Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"What are you doing?" and other idioms

Interesting philosophical issues can arise when we investigate what it is we know or perceive about our actions while we are acting intentionally.  It should probably go without saying that, when we are acting intelligently, we know what we are doing, at least to some extent and in some sense of the verb, "to know."  I'm going to try to motivate the thesis that what we know is not obviously propositional in nature.

Consider the following question:

(1) What is she doing?
It goes without saying that, in many normal situations, a proper response to (1) is a description or identification of an action.  However, (1) has an idiomatic usage.  It can be used to communicate fear or anxiety about what somebody is doing.  It can communicate a desire for an explanation for an action.  Context usually makes it clear which usage is intended.

Now consider what happens when (1) is embedded in the following knowledge ascription:
(2) She knows what she is doing.
It's possible to use (2) to say of one person that she knows what another person is doing.  However, I want to consider the case in which we are stating of a person that she knows what she herself is doing.  In this case, we would interpret the ascription differently.  That is, we would not take it as a statement that a person who is doing something knows that they are doing it.  We would more normally take it as an ascription of another kind:  That the person has a good reason for doing what they are doing or, more, that their performance can be trusted.  This relates to the second, idiomatic meaning associated with (1), and not the literal meaning we might have expected.

A doctor is operating on a patient and an attending nurse cries out, "What are you doing?"  The doctor responds:  "I am about to make an incision here." The nurse says, "But that's the wrong spot."  The doctor responds, "I know what I'm doing."

The doctor knows what she is doing, which is not to say that she knows that she is about to make an incision in a particular spot.  It is to say that she is competent in what she is doing.  She is expressing confidence in her ability to perform properly, and not her knowledge that she is doing what she is doing.

The most natural reading of (2), when used to attribute a person's attitude towards their own person, is as I have outlined, or so I contend.  The logical conclusion is that natural readings of some knowlege ascriptions relate to idiomatic uses of their embedded questions.  Sentences like (2) indicate limits to the application of compositional semantics of embedded questions.  If my argument is correct, then we can conclude the following:  Not all knowledge ascriptions are properly analyzed by a compositional semantics of embedded questions.

I'm particularly curious about how this might have implications for ascriptions of knowledge how.  The well-known folk distinction between factual knowlege and practical knowledge is controversial.  Yet, the distinction is reflected in the idiomatic noun phrase, "know how."  It may well be that, thanks to this idiom, popular attributions of knowledge how resist a compositional semantic analysis.  On the other hand, it might be that the idiomatic noun phrase, "know how," is a natural result of the meaning of ordinary attributions of knowledge how.

Let's go back to the beginning for a moment.  Perhaps the natural reading of (2) is not the result of an idiomatic usage of questions like (1).  Perhaps the idiomatic use of (1) is a result of the natural reading of (2).  Thus, people might say "What are you doing?" to express concern because statements like "I know what I'm doing" express confidence in one's performance, and not the other way around.  Similarly, perhaps "know how" is a popular idiom expressing non-propositional competence because statements like "He knows how to ride a bike" express that sort of competence, and not knowledge of a natural answer to the question, "How could you ride a bike?"

Consider the following scenario:  Sam is told not to ride a bike, but disobeys the command.  Sam's parent is angry, and asks , "How could you ride a bike?"  The question is not asking for information about a way to ride a bicycle.  It is asking for a reason for one's having ridden a bicycle while also expressing condemnation of the act.  This idiomatic usage, however, does not show up in knowledge how ascriptions.  We do not use "I know how to ride a bike" to express that one has ridden for a morally proper reason.  However, we do use it to express that we have abilities required to ride a bicycle.  Yet, we would not use "How could you ride a bicycle?" to ask if somebody had the skill required to ride a bicycle.  The relationship between idioms, natural uses and embedded questions is neither simple nor obvious.

Is "I know how to ride a bicycle" naturally used to express knowledge of a w such that w is a way for one to ride a bicycle?  Or is it naturally used to express that one has the abilities required to ride a bicycle?  These questions are irrespective of whether or not such abilities count as a legitimate knowledge state and, if so, whether or not that state is propositional.  The point is that the use of know-how and other knowledge ascriptions do not clearly follow a compositional semantic analysis of emebedded questions, and it is not obvious what the natural, as opposed to the idiomatic, reading should be.