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The Structure of Practical Expertise

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Anti-intellectualists in epistemology argue for the thesis that knowing-how is not a species of knowing-that, and most of them tend to avoid any use of the notion “knowing-that” in their explanation of intelligent action on pain of inconsistency. Intellectualists tend to disprove anti-intellectualism by showing that the residues of knowing-that remain in the anti-intellectualist explanation of intelligent action. Outside the field of epistemology, some philosophers who try to highlight the nature of their explanation of intelligent action in certain fields, such as ethics, tend to classify themselves as intellectualist simply because they appeal to the notion of knowing-that in their explanation. In a word, the idea of knowing-that is harmful to the anti-intellectualist explanation of intelligent action, whether from an insider or outsider perspective. In this paper, I argue that these tendencies are unjustified because they are based on an unclear conception of anti-intellectualism. I shall use Gilbert Ryle’s anti-intellectualism as a paradigm with which to describe anti-intellectualism and to illustrate why the notion of knowing-that is not harmful to but is, on the contrary, beneficial to the anti-intellectualist explanation of intelligent action. If my explication of Ryle’s anti-intellectualism is correct, then most anti-intellectualists in the literature blindly worry about the notion of knowing-that, most intellectualists fire into the wrong flock, and some philosophers outside epistemology mischaracterize their own position.

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  1. 1.

    Criticisms of Ryle’s anti-intellectualist account of knowing-how can be classified into two sets. The first set concerns Ryle’s negative thesis that knowing-how is not a species of knowing-that, and the second set concerns his positive thesis that knowing-how is a kind of ability or skill. With regard to the first set, critics argue that Ryle’s regress argument for the negative thesis is unsound (see Stanley and Williamson 2001: 414-6; for a defense, see Hetherington 2011: 28-31 and Fantl 2011). With regard to the second set, critics argue that ability is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowing-how (see Snowdon 2003; for a defense, see Noë 2005; for a response to Noë, see Bengson, Moffett and Wright 2009). Soames’s criticism can be classified into the third set: Can the two theses, when considered together, be in harmony? That is, can there really be a skill without any knowing-that?

  2. 2.

    In his “Intelligence without Representation” (2002a), Hubert Dreyfus applies his Five-Stage Model of Skill Acquisition (developed with his brother Stuart Dreyfus; see Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986) to elucidate two central notions in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception: “intentional arc” and “maximal grip”. In her commentary on Dreyfus 2002a article, Louise Antony says that:

    I find it noteworthy that Professor Dreyfus himself seems unable to describe the process of gaining maximal grip [which is defined by Dreyfus as “the body’s tendency to refine its responses so as to bring the current situation closer to an optimal gestalt”] without referring to a variable that’s independent of the state of the environment. I’m speaking of his appeals to the “optimal gestalt.” Discussing the expert tennis player, who smoothly and unselfconsciously modifies the position of his racket to meet the oncoming ball: “One feels that one’s comportment was caused by the perceived conditions in such a way as to reduce a sense of deviation from some satisfactory gestalt.” This makes it sound like the tennis player has an idea , a representation of how he wants the ball to move. But Dreyfus moves immediately to forestall that interpretation: “But that final gestalt need not be represented in one’s mind. Indeed, it is not something one could represent. One only senses when one is getting closer or further away from the optimum.” (Antony 2002: 398; bold emphasis mine)

    Although Antony does not explicitly accuse Dreyfus of inconsistency, she shows us that in understanding Dreyfus’s anti-intellectualist explanation of skilled action, a sort of intellect or “mental representation” can be read from Dreyfus’s text. Similarly, as we will see in this paper, Soames shows us that in understanding Ryle’s anti-intellectualist explanation of skilled action, a sort of intellect or “knowing-that” can be read from Ryle’s text.

  3. 3.

    The inconsistency can be understood as follows: the anti-intellectualist, on the one hand, argues that knowing-that is not necessary for intelligent or skilled action, while on the other hand appealing (implicitly or otherwise) to knowing-that in explaining intelligent or skilled action.

  4. 4.

    The substituent for “intelligence” in (P0) must be somewhat informative. Thus substituent, for Ryle, is “knowledge-how”; for others, it might be “practical knowledge”, “knowledge in action”, “tacit knowledge”, or some other similar concept.

  5. 5.

    Intellectualism about knowledge-how is derived from and secondary to intellectualism about intelligence. The former claims that (IKH), and the latter asserts that

    an action exhibits intelligence, if, and only if, the agent is thinking what he is doing while he is doing it, and thinking what he is doing in such a manner that he would not do the action so well if he were not thinking what he is doing (Ryle 1949: 29).

    To put it more accurately, for Ryle, intellectualism about intelligence assumes that an intelligent performance must be analyzed as a double operation of first considering regulative propositions and then executing them and, more importantly, that the performance inherits its title to intelligence from the internal operation of considering.

  6. 6.

    Cf. “‘Intelligent’ cannot be defined in terms of ‘intellectual’ or ‘knowing how’ in terms of ‘knowing that’” (Ryle 1949: 32).

  7. 7.

    My formulation of the premises is similar to, but crucially different from, Stanley and Williamson’s formulation. Stanley and Williamson try to undermine Ryle’s regress argument by showing that it is unsound. But as some reviewers have pointed out, Stanley and Williamson misconstrue the premises in Ryle’s argument. See esp. Hetherington (2006) and Sax (2010) and their suggested modifications to the premises, on which my formulation is based.

  8. 8.

    In addition to this commonality, Bill Pollard (2008: 28-31) argues further that habits and skills have three features in common: an action resulting from the exercise of a habit or a skill is repeated, automatic, and responsible.

  9. 9.

    To retort to this possible anti-intellectualist response, intellectualism of a kind that defines its key notion “intellect” in terms of mental representation would say that one’s explicit knowledge of regulative propositions does not evaporate but becomes unconscious mental representations. Hubert Dreyfus once made a parody of such intellectualism: “since beginning bicycle riders can only stay upright by using training wheels, when they finally manage to ride without training wheels, we should conclude they must then be using invisible ones” (Dreyfus 2002b: 416).

  10. 10.

    Most parts of the last three paragraphs come from Tsai (2011: 552-3). Sosa’s AAA-model of performance assessment is central to his bi-level virtue epistemology. For criticism of Sosa’s model, see Kornblith (2012). For defence of the model, see C.-h. Tsai 2013, Reflection cultivated, unpublished.

  11. 11.

    Cf.: “Arguably, a shot could be both apt and meta-apt while still falling short in that it is not in virtue of being meta-apt that it is apt. Thus, a shot might manifest a hunter’s risk-assessment competence, and it might issue from his competence as an archer, in conditions appropriate for such shots, while yet its aptness does not so much manifest the archer’s meta-competence as display a kind of luck. Diana might assess risk aptly and then just toss a coin to decide whether to shoot.” (Sosa 2011: 9)


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I would like to thank the members of the “Virtue: Epistemic and Moral” Project at Soochow University, in particular Yiu-ming Fung, Michael Mi, and Hsiang-min Shen for helpful discussions on the material of this paper. I am especially grateful to Cheng-hung Lin and Ernest Sosa for their encouragement and support through so many years. All errors are mine alone. This work is sponsored by the National Science Council (NSC 102-2410-H-031-027-MY3 and NSC 101-2632-H-031-001-MY3).

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Correspondence to Cheng-hung Tsai.

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Tsai, C. The Structure of Practical Expertise. Philosophia 42, 539–554 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-013-9513-7

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  • Intelligence
  • Skill exercise
  • Skill acquisition
  • Aptness
  • Ryle