, , , ,

By David Jenkins

My work on the a priori has recently led me to start looking at the literature on knowledge-how. The connections might start to become apparent as we go. The central questions here regard the nature of knowledge-how and its relation to knowledge-that—to propositional knowledge. There are two dominant views. Intellectualists have it that knowledge-how is a species of knowledge-that. Dispositionalists have it that knowledge-how is a kind of its own to be captured in terms of dispositions or abilities. I’ve become convinced that intellectualism, as stated, is false. Knowledge-how is not a species of propositional knowledge. I’m just going to assume that here. Instead I’m going to say why I think dispositionalism is problematic and gesture at another view.

Dispositionalists get into trouble given their claim that knowing how to do something just is to have some complex of dispositions. If complexes of dispositions are to be constitutive of knowledge-how, Ryle realises, they will need to be “indefinitely heterogeneous” (1949, p. 42). This is how—contra Stanley and Williamson (2001, p. 416)—dispositionalists can allow that a ski instructor can know how to do a trick that she is unable to perform. She may not be disposed to perform the trick. Still, she may be disposed to informatively explain how to do the trick in such-and-such a way, to accurately imagine performing it thus-and-so, … . Such a complex of dispositions can constitute the ski instructor’s know-how. However, the problem now is that if knowledge-how is understood in this way it becomes no good for explaining our capacities to achieve things. An object’s being roundexplains its being disposed to roll, to leave round impression, to fit snugly through round holes, … . If instead we say that its being round just is its having this indefinite complex of dispositions then its being so disposed cannot be explained by its being round. Similarly our skier’s knowing how to do a trick explains her being disposed to informatively explain how to and to accurately imagine performing it. If we instead say, with the dispositionalist, that her knowing how just is her having such dispositions then her being so disposed cannot be explained by her know-how as it should be.

It instead looks like knowledge-how needs to be constituted by states which are apt to guide action and to be active in bringing about behaviour. By playing such a role knowledge-how would be apt to explain our dispositions. What could play such a role except knowledge-that as the intellectualist has it? Bengson and Moffett (2011) attempt to deliver here by suggesting that “conceptions” are constitutive of knowledge-how. Conceptions are contentful mental states which we are not conscious of (they are subdoxastic states) and are apt to guide action. But if having conceptions is constitutive of someone’s knowing how to do a trick what one Earth is their content? Bengson and Moffett, understandably, don’t have anything to say on this matter.

It seems like knowledge of how to do a trick would be a bad place to start anyway. A vast amount of knowledge-how will be involved such as the knowledge-how it takes children a long time to acquire: how to control one’s limbs and navigate one’s environment. There is a much simpler case of interest to me: inference. Knowing how to do tricks facilitates skiers’ doing so. Similarly knowing how to infer facilitates our transmitting warrant with inferences and coming to know the consequences of our suppositions. Being warranted to employ an inference such that one can transmit warrant with it is to have a kind of knowledge-how. What the content of the relevant conceptions in such cases might be is still hard to say. Peacocke (2003) has it that the conceptions which guide our inferences are those that are constitutive of our possessing the concepts involved. He gives these a definition-like structure. Possession of chair, he suggests, is constituted by possession of a conception with content that x is a chair iff x has a back; has a seat; … . But if conceptions need to be such definition-like states to play the guiding role in question then they will rarely be plausible posits. Fortunately it seems like we needn’t go so far. What follows is a toy example of how things might go instead.

Suppose that some subdoxastic state of mine associates ‘scarlet’ with some remembered or imagined paradigm scarlet things and some similarity considerations. This state is what (usually) determines whether ‘scarlet’ seems to apply in a case and thereby looks apt to explain my largely correct use of ‘scarlet’. The state makes attribution of the concept scarlet look appropriate and is thus plausibly constitutive of my possessing the concept. The same goes for red. (This isn’t completely speculative—it’s rather borrowing from one approach to concept possession in cognitive science: prototype theory). These states also look apt to secure warranted inference and thus to be a constitutive of knowledge-how to infer. Suppose I believe that a is scarlet and consider whether a is red. a will subdoxastically have been taken to be like my scarlet paradigms, all of which will be red, and thus the conception constitutive of red possession could make it seem like a must be also red. This could bring about the inference from a’s being scarlet to a’s being red. If it does this it could do so in a way that is pretty reliable. You might think more is required for the inference to be one I transmit warrant with. I might need some conscious appreciation of the inference’s legitimacy. But there is scope to accommodate this on the view in question too. The subdoxastic states which bring about the inference could make it seem appropriate. Such seemings, when appropriately caused by states constitutive of concept possession, look apt to amount to conscious appreciation of the force or legitimacy of my inference.

I’ve presented a speculative and simplified sketch of how a conception could bring about warrant transmitting inference—a phenomenon I take to be an instance of exhibition of knowledge-how. On this sketch knowledge-how isn’t a species of knowledge-that. But we can see nonetheless see how knowledge-how is apt to bring about intelligent action and thus to explain our being disposed to exhibit it. Knowledge-how is constituted by contentful subdoxastic states apt to explain its manifestations.


Bengson, J., & Moffett, M. A. (2011). Nonpropositional Intellectualism. In J. Bengson & M. A. Moffett (Eds.), Knowing How (pp. 161–195). Oxford University Press.

Peacocke, C. (2003). Implicit Conceptions, Understanding, and Rationality. In M. Hahn & B. Ramberg (Eds.), Reflections and Replies: Essays on the Philosophy of Tyler Burge (pp. 117–152). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Stanley, J., & Williamson, T. (2001). Knowing How. Journal of Philosophy, 98(8), 411–444.

Copyright © David Russell Jenkins