If an argument can be reconstructed in at least two different ways, then which reconstruction is to be preferred? In this paper I address this problem of argument reconstruction in terms of Ryle’s infinite regress argument against the view that knowledge-how requires knowledge-that. First, I demonstrate that Ryle’s initial statement of the argument does not fix its reconstruction as it admits two, structurally different reconstructions. On the basis of this case and infinite regress arguments generally, I defend a revisionary take on argument reconstruction: argument reconstruction is mainly to be ruled by charity (viz. by general criteria which arguments have to fulfil in order to be good arguments) rather than interpretation.
KeywordsInfinite regress Argument Reconstruction Charity Interpretation
One text, several reconstructions. The problem of argument reconstruction is just this: If a single argument admits more than one reconstruction, then which reconstruction is to be preferred? Or is the relevant text to say several things at once?
The basic idea is as follows. Suppose I want to perform an action. For example, I want to write a paper. Yet, I do not want to write a paper in any way whatever. I want to write in an intelligent way, viz. in such a way that I employ knowledge of how to do such things. Now suppose, as the so-called intellectualist legend says, that knowledge-how involves knowledge-that. In that case, if I want to employ knowledge of how to write a paper, I have to apply knowledge that papers are to be written in such-and-such a way (e.g. that they are to be clear, thoughtful, convincing, etc.). That is, I have to apply knowledge with propositional content. However, applying knowledge with propositional content is itself an action that is to be performed intelligently. Hence, by the intellectualist thesis, I have to apply knowledge that (applying knowledge that papers are to be written in such-and-such a way) is to be applied in such-and-such a way. This lands us in an infinite regress. Conclusion: The intellectualist legend entails an absurd regress and so is to be rejected. Alternatively: If I want to perform an intelligent action, I should not consequently apply knowledge-that.
The crucial objection to the intellectualist legend is this. The consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid. But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle. (1949: 30).
Ryle’s argument received recent interest by Stanley and Williamson (2001), Hetherington (2006), Williams (2008), Fantle (2011), among others. Here is an important disclaimer: I will leave the problem of argument evaluation unaddressed. So, I will say nothing on whether the argument is in fact sound and its conclusion true. All I will be concerned with is reconstruction. Still, what I will say does have implications for argument evaluation: as soon as we know what kind of premises and inferences are part of the argument, we know what kind of premises and inferences are to be evaluated.
If you do not respect these rules, then there is simply nothing that you are reconstructing. You would just be constructing and setting out your own argument. However, even if these rules are necessary, it is uncontroversial to say that the Interpretation Rules alone do not always suffice. By these rules you get paraphrased texts at best, viz. texts in which complex terms and constructions are replaced with simpler or clearer terms and constructions. Yet, if the original statement of the argument is rather implicit, i.e. if many premises and inferences are suppressed, then more is needed. This is exactly the case for infinite regress arguments (henceforth IRAs). As Gratton observes:
Interpretation Rule I. One should try to capture the original statement of the argument.
Interpretation Rule II. One should try to capture the context in which the argument appears (the rest of the text or conversational setting, the author’s intentions, the background literature, etc.).
To make these gaps explicit, at least two extra rules are needed1:
The typical presentation of infinite regress arguments throughout history is so succinct and has so many gaps it is often unclear how an infinite regress is derived, or why an infinite regress is logically problematic. (2010: xi).
Without these rules in place, it would be possible to say of almost any IRA in the literature that it is invalid (and thus unsound) as, thanks to their gaps, their conclusions do not follow from their premises. Such claims are however uninteresting. The point is not whether an argument, as actually stated by someone in a particular context, is valid and sound, but whether there is a way in which it can be valid and sound. I have to say much more on this the later on in the paper (Sect. 4). Still, I would like to be explicit about the assumed aim of argument reconstruction from the very start. To reconstruct an argument, I will say, is not just to interpret and get people’s intentions right. It is also, and primarily, to do justice to the subject matter at hand, and to see what an argument can, rather than does or had to, establish. Or again: argument reconstruction is to be used to further our inquiries (and not just to learn something about the arguers, viz. inquirers). The role of the Charity Rules just listed is to be seen from this perspective.3
Charity Rule I. If needed, one should enforce the argument (i.e. modify or supply premises and inferences) such that it becomes valid.2
Charity Rule II. If possible, one should weaken the premises (i.e. make them less controversial and true) in such a way that the argument becomes sound.
Also, it is worth pointing out that the rules are stated as plain commands. They can alternatively be formulated as decision principles: ‘For any set of reconstructions of a single argument, one should choose the reconstruction which is the strongest and yet the least controversial’. I have disregarded this option, because, as I will show later, it need not always be the case that one of the reconstructions is to be selected (rather than another). Sometimes both reconstructions are valuable.
In the following I hope to show in a very specific way that the application of the Charity Rules (however formulated) is a somewhat delicate enterprise. In particular, I will present two reconstructions of Ryle’s text cited above, and generalize the difference for IRAs in general (Sect. 2). With this result at our disposal, I address the problem of argument reconstruction: If an IRA admits more than one reconstruction, then which reconstruction is to be preferred? Eventually, I will take up a revisionary take on argument reconstruction and defend that Charity rather than Interpretation is to rule how to proceed in case of such reconstruction problems (Sects. 3, 4).
2 Two Reconstructions of Ryle’s IRA
In this section I will set out two reconstructions of Ryle’s IRA. I would like to stress that their difference will not merely lie in the content of their premises. I am well aware that important qualifications can be made in this respect. However, my point here is that Ryle’s argument admits two reconstructions which differ not just content-wise, but structurally. That is, the premises and inferences of Ryle’s argument can take different forms. Particularly, both reconstructions will be instances of different argument schemas that have been developed in the meta-debate on IRAs: the Paradox and Failure Schemas (these are my labels and will be explained below). Both schemas have valid instances and for details and references I have to refer the reader to the "Appendix". Please note that in order to discuss the problem of argument reconstruction, I could have used a valid reconstruction as opposed to an invalid one as well. Nevertheless, the problem is more pressing with two valid reconstructions. Here is the first:
Ryle’s IRA (Paradox Schema Instance)
For any action x, one intelligently performs x only if one employs knowledge that x is to be performed in such-and-such a way.
For any action x, one employs knowledge that x is to be performed in such-and-such a way only if one intelligently contemplates the proposition that x is to be performed in such-and-such a way.
You perform at least one intelligent action.
You perform an infinity of intelligent actions (1–3).
You cannot perform an infinity of intelligent actions.
~(1): It is not the case that for any action x, one intelligently performs x only if one employs knowledge that x is to be performed in such-and-such a way (1–5).
(1) and (2) could be integrated into one line in order to simplify the derivation of the regress (cf. Gratton 2010: 3, 193). Yet, on the basis of one line it is hardly possible to capture the context of the argument (and we are to account for this by Interpretation Rule II). In this case the context is the discussion whether knowledge-how requires or involves knowledge-that. Moreover, if we take one rather than two lines, then we may lose interesting parts of the dialectic. That is, someone who is ready to accept/reject (1), need not accept/reject (2), or vice versa. The number of lines can also be multiplied. For example, Stanley and Williamson (2001: 413–414) appeal to three of them.4 Schematically speaking, the number of lines does not matter, as long as the conjunction of (1) and (2) can be paraphrased as a universally quantified statement of the form ‘For all items x of type i, x is F only if there is another item y of type i that is F’.
Next the second reconstruction:
Ryle’s IRA (Failure Schema Instance)
You have to intelligently perform at least one action.
For any action x, if you have to intelligently perform x, you employ knowledge that x is to be performed in such-and-such a way.
For any action x, if you employ knowledge that x is to be performed in such-and-such a way, then you do not intelligently perform x unless you intelligently contemplate the proposition that x is to be performed in such-and-such a way first.
For any action x, there is always yet another intelligent action to be performed first, viz. before performing x (1–3).
If you employ knowledge that x is to be performed in such-and-such a way anytime you have to intelligently perform an action x, then you never perform any intelligent action (1–4).
Line (1) is a problem stated as a task in the form of ‘You have to φ at least one item of type i’, line (2) is a proposed solution to this problem stated as a strategy of the form ‘For any item x of type i, if you have to φ x, then you ψ x’. The rationale of such Failure arguments is that the solution proposed in line (2) fails to solve the problem reported in (1) because it gets stuck in a regress (hence the label ‘failure’). In Ryle’s case: If you consequently apply knowledge-that, then you never perform any intelligent action thanks to a regress of intelligent actions. Furthermore, if you still want to perform an intelligent action, then you should not consequently apply knowledge-that and have to find another solution to do it.5
So, the two reconstructions prove different things. The rationale of Paradox arguments, by contrast, is that certain statements cannot hold all at once, i.e. that one of them is to be rejected, because they jointly lead, via a regress, to contradiction (hence the label ‘paradox’). In Ryle’s case, the intellectualist thesis is rejected and shown to be false: It is not the case that, for all actions x, one intelligently performs x only if one employs knowledge-that. It is worth stressing that, in contrast to Paradox arguments, Failure arguments are not about rejections, not even the rejection of solutions. More precisely, they do not prove that a solution is false (i.e. they do not prove the negation of line (2)), but that it is unsuccessful for solving a given problem, and that another solution be found.6
This supports the Paradox conclusion because it suggests the rejection of a universally quantified statement. By contrast, the following two texts support the failure conclusion as they suggest that the given task (viz. to perform an intelligent action) will never be accomplished by the strategy at hand:
The regress is infinite, and this reduces to absurdity the theory that for an operation to be intelligent it must be steered by a prior intellectual process. (1949: 32).
So no rational performance could ever begun. (1945: 10).
In the following I will generalize the difference between the Paradox and Failure version of Ryle’s IRA. I have selected four other cases to illustrate this: one IRA by Sextus Empiricus (1996) (Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book 1, §15), one by Juvenal (1992) (Satire 6), one by Carroll (1895), and one by Sorensen (1995) and Sider (1995). All these cases can be reconstructed along the lines of both the Paradox and Failure Schema (for two full applications, cf. Wieland 2011). Here are the corresponding conclusions respectively:
But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle. (1949: 30).7
It is not the case that for any proposition x, x is justified only if x there is another proposition that is a reason for x.
It is not the case that for any person x, x is reliable only if x is guarded by a guardian.
It is not the case that for any set of premises x, a conclusion follows logically from x only if x contains the additional premise ‘if the members of x are true, then the conclusion is true’.
It is not the case that for any action x, one is obliged to do x only if one can know that one is obliged to do x.
If you provide a reason for x anytime you have to justify a proposition x, then you never justify any proposition.
If you hire a guardian for x anytime you should have someone x guarded, then you never have your girlfriend guarded.
If you appeal to an additional premise ‘if the foregoing premises are true, the conclusion must be true’ anytime you have to demonstrate that we are forced to accept a conclusion, then you never demonstrate that we are forced to accept any conclusion.
If you appeal to an obligation not to make it impossible to know one’s obligation x anytime you have to secure x, then you never secure any obligation.
All these positions have their proponents in the meta-literature on IRAs. Prominent Paradox-Monists are Black (1996) and Gratton (1997, 2010). A prominent Failure-Monist, and one of the main initiators of the whole debate, is Passmore (1961). Prominent Pluralists are Schlesinger (1983), Sanford (1984) and Day (1986, 1987). Logically speaking, there is also a fourth position possible, namely a variety of Pluralism which says: One should always use both the Paradox and Failure Schema to reconstruct an IRA. I have not found any proponent of this in the literature, but my own position comes closest, as we will see in the next section.
Paradox-Monism. One should always use the Paradox Schema to reconstruct an IRA.
Failure-Monism. One should always use the Failure Schema to reconstruct an IRA.
Pluralism. One should sometimes use the Paradox Schema to reconstruct an IRA, and sometimes the Failure Schema.
On first sight, Pluralism appears attractive because it takes into account the reconstructor’s purposes, viz. what she wants to do with the argument. Is she interested in a Paradox conclusion, or a Failure conclusion? I think this should indeed be accounted for, but will argue that it need not give you Pluralism as long as the purposes are always Failure-purposes (for example). This will be the topic of the next section.
3 Comparison Paradox Versus Failure Arguments
The conclusions of Failure arguments are stronger, as they admit fewer options for resistance.
The conclusion of Failure arguments is automatically relevant, and this need not be the case for Paradox arguments.
The hypothesized solution of Failure arguments is automatically motivated, and this need not be the case for Paradox arguments.
Dialectic Paradox arguments
(1) Hypothesis for reductio
B defends this
B defends this
(4) Infinite regress
B infers this from (1)–(3)
B defends this
B infers this from (1)–(5)
Dialectic Failure arguments
A wants to solve this
B defends this
(4) Infinite regress
B infers this from (1)–(3)
B infers this from (1)–(4)
In both cases, B, the person who devises the IRA, does all the work. For B to defend something is not to show that she herself holds it, but to show that A should be prepared to concede it. A, in turn, can try to resist B’s reasoning at each of these steps. Let me briefly go through the options. In case of Paradox arguments, A has four options for resistance: she may argue that (1) does not in fact belong to her beliefs (or at any rate in its fully universally quantified version), defend the same for (2), reject (3), or deny the extra premise (5). In case of Failure arguments, A has but three options: she may deny that the given problem is something to be solved in the first place, she may reject that the solution is something she had proposed (or at least in its fully universally quantified version), she could deny (3), and this is it.8
The important difference is that in case of Paradox arguments, B needs to defend an extra premise after the regress (in Ryle’s case, this is the assumption that I cannot perform an infinity of intelligent actions). There is no such extra step in case of Failure arguments (in Ryle’s case, you just never perform an intelligent action, whether you can perform an infinity of them or not). This difference implies that the conclusions of Failure arguments are stronger than their Paradox-counterparts, as they admit fewer options for resistance. This point should not be underestimated, for if the extra premise after the regress in case of Paradox arguments fails to hold, then nothing is to be rejected. In Ryle’s case this possibility may not appear very promising (for in that case you have to explain how one is able to perform an infinity of intelligent actions), but in other cases this is not immediately clear. It has been challenged, for instance, that there cannot be an infinity of propositions which justify one another (to cite a well-known regress, cf. Klein 1999; Peijnenburg 2010).
The question is: so what? Well, you now know that the universally quantified statement does not hold (although its existentially quantified counterpart can still hold). One case where this is interesting is the IRA from Sorensen (1995) and Sider (1995). They are explicitly concerned about the question whether the Access principle holds unrestrictedly, i.e. the principle that says that you are obliged to do something only if you can know this obligation. In that case it is interesting to find out that the principle does not always hold.
It is not the case that, for all items x of type i, x is F only if such-and-such (e.g. there is another item y of type i and x and y stand in R).
Still, in many cases this sort of conclusion is not relevant, and does not make any difference to a certain debate. For example, it is uninteresting to find out that it is not the case that for any person x, x is reliable only if x is guarded by a guardian (also given that this may still hold for some persons), or that it is not the case that for any set of premises x, a conclusion follows logically from x only if x contains the additional premise ‘if the members of x are true, then the conclusion is true’ (also given that this may still hold for some sets of premises).
So what? Well, if you have to φ at least one item of type i, then you have to find another solution to solve this problem. As the problem is a common concern of persons A and B, this is an interesting result in each and every case. In terms of the examples, this means that you have to find another solution (another strategy, other means) to perform an action, justify a proposition, have your girlfriend guarded, demonstrate that a conclusion follows logically, and secure an obligation. Hence, conclusions of Failure arguments are automatically relevant, and this is my second argument for why such arguments are better arguments.
If you ψ all items of type i that you have to φ, then you never φ any item of type i.
