Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ryle and Wittgenstein on Intentionality

I want to clarify and expand on a point I recently raised against Ryle. A friend has suggested that I moved a little too quickly through the points, especially concerning the relevance of Wittgenstein, so I'll try to make it a bit more cogent. I'll draw some connections to Dennett, Millikan and Kripke in the process. It begins with Ryle's distinction between museum-possession and workshop-possession of factual knowledge (see Ryle, "Knowing How and Knowing That," 1946).

Let MUSEUM(p) = museum-possession of knowledge that p.
Let WORKSHOP(p) = workshop-possession of knowledge that p.

Ryle claims that MUSEUM(p) is impoverished with respect to knowing-how, where "knowing how" is a general term for intelligence associated with the application or expression of knowledge. In order to intelligently exploit one's propositional knowledge that p, one needs WORKSHOP(p). Ryle is also clear that, in order to know that p, one must establish or derive the fact that p.

Ryle frames the distinction as one between single- and multi-track functions. MUSEUM(p) involves single-track functions, which means that its employment is highly repetitive. When you employ MUSEUM(p), you do the same as you have always done before. When you employ WORKSHOP(p), however, you are being more creative; you are following the rules in new ways peculiar to your circumstances. WORKSHOP(p) alone is associated with multi-track functions. Intelligence is not a single-track function, according to Ryle.

If we consider the examples Ryle gives of single-track functions--a seal performing tricks, a clock telling the right time--we don't get a cogent picture of what is involved. Clocks don't know anything. Seals might, but it's not clear that they lack intelligence or that their performances are not multi-track. Ryle also mentions parrots, and even uses the example of a person who dutifully recites the rules of chess but does not know how to play. Yet, parrots do not know the facts they recite. They simply repeat sounds. So we shouldn't say a parrot has MUSEUM(p). Similarly, imagine a person who can repeat the sounds we identify as sentences which state the rules of chess, but who does not understand what those sentences mean. That person does not have MUSEUM(p), since that person has not derived or established any facts. They have only learned to repeat sounds they don't understand. If, on the other hand, they do understand what they are saying, then they must have some intelligent way of applying their understanding. Knowing the rules of chess does involve some understanding of those rules, and understanding implies intelligence. Ryle says as much at the end of his 1946 paper, "Knowing How and Knowing That," just at the spot where he makes the museum/workshop distinction. He says that if a person cannot intelligently exploit their knowledge of a fact, then they don't really know the fact. So MUSEUM(p) is not really knowledge at all. It therefore appears that Ryle's museum/workshop distinction is inconsistent.

The problem relates to a more general issue concerning intentionality and rule-following that Wittgenstein brings out in Philosophical Investigations. A rule-following dilemma occurs whenever we try to define an action as "doing the same as before." Situations are never exactly the same as before, and any rule can always have multiple interpretations. Thus, we cannot deduce any single-track function merely by looking at the rule in question. To apply a rule is to act intentionally and this means following how the rule is to be applied in particular cases, but that application cannot be contained in the rule itself. Wittgenstein concludes that not every act of following a rule requires an act of interpretation, because acts of interpretation are themselves instances of following rules. So intentionality at some point bottoms out in the mere fact that one acts in accordance with a rule. But what counts as acting in accordance with a rule if any action can be made to conform to the rule? Wittgenstein says it's just our way of life. That our understanding depends on our doing things a certain way, and that if we didn't have this shared way of doing things, we would never be able to communicate or talk about rules in the first place. Dennett and Millikan, for example, have developed this view, arguing that intentionality ultimately comes down to free-floating rationales (Dennett) or biological purposiveness (Millikan) which are the result of evolutionary mechanisms.

The perhaps startling result of this approach is that there is no unshakable reason for ever saying that an action is or is not in accordance with a rule. There is just a point at which questioning the application of rules becomes too annoying or tedious to warrant attention. It's not that rule-following is completely arbitrary or a matter of social convention. It's that we just live with certain ways of doing things, and there are no rules for us to follow apart from what emerges naturally from our way of life.

I think this approach is more or less correct. The alternative would be to say that all intentionality is an illusion or a fiction, and that there is no such thing as following a rule. If that is your attitude, then Ryle's museum/workshop distinction certainly falls apart, since it depends on there being a distinction between single- and multi-track ways of following rules. But why should we abandon the notion of intentionality, or try to claim it as a useful fiction?

It's not that there are no facts about whether or not we are following a rule in the same way we have followed it before. It's not that rule-following is just a matter of social convention. (In other words, I strongly disagree with Kripke on Wittgenstein; see here for a descending trilogy of posts on that topic.) We should resist the temptation to say that intentional behavior is just acting systematically according to some function. That would throw the net far too wide. And we should not say that intentional behavior just is the behavior of certain sorts of organisms which act with purposiveness or goal-orientation. That would beg the question, since we need to define "purposiveness" and "goal-orientation" with reference to intentionality.

Intentional action is behavior in which an organism takes up their own goals as such. To act intentionally is not just to have a way of doing something, but to act with an intentional attitude towards one's way of doing it. This requires learning how to adjust one's behavior through action. There is thus no principled distinction between an organism which acts intentionally "in the same way as before" and one which applies rules in different ways depending on the situation. There is no intentional application of a rule that does not involve learning how to apply it in a novel situation. We can distinguish between degrees or depth of learning, but that's it. There is no categorical distinction between applying a rule and applying it intelligently. So there is no such thing as a single-track function, when we are talking about intentional behavior.

To make this clearer, we can look at Ryle's examples again. A functional clock does not intend to tell the right time. We might say it exhibits derived intentionality, in that it exhibits the intentions of the clock-maker. The clock does not act, but carries out the action of its maker. A well-trained seal, however, might be said to act intentionally, but in this case, it is because the seal applies rules in novel situations. The seal, unlike the clock, is capable of learning how to follow rules. That is the mark of intelligence.

There is a separate issue about whether or not intentional action requires a representation of one's goals as such. There is a difference between having an intentional attitude towards one's goals and having a representation of one's goals. So the view I am advocating does not necessarily amount to propositionalism. I am not claiming that all intentional attitudes involve relations between persons and propositions, if we take "proposition" to indicate some kind of (re)presentation of facts. Jason Stanley would here warn against confusing representationalism with propositionalism. He holds that all intentional attitudes involve relations between persons and propositions, but that such relations need not be representational. My question for Jason is, what is a proposition, if not a linguistic or otherwise symbolic presentation of a fact?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Foreseeable Future

Just a word about my current doings and posting plans.

I want to write a lot more about my views on Rylean interpretation and related issues in current discussions of knowing-how.  However, most of that will just consist of synthesizing a lot of what I've already posted about Ryle, though I do need to spell out more clearly where I agree and where I disagree with Ryle.  I'm going to have to distance myself from a number of my previous defenses of Ryle, but I think many of them (perhaps most of them) are still worth standing behind.  Hopefully I'll be able to present a clearer picture of where Ryle went wrong, why he went wrong, and how this all might be relevant to current debates about the nature of the mind, intelligence and knowledge.  That sounds more like a book than a series of blog posts.  We'll see what I have time for.

I'm more likely to post about other things in the coming months.  I'm currently finishing my masters thesis, which is on EU regulations and court decisions pertaining to the use of religious symbols in public spaces.  It's all very interesting and I'll want to share some of my thoughts, arguments and questions here, if and when I have time.

I'm also reading Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita for the first time, and I'll be teaching it in my IB Language and Literature class starting in September.  So I might have some observations or whatnot to share on that.  (I'll be teaching A Clockwork Orange, too, though I've read that one already--a long, long time ago--and I'm not expecting to write anything about it here. This is the second year of a two-year course.  We read King Lear, Persepolis, In Cold Blood and The Remains of the Day in the first year.  This is the first time I've taught the course, and while I enjoyed teaching all of those books, I doubt I'll choose to teach them all again.  The only one I am sure I do want to teach again is The Remains of the Day. I'd love to teach Lear again, but not at the high school level.)

Otherwise, I'm still playing piano and hope to have some more music online soon.  I created a playlist on YouTube with all of my uploaded recordings, including some I haven't mentioned here before:



Oh yeah, and I've been pressed by Ted Drange (in an email exchange) to defend my view that omniscience (as "knowing all of the facts" in an unqualified sense of "all"--meaning, not just all of the relevant facts and not just enough of the facts, but all of the facts, period) is not a logically coherent concept.  I want to give at least a semi-formal argument, so I'll post it here whenever I have the time to produce it.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Musical Interlude: "Serenity Junction" and the ghost of McCoy Tyner

I often qualify the music I post online, saying I'm still rusty, that it works well enough despite the imperfections, and so on.  Not this time.  I'm completely happy with these two recordings.  (Actually, I don't have any problems with the last one I posted, either.)

These were both recorded on the same day.  The first is an improvisation which develops into something meant to conjure the spirit of McCoy Tyner:



Second, an original composition I'm calling "Serenity Junction":



If you're paying attention, you'll notice that the first recording is actually based on the opening of "Serenity Junction."

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.

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.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Musical Interlude: Improvisation - "Blue Summer"


A recent piano improvisation.  The mood is mellow and reflective: