embedded questions.  (He does not attempt to explain why the verb "believe" does not take embedded questions.)  Furthermore, if such attributions do contain embedded questions, Stanley argues, then knowing how to do something is presumably knowing the answer to a question.  This directly contradicts Ryle's claim that knowing how to do something is not knowing the answer to a question.

This analysis also helps Stanley explain why it is we intuitively believe that there are gradations of knowing how.  What we are grading are the relative values or contents of different possible answers to embedded questions.  Not all correct answers are equal in value or content. Thus, we may grade knowing how without supposing that the knowledge itself has gradations.  This directly challenges Ryle's observation that, unlike knowing that, knowing how comes in degrees.

Stephen Hetherington (in "Good Knowledge, Bad Knowledge," 2001, as I recall) has similarly challenged Ryle's argument from gradation, arguing instead that both knowing how and knowing that come in degrees.  We can say both that a person knows how to do something very well and that a person knows very well that something is true.  But Stanley will presumably respond that such judgments are comparisons between different instances of knowledge, and not evidence of gradations in knowledge itself.  I'm not sure what kind of evidence could be found to support Stanley over Hetherington, or vice versa.  It comes down to how we conceptualize knowledge and what it would mean for knowledge to be graded.  Either way, the point against Ryle stands.

Stanley's argument on these pages is compelling.  However, as I noted a long time ago, the fact that attributions of knowing how contain embedded questions might well mean that the attributed knowledge is knowledge of an answer (or set of answers) to a question, but it does not force the conclusion that the attributed knowledge is propositional, because not all answers to questions are propositions.  Some questions can be answered with an intelligent performance, and not the recitation of a truth.  Thus, we might make room for a mention none reading of some knowledge attributions.

Furthermore, there is another linguistic difference between knowing how and knowing that which Ryle suggests, but which Stanley does not account for.  I have discussed it before (see the link in the preceding paragraph).  It is that there is an asymmetry between "How do you know how to X?" and "How do you know that Y?"  The first question asks for an account of a skill or competence.  The second asks for a justification for a belief.  If we accept the answer to the first question and the person does know how to X, and if our acceptance of the answer is justified, we do not thereby know how to X.  Yet, if we accept the answer to the second question and the person does know that Y, and our acceptance is justified, then we know that Y.  If knowing how were simply a matter of knowing that, this asymmetry should not appear.  This is a point Ryle suggested, but did not fully develop, in his (1949), when he says that we do not ask for reasons for one's know how, but only for one's knowledge that.