Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Ryle's Error

I want to further explain my misgivings about Ryle's account of knowing-how (see here).  Ryle's positive view of knowing-how is embedded in his arguments against intellectualism. As Jason Stanley noted during his "meisterkurs," these arguments are targeted against a number of different positions at the same time, and Ryle lumps them all together under the banner of "intellectualism." First there is the notion that all knowledge is knowing the answer to a question. This is the position Jason wants to defend. Ryle is also arguing against the view that the intellect is the defining feature of the mind: that to be a person is to have a mind, and to have a mind is to have an intellect, where the intellect is defined as that which considers and grasps propositions, or truths. I think Jason wants to defend this position, as well; and it may very well be entailed by the first position. Along with these views is the view that, in order to act intelligently, one must perform a unique act of grasping a proposition. Jason rejects this view, claiming that it is just manifestly absurd to think that one has to perform a unique act of engaging propositional content in order to apply one's propositional knowledge. An issue here is how we understand propositions. For Ryle, one can follow and understand rules without grasping propositions, because Ryle thinks of propositions as sentences. Jason rejects this view of propositions, and so rejects Ryle's view of propositional knowledge. While Ryle argues that the following of a rule is logically prior to the grasping of a proposition, Jason thinks these amount to the same thing. (I think there's an interesting question about whether or not rules can be considered propositions, but I won't get into it here.)


Ryle argues at the end of his 1946 paper, "Knowing How and Knowing That," that in order to know a truth one must be able to discover or establish it.  One must therefore have some rule-following capacity before one can ever have propositional knowledge.  This raises a Wittgensteinian point.  As Wittgenstein argues (in the Philosophical Investigations), there must be a way of grasping a rule which just entails acting in accordance with the rule.  We cannot suppose that the application of a rule always entails an intellectual act of interpretation, for that act would itself require another application of yet another rule, ad infinitum.  This leaves us with the problem of figuring out what it means to act in accordance with a rule.  But I don't think Wittgenstein would say that one has to establish or discover a fact before one can have propositional knowledge.  I think Wittgenstein would see that as inviting the sort of regress Ryle is trying to avoid.

Ryle says the base capacity for following a rule is a specific sort of knowledge, which he calls knowing-how. Ryle distinguishes knowing-how from knowing-that in the following way: knowing-that is a matter of abilities concerning the use of linguistic entities, such as sentences. Ryle believes that the word "proposition" denotes the same as the word "sentence," and that there are no sentence meanings apart from the meanings found in the uses of sentences. Ryle then distinguishes between two varieties of propositional knowledge. First, there is the museum-possession, which only entails single-track dispositions, such as being able to parrot or identify particular uses of sentences. Second, there is the workshop-possession of propositional knowledge, which entails being able to reason with sentences, to make proper inferences and such. The workshop-possession involves understanding, and this is knowing-how.

Ryle's analysis hinges on the distinction between single- and multi-track dispositions.  The former are what we normally associate with habits and these can be learned with "sheer drill."  The latter cannot be defined in terms of a single set of applications.  Their application requires innovation and critical thinking.  They are learned with training, not drill.  Their application involves active learning.  When we employ our skills, we develop them, expanding our knowledge-how.

Ryle's view, at least in 1946, is this: The mere museum-possession of propositional knowledge does not enable one to reason, to understand or to develop their propositional knowledge actively. It only allows for a very limited set of practical applications of that knowledge, and none of those applications are what we would call skilled.  He gives some examples of what he is talking about, such as rehearsing the multiplication tables and memorizing the alphabet.  The problem is, Wittgenstein's rule-following dilemma arises with these sorts of behaviors, and not just with the more complex ones Ryle associates with multi-track dispositions (e.g., reading a map, playing chess).  In order to exercise one's museum-possession of knowledge, one must still be able to follow rules.  Indeed, as Ryle himself argued, the most basic possession of propositional knowlege requires knowing-how.  But in that case, museum-possession requires knowing-how.  This is a contradiction, since Ryle wants the difference between museum-possession and workshop-possession to be such that the former is impoverished with respect to knowing-how.  But both varieties apparently need know-how.  The point of the distinction seems lost.  Perhaps this is why Ryle does not make the same distinction in his later work, The Concept of Mind (1949), the second chapter of which elaborates on the ideas in his 1946 paper.  Yet, the same problem appears in that 1949 work.

In The Concept of Mind, Ryle says that training involves lots of "sheer drill." Yet, at the same time, he also says that "drill dispenses with intelligence, training develops it." This means that training both develops and dispenses with intelligence. To avoid the contradiction, we might say that Ryle just misspoke, and that training doesn't really involve drill, though this seems empirically false. Training does often involve drill. So perhaps Ryle meant that only drill without training dispenses with intelligence. When drill is part of training, intelligence is developed. The problem then is how Ryle wants us to conceive of the difference between drill as part of training and drill as such.

Ryle appeals to cases where rote learning is supposed to be obviously distinguishable from active learning. He contrasts the memorization of multiplication tables or the alphabet with learning how to read maps or play chess. But, as he says, even these cases of supposedly active learning entail rote memorization. And even in the relatively simple cases of learning the multiplication tables or the alphabet, one is still susceptible to Wittgenstein's rule-following dilemma. We might suppose that, as he said back in 1946, even to learn how to follow the basic rules required for mere drill, we must use intelligence. And therefore we no longer have a coherent distinction between drill and training.

Ryle does not seem to have presented a coherent account of knowing-how. One response to this fact is to say that Ryle was never trying to do that in the first place. Ryle is not doing metaphysics. He's not an epistemologist, either. He does not commit himself to the view that knowing-how is a natural kind. This does not mean Ryle is a fictionalist about the mind. Ryle does not say we are only speaking figuratively when we talk about judgments, learning and so on. He seems to want something like what Daniel Dennett develops in his work on the intentional stance: a view of the mental idiom as a predictive strategy. Indeed, Dennett no doubt was influenced by Ryle on that count.

Ryle says that, when we attribute mental capacities we are issuing ouselves "inference tickets." We license ourselves to make various explanatory-cum-predictive assertions about people's behavior. Thus, when we call something a judgment, we are not referring to any intrinsic properties--no special features which define it as such--but rather to the way it is situated with respect to other things. Similarly, when we call a performance "intelligent," or the exercise of a skill, we are not referring to any intrinsic properties, but only to the way the performance is situated with respect to other things.

On this view, Ryle is not trying to identify a natural kind. He's just trying to map out the logical space of a particular idiom. Ryle even refers to it explicitly as an idiom. If our common sense distinction between drill and training breaks down upon closer inspection, so much the worse for the common idiom. Thus, what appears to be a contradiction in Ryle's thinking is just a contradiction in the way people normally think about human behavior.

That answer might be plausible, if it were not for the fact that Ryle's aim is a metaphysical one: to overturn the intellectualist view of minds and action. Furthermore, Ryle seems to take the distinction between rote repetition and active learning, between drill and training, as a very real one. If Ryle believes that there is no intrinsic difference between these things, then he does not believe there is an intrinsic distinction between single-track and multi-track dispositions. But Ryle seems committed to there being an intrinsic difference here. That, I think, is Ryle's greatest error. He doesn't leave himself any conceptual space to make sense of any sort of intrinsic difference. He tries to finesse the problem by saying that the difference is just in the way the performances are carried out. I don't see how this can be read, if not as an assertion about intrinsic properties of action. And, as it must be, he does not give himself room to provide a coherent account of ways.

One of Ryle's main points is that the difference between an intelligent performance and an unintelligent (or non-intelligent) one is not the occurence of some extra operations, but rather just in the way the performance is executed. This is Ryle's metaphysics of the mind: Minds are not special places or sorts of mechanical processes. They don't exist in the same logical category as causal states or events. Minds are dispositional. Thus, the difference between a mentally engaged process and a mentally inert process is not a difference in causal features, but a difference in dispositions. So, an intelligent performance cannot be distinguishable by its causal properties. We cannot locate any special operations or states which define "active learning" or "using critical judgment." We have to view these dispositionally. And yet, these dispositions are manifest in the ways people perform. So what are ways?

The intelligent actor uses critical judgment to learn as she goes. The unintelligent (or non-intelligent) performance has no critical judgment or active learning. And yet, the operations involved are supposed to be numerically and otherwise physically indistinguishable. So what constitutes active learning and critical judgment? Ryle says it's the way in which the action occurs, but that this cannot involve extra operations. It is an intrinsic property which apparently cannot be manifested in any concrete way. So the notion of ways is inevitably and utterly mysterious.

I'll sum up.

Ryle appeals to ways in order to explain the difference between merely doing something intentionally and doing it intelligently.  The assumption was that mere intentionality can be habitual--it does not require critical judgment or active learning.  Thus, it was supposed that mere intentionality is single-track.  And yet, the rule-following dilemma appears for all sorts of merely intentional behaviors, so there is no principled basis for distinguishing between single- and multi-track dispositions.  Thus, it is not clear that there is any work for the notion of ways to perform.

What we want is an explanation for what it means to be skilled, to know how to do something, and to understand whether or not this can just be a matter of knowing truths.  That was Ryle's goal, to show that one can act intelligently without grasping truths and without intellectually engaging any propositions.  But the false assumption was that engaging propositions could be single-track, as opposed to multi-track--that Wittgenstein's dilemma would only apply to intelligent, and not merely intentional, acts.  The notion of ways was employed to finesse the problem, but it was a false dilemma to begin with.  We don't need a categorical distinction between intelligence and intentionality.  At least, Ryle has not given us any reason to think we need such a distinction.  And, unfortunuately, we are still left without an account of knowing-how or its relationship to propositional knowledge.

One lesson from Ryle might be this:  that an account of knowing-how cannot rely on an unanalyzed concept of ways.  The concept of ways only begs the question, as it leaves us wondering what distinguishes the relevant ways as such.  This is a point that seems directly relevant to, for example, Jason Stanley's work towards a positive account of know-how.

I would not conclude that knowing-how must be a variety of propositional knowledge, since I'm not sure what propositions are.  Nor would I say that there is no reason to think knowing-how and knowing-that are distinct in cognitively significant ways.  Moreover, I would not conclude that Ryle has nothing interesting or important to say on the topic.  However, it is clear that Ryle has not provided a satisfying account of knowing-how or its relation to knowing-that.