In support of anti-intellectualism


Intellectualist theories attempt to assimilate know how to propositional knowledge and, in so doing, fail to properly explain the close relation know how bears to action. I develop here an anti-intellectualist theory that is warranted, I argue, because it best accounts for the difference between know how and mere “armchair knowledge.” Know how is a mental state characterized by a certain world-to-mind direction of fit (though it is non-motivational) and attendant functional role. It is essential of know how, but not propositional knowledge, that it makes possible performance errors and has the functional role of guiding action. The theory is attractive, in part, because it allows for propositional, non-propositional and perhaps even non-representational varieties of know how.

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  1. 1.

    See especially Stanley and Williamson (2001). References to other recent work are provided below.

  2. 2.

    Harry, by the way, represents an analogue to Mary in Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument (Jackson 1987). Mary knows everything there is to know in the science of color vision but doesn’t have knowledge by acquaintance of the color red. Harry knows everything there is to know about how hockey is played but doesn’t know how to play the game.

  3. 3.

    Michael Polanyi’s work on “tacit knowledge” has also been influential in certain quarters (Polanyi 1962).

  4. 4.

    See also Pollock’s (1987) anti-intellectualist view. My own view has, perhaps, more in common with Pollock’s view than with Ryle’s and Hawley’s views.

  5. 5.

    Other intellectualist treatments of know how can be found in Katzoff (1984), Carr (1979, 1981), Hintikka (1975) and Brown (1970).

  6. 6.

    Stanley and Williamson are careful not to commit themselves to a Russellian account of propositions rather than, say, a Fregean account. Following them, I ignore alternative accounts of propositions in order to make their view more perspicuous.

  7. 7.

    The terms I use to denote the two directions of fit, ‘descriptive’ and ‘directive,’ are taken from Millikan (1996).

  8. 8.

    Whether this is possible in any given case may turn on the specific content of the representations and/or whether the descriptive representation and directive representation have exactly the same content. I do not have the space to go into this in detail.

  9. 9.

    Even those who do not identify intentions with belief-desire complexes do appear to think intentions have both directions of fit, e.g., Davidson (1978), Harman (1986, p. 79).

  10. 10.

    I examine anti-representationalist accounts of know how of the sort that deny this claim in Sect. 6, below.

  11. 11.

    Perhaps, as an anonymous reviewer suggests, one should say that the subject must have an overriding desire to act as she knows how to act. I doubt that this is necessary. In most actions this more specific desire is not present. One should at least say that the subject must not have an overriding desire to act other than in the way she knows how to act. In what follows, I assume that this condition holds in the relevant cases.

  12. 12.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for directing me to these accounts of belief.

  13. 13.

    One reason to take issue with the assertion account of belief is that it denies belief to non-linguistic animals and perhaps even human beings incapable of physically expressing the content of their mental states. The link between belief and utterance seems contingent rather than constitutive.

  14. 14.

    See Stich (1978) for articulation of these constraints on belief.

  15. 15.

    I owe this point to Shaun Nichols. Cf. Fodor (1968).

  16. 16.

    The intellectualism/anti-intellectualism debate may appear to find purchase outside of epistemology too, in linguistics and cognitive science. Chomsky’s account of linguistic competence is described as intellectualist (see, e.g., Chomsky 1980, p. 91). It would be rash, however, to assume that the debates are strictly analogous. All linguistic competence can’t be a matter of having a propositionally encoded belief, on pain of regress. Some basic linguistic competence must be non-propositional. Fodor (1968) claims to be an intellectualist but I suspect that his view is not relevantly similar to the intellectualists discussed here.

  17. 17.

    All “mental state theories” of know how—and not just intellectualism—must face Ryle’s regress argument. Suppose that in deploying one’s know how, one must activate a mental state. If activation of this mental state is an exercise of know how, then one must activate another mental state in order to exercise one’s know how. And so on, ad infinitum. Stanley and Williamson argue, I believe correctly, that the way out of this regress is to deny that all exercises of know how are intelligent activities of the sort that we must know how to perform.

  18. 18.

    See also Noe (2005, pp. 282–283). Thanks to Ephraim Glick for helping me to see this point.

  19. 19.

    This is not to say that know how isn’t embodied. I discuss the putative embodiment of know how in Sect. 6.

  20. 20.

    Bengson and Moffett do not actually offer this argument as I have presented it. Their main concern lies elsewhere. I do think, however, the argument presents an interesting way of extending their view in order to account for the phenomena.

  21. 21.

    See also Varela (1999), