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The Question Of Know How

(Last Updated On: July 15, 2019)

Some will expect that an account of ability would also be an account of what it is to know how to perform an action, on the supposition that one knows how to perform a certain action just in case one has the ability to perform that action. This supposition, which we may call the Rylean account of know how (since it is most explicitly defended in Ryle 1949, 25–61), has been called into question in an influential discussion by Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson (Stanley and Williamson 2001). Let us briefly consider Stanley and Williamson’s argument and how it bears on the theory of ability.

Stanley and Williamson argue, on broadly linguistic grounds, that our default view of know how ought to be rather different from Ryle’s. Part of the argument for this is that standard treatments of embedded questions (‘know who’, ‘know where’, and so forth; see Karttunen 1977) suggest a rather different treatment. On this treatment, to know how to A is to know a certain proposition. At first pass, in Stanley and Williamson’s presentation, for S to know how to A is for S to know, of some contextually relevant way of acting w, that w is a way for S to

A. Stanley and Williamson develop and defend such a treatment, and offer independent considerations for rejecting Ryle’s own arguments for the Rylean view. On their view, then, to know how to A is not to have an ability.

Stanley and Williamson’s arguments are far from widely accepted (see Noë 2005), but they tell at the very least against simply assuming that an account of ability will also be an account of know how. So we will leave questions of know how to one side in what follows. It is also reasonable to hope that an account of ability, while it may not simply be an account of know how, will at least shed light on disputes about know how. For so long as we lack a theory of what an ability is, the precise content of the Rylean view (and of its denial) remains unclear. So it may be that getting clear on abilities may help us, perhaps indirectly, to get clear on know how as well.

There has been far too much work on the topic of know how in the last several years to adequately review it here. Among those works that bear mentioning are Jason Stanley’s book-length development of his and Williamson’s initial position (Stanley 2011), as well as the papers collected in (Bengson and Moffett 2011). Interested readers are encouraged to consult the entry on knowledge-how .

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