Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 9, pp 2309–2329 | Cite as

A dispositional account of practical knowledge

  • Jan ConstantinEmail author


Is knowledge-how, or “practical” knowledge, a species of knowledge-that, or “theoretical” knowledge? There is no comfortable position to take in the debate around this question. On the one hand, there are counterexamples against the anti-intellectualist thesis that practical knowledge is best analysed as an ability. They show that having an ability to ϕ is not necessary for knowing how to ϕ. On the other hand, the intellectualist analysis of practical knowledge as a subspecies of theoretical knowledge is threatened by its own set of counterexamples, which convincingly establish that practical knowledge lacks many of the typical characteristics of theoretical knowledge. Most strikingly it does not even appear to require a belief. In this paper, I develop an account of practical knowledge that avoids these counterexamples. It also manages to preserve both the status of such knowledge as a cognitive achievement and its apparently close conceptual relation to abilities. I start with the counterexamples against the necessity of abilities for practical knowledge and show that they fail because they underestimate the cognitive demands of attempts. I then make use of the logic of dispositions to bridge the gap that counterexamples against the necessity of abilities for practical knowledge open. It is argued that, instead of the ability to ϕ, it is a specific disposition to have the ability to ϕ that constitutes practical knowledge about ϕ. The resulting theory is an anti-intellectualist position that preserves essential intellectualist motivations and thus should be satisfactory for proponents of both views.


Knowledge Knowing how Practical knowledge Abilities Intellectualism Anti-intellectualism 



The account presented in this paper was inspired by Sydney Shoemaker’s theory of properties in “Causality and Properties” (1997). I finished the paper while working on the DFG-funded project “Disagreement in Philosophy” at the University of Cologne. Earlier versions were presented at GAP.9 in Osnabrück, Sept. 2015 and at the Cologne-Leuven Epistemology Meeting in Cologne, Oct. 2015. I am grateful to the audiences of those conferences for helpful questions and comments. Furthermore, I am particularly indebted to Thomas Grundmann and David Löwenstein for very stimulating and fruitful discussions. I also want to thank my colleagues who commented on earlier drafts of this paper: Dominik Balg and Steffen Koch.


  1. Abbott, B. (2013). Linguistic solutions to philosophical problems: The case of knowing how. Philosophical Perspectives, 27(1), 1–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bengson, J., & Moffett, M. A. (2007). Know-how and concept possession. Philosophical Studies, 136(1), 31–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bengson, J., & Moffett, M. A. (2011). Nonpropositional intellectualism. In J. Bengson & M. A. Moffett (Eds.), Knowing how: Essays on knowledge, mind and action (pp. 161–195). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bird, A. (1998). Dispositions and antidotes. The Philosophical Quarterly, 48(191), 227–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Carr, D. (1981). Kowledge in practice. American Philosophical Quarterly, 18(1), 53–61.Google Scholar
  6. Cassam, Q. (2014). Self-knowledge for humans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Cath, Y. (2011). Knowing how without knowing that. In J. Bengson & M. A. Moffett (Eds.), Knowing how: Essays on knowledge, mind and action (pp. 113–135). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Chisholm, R. M. (1957). Perceiving: A philosophical study. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Clarke, R. (2009). Dispositions, abilities to act, and free will: The new dispositionalism. Mind, 118(470), 323–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Fara, M. (2005). Dispositions and habituals. Noûs, 39(1), 43–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Fara, M. (2008). Masked abilities and compatibilism. Mind, 117(468), 843–865.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Glick, E. (2011). Two methodologies for evaluating intellectualism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 83(2), 398–434.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Glick, E. (2012). Abilities and know-how attributions. In J. Brown & M. Gerken (Eds.), Knowledge ascriptions (pp. 120–138). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Glick, E. (2015). Practical modes of presentation. Nôus, 49(3), 538–559.Google Scholar
  15. Honoré, A. M. (1964). Can and can’t. Mind, New Series, 73(292), 463–479.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kremer, M. (2016). A capacity to get things right: Gilbert Ryle on knowledge. European Journal of Philosophy, 25(1), 25–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lewis, D. (1997). Finkish dispositions. The Philosophical Quarterly, 47(187), 143–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Lihoreau, F. (2008). Knowledge-how and ability. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 77, 263–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Löwenstein, D. (2013). Why know-how and propositional knowledge are mutually irreducible. In M. Hoeltje, T. Spitzley, W. Spohn (Eds.), Was dürfen wir Glauben? Was sollen wir Tun? Sektionsbeiträge des achten internationalen Kongresses der Gesellschaft für Analytische Philosophie e.V. (pp. 365–371). Duisburg-Essen: DuEPublico.Google Scholar
  20. Löwenstein, D. (2017). Know-how as competence. A Rylean responsibilist account. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann GmbH.Google Scholar
  21. Martin, C. B. (1994). Dispositions and conditionals. The Philosophical Quarterly, 44(174), 1–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Mayer, J. (2014). Abilities. Resource document. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.
  23. Mele, A. R. (2003). Agents’ abilities. Noûs, 37(3), 447–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mumford, S. (1994). Dispositions, supervenience and reduction. The Philosophical Quarterly, 44(177), 419–438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Noe, A. (2005). Against intellectualism. Analysis, 65(4), 178–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Pavese, C. (2015). Practical senses. Philosopher’s Imprint, 15(29), 1–25.Google Scholar
  27. Pierre, J. (2014). Intentionality. Resource document. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.
  28. Prior, E. W., Pargetter, R., & Jackson, F. (1982). Three theses of dispositions. American Philosophical Quarterly, 19(3), 251–257.Google Scholar
  29. Ryle, G. (1992). Der Begriff des Geistes. Stuttgart: Reclam.Google Scholar
  30. Shoemaker, S. (1997). Causality and properties. In D. H. Mellor & A. Oliver (Eds.), Properties (pp. 228–255). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Stanley, J. (2011). Know how. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Stanley, J., & Williamson, T. (2001). Knowing how. The Journal of Philosophy, 98(8), 411–444.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Vetter, B. (2013). “Can” without possible worlds: Semantics for anti-humeans. Philosophers Imprint, 13(16), 1–27.Google Scholar
  34. Vetter, B. (2016). Are abilities dispositions? Synthese. doi: 10.1007/s11229-016-1152-7.Google Scholar
  35. Vivhelin, K. (2004). Free will demystified: A dispositional account. Philosophical Topics, 32(1/2), 327–450.Google Scholar
  36. Wiggins, D. (2012). Practical knowledge: Knowing how to and knowing that. Mind, 121(481), 97–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Williams, J. N. (2008). Propositional knowledge and know-how. Synthese, 165(1), 107–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of CologneCologneGermany

Personalised recommendations