Friday, July 6, 2012

Post-Stanley Status and Misgivings About Ryle

I'm just 24 hours back from Jason Stanley's "meisterkurs" at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. It was phenomenal. It was great to finally meet Jason in person. He was wonderfully receptive and gracious. I didn't have time to ask him everything I wanted, but a number of important bases were covered. He was excited and good-humored and always kept me on the edge of my seat.


I was glad to see him being critical of some of the arguments in his recent book. At one point, he seemed to want to reject the idea of practical ways of thinking as a natural kind or category of cognitive capacities. He said he had never claimed they were necessary in the first place, at which point I picked up my copy of his book and turned to page 130 and read aloud: "[Practical ways of thinking] are necessary to explain the acquisition of skill on the basis of knowledge of facts, which are true propositions." Jason responded that he didn't know what he meant by that, and that he probably just meant that they might be necessary for some reason or other. Still, if he is open to them being necessary, he shouldn't want to deny that they have any categorical significance.

What he made clear is that he is still in the process of working out a full theory of knowing-how. He seems to be enjoying the work tremendously, which made the three days very inspiring. It was a chance to engage with a passionate and prodigious philosophical mind at work. Jason was not there trying to sell us his view. He was there to present and defend it, but also to expose and work through some of the problems. He was very responsive to feedback and criticism, and he encouraged people to explore alternate routes.

I haven't become any more sympathetic to his positive account of knowing-how, but I'm much more sympathetic to him as a philosopher. And I'm very impressed by his understanding of philosophy and his ability to swiftly reach across and throughout the discipline, connecting complex and abstract dots at a rapid pace.

Also, I was never "hot and bothered," as he put it, over his discussion of Ryle. I did have some notable objections, but not as many as I thought I would. His analysis of Ryle is a lot more convincing in person than in print. And he was happy to admit that his own approach is Rylean in some respects. He's very clear on just where he agrees and just where he disagrees with Ryle, and this was presented much better than in the book.

He was also clearer in his reasons for rejecting Ryle's account of knowing-how, though I didn't find his discussion persuasive. However, a casual comment over lunch by one of the participants, David Loewenstein, got me thinking. David mentioned a curious statement in Ryle which I hadn't noticed before, and which I thought couldn't be right. The point is made towards the end of Ryle's 1946 paper, "Knowing How and Knowing That," when Ryle is distinguishing between skills and habits, or, to put it another way, between training and drill. This is a crucial distinction for Ryle, and he develops it in The Concept of Mind (Chapter 2). It marks the difference between intelligence and mere intentionality.

Intelligence is supposed to involve learning as you go, with critical judgment being employed through action. Habit (or mere intentionality, as we might call it) just entails doing exactly what you have learned to do before. But what Ryle says is that skill actually contains habit, and that a lot of sheer drill is embodied in training. That might seem fine, except for the fact that Ryle denies that the intelligent performance has any more components than the merely intentional one. The difference between an intelligent operation and one executed by mere habit is not that there are additional acts or movements, but just that one is performed in a certain way. But if that way does not include extra acts or movements, then what is it? If we can't say what it is, then we haven't got a coherent account of knowing-how.

One defense of Ryle which I've relied on in the past is this: He is not doing epistemology or metaphysics. He's not trying to find a metaphysically coherent picture of ways. All he wants to do is explore the logic of our psychological (and folk-psychological) ways of talking about minds and intelligence. He does not suppose that psychologists (and folk psychologists) are carving nature at the joints, or even trying to. We should not suppose that Ryle is taking knowing-how to be a natural kind. It is not a categorical state. Thus, if Ryle seems to fail at giving a coherent positive account of a metaphysical or epistemological category, that's fine, because he's not doing metaphysics or epistemology. He's doing ordinary language philosophy.

Unfortunately, this does not fully protect Ryle from criticism. It does seem that he is trying to say something about how people behave--he does seem to think that there is a real difference between the way a person behaves when they are performing intelligently and the way a person behaves when they are acting out of mere habit. The intelligent performance involves active learning:  The performer learns as she goes.  The person acting out of habit does not.  And Ryle is clear that no extra mental activity is going on behind the scenes.  Ryle does have a metaphysical view of the mind and he doesn't think our talk of know-how is wrong or a fiction. He is indicating a real distinction between active learning and rote repetition.  But Ryle does not give us a coherent way of making sense of the difference.  He does not make sense of the ways involved in manifesting know-how. So it's hard to see him as offering a coherent account of knowing-how.

I do think Ryle's discussion of knowing-how and knowing-that is important and I think he exposes a lot of the problems and issues that a theory of the mind and intelligence will have to negotiate. But, alas, I have serious problems with Ryle's positive account of knowledge (knowledge-that as well as knowledge-how). And I have problems with Jason's, too. So there's work to be done.