Argument (3). The last argument is that the hypothesis, i.e. line (2), of Failure arguments is immediately motivated.9 This line is motivated because it presents a proposal to solve the problem as described in line (1). For example, you hire a guardian in order to have someone guarded, or you appeal to an additional premise in order to demonstrate that a conclusion follows logically from the premises. But it is not at all clear in all cases why one would introduce and consider the corresponding lines of Paradox arguments (viz. instances of (1) of the Paradox Schema). For example, why would anyone believe that, for any person x, x is reliable only if x is guarded by a guardian, or that, for any set of premises x, a conclusion follows logically from x only if x contains the additional premise ‘if the members of x are true, then the conclusion is true’?10
Still, although Paradox arguments are not always good arguments, sometimes they are. Ryle’s IRA is a case in point. The hypothesis ‘for any action x, one intelligently performs x only if one employs knowledge that x is to be performed in such-and-such a way’ is worth considering for anyone who believes that all our intelligent actions are accompanied by knowledge-that. Likewise, the Paradox conclusion should be interesting as it is the rejection of this claim. To be sure, this does not mean that the Failure conclusion is not interesting as well. It is still interesting to find out that you never perform any intelligent action if you employ knowledge-that anytime you have to perform an intelligent action. For in that case you have to find other means to perform intelligent actions.11
Pluralism*. One should often use the Failure Schema to reconstruct an IRA, and sometimes the Paradox Schema.
So far, I argued that often an IRA is to be reconstructed on the basis of the Failure Schema because that schema has better instances. What I did not discuss so far is how this pertains to the general debate on argument reconstruction. So in this section I provide a deeper motivation for why the Monisms and standard Pluralism from the literature do not suffice.
Recall the problem of argument reconstruction: If there is one text and at least two available reconstructions, then which reconstruction is to be preferred? My answer can now be formulated as follows. If there are two reconstructions, then it should be checked which reconstruction is the best argument. Basically, you should choose the reconstruction with the most plausible premises, and strongest and most interesting conclusion (i.e. the conclusion which has the least options for resistance and which makes a difference in the broader debate in which it occurs).
Sounds trivial. It is not trivial, however. It is a rather revisionary take on argument reconstruction. Revisionism heavily relies on the Charity Rules from Sect. 1, which say that one should modify arguments in such a way that they become valid and sound.
I think this is right. We should try to obtain the best and strongest reconstructions in order to see what can be obtained by a given argument, and so gain the most insight into the issue we are studying (for example about knowledge-how, as in Ryle’s case).
We should adhere to [them] not because it is nice to do so or because people need or deserve charity, but because adhering to [them] leads us to consider the best available arguments and thus gain the most insight into the issue we are studying. (1993: 115).
The opposite of Revisionism may be called ‘Conservatism’. The most extreme variant of the latter would be that the Charity Rules should not be applied at all: one should just do it with what is in the text and not add nor subtract anything substantially. More moderate variants would be happy with the Charity Rules except that they should not be applied unrestrictedly (as Revisionism has it), but only to a certain extent. It is not clear to me what exact restrictions might be imposed here, but the general thought is that one should not depart too much from the initial statement.
Consider the debate on IRAs again. I distinguished between three camps, viz. Paradox-Monism, Failure-Monism and Pluralism, and at this point my position Pluralism* may also be called ‘Revisionary Pluralism’, contrasting it with both Conservative Pluralism and the Monisms.
Conservative Pluralism would be the position which observes that IRAs in the literature take different forms and draws from this that sometimes IRAs are to be reconstructed Paradox-wise and sometimes Failure-wise. I think this view is too easy. It has too much respect for the way IRAs are actually stated and does not apply the Charity Rules. I do think that sometimes IRAs are to be reconstructed Paradox-wise and that sometimes they are to be reconstructed Failure-wise, but only because in those cases one of the arguments is better than the other.12
Further, I disagree with the Monisms in that it is not always the case that IRAs are to be reconstructed Failure-wise (or Paradox-wise for that matter). My view is a Pluralist view exactly because it takes into account that the purposes of the person who is reconstructing the argument (i.e. what she wants to do with the argument) may vary. Is she interested in a Paradox or a Failure conclusion? Still, what is interesting is no subjective or arbitrary matter. Strong arguments with plausible premises and relevant conclusions are more interesting than weak arguments with implausible premises and irrelevant conclusions (and I have shown why often the Failure Schema instances score better at this).
The rules, if taken strongly, may distort the initial statement of the argument (and for example lead to a straw man).
The rules, if taken weakly, are not precise enough to select one reconstruction among the available ones.
A full treatment of them cannot be given here. But let me just briefly point out why they do not they apply in case of IRAs. Against (i) it can be said that distortion is no problem as long as IRAs from the literature are gappy (see Sect. 1) and are not meant to be gappy (as perhaps enthymemes are). Against (ii) it can be said that selection is not to be a problem for IRAs. The main problem is to get valid and sound reconstructions (this is what the Charity Rules motivate), and if it turns out that a single argument admits two sound reconstructions (as might well be the case for Ryle’s IRA), then we just have two sound arguments.
So here is my position on argument reconstruction in a nutshell: Argument reconstruction, at least in the case of IRAs, is hardly fixed by the initial text, and should rely more heavily on general criteria which arguments have to fulfil in order to be good arguments.13
Ryle claimed at some point (1945: 7) that people can reason well even if they have no knowledge-that of the inference rules. It this right? I do not know. But maybe the important point is not whether they can do it, but how we can check whether they can do it (i.e. reason well). And this, it seems, can only be done on the basis of knowledge-that of inference rules.
Here are two analogies. Analogy no. 1: People can devise good IRAs even if they have no knowledge-that of the forms IRAs can take (i.e. have knowledge of the argument schemas). Analogy no. 2: People can reconstruct well even if they have no knowledge-that of the Interpretation and Charity Rules. It might well be that people can devise good IRAs and reconstruct well without knowledge-that. Still, the only way to check whether people devise good IRAs and reconstruct well is on the basis of knowledge-that of the schemas and reconstruction rules respectively: knowledge which I discussed in this paper.
‘Validity’ and ‘soundness’ are used in the usual way, so an argument is valid just in case the conclusion follows from the premises, and it is sound if the premises are true as well.
Namely: (1) If one Fs, one employs knowledge how to F. (2) Knowledge how to F is knowledge that φ(F). (3) If one employs knowledge that p, one contemplates the proposition that p.
An alternative reconstruction of Ryle’s IRA in failure format starts from (1*) You have to explain how S performs at least one intelligent action, and concludes to (C*) If you appeal to the fact that S employs knowledge-that anytime you have to explain how S intelligently performs an action, then you never explain how S performs any intelligent action.
Two further structural differences concern their take on infinite regresses (series of necessary conditions vs. series of problem/solution pairs) and the step from the regress to the conclusion (and what kind of premises and inferences are supposed to license this step). For a full comparison, cf. Wieland (ms).
Ryle uses the word ‘circle’. Yet it is clear that he refers to an infinite regress argument, and not to a circularity argument. These two kinds of arguments can and should be kept apart, but I will not go into that here.
To be sure, in both cases one may try to resist the suppressed premises and inferences next to the premises. Yet, in most cases this is not very obvious, if the suppressed premises are general truths and the inferences licensed by classical rules. See the "Appendix” for references.
This last argument relates to the first argument because the strength of the conclusion depends on the number and plausibility of the premises.
Or find another way to explain how people perform intelligent actions, if the problem is theoretical (viz. to explain this) rather than practical (i.e. to perform them yourself), cf. fn. 5 above.
I do not think that anyone in the literature exactly fits this description of a Conservative Pluralist. Still, the studies by e.g. Day (1986, 1987) and Gratton (1997, 2010) are far less revisionary than what I am proposing here. A clear example of a Revisionist is Black (1996). Yet, he is no Pluralist, as we have seen in Sect. 2, but Paradox-Monist.
What the list of these general criteria exactly is, I did not say. It may even be a slightly different list for different kinds of arguments. Still, I made three specific suggestions for IRAs in Sect. 3.
This schema has variants where (2) or (3) is rejected rather than (1). See the references below.
This schema has a variant with a conclusion of the form ‘You never φ all items of type i’ rather than ‘You never φ any item of type i’. See the references below.
Thanks to Anna-Sofia Maurin, Eline Scheerlinck, Maarten Van Dyck, Erik Weber and the reviewer of the journal for excellent advice. The author is PhD fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO).
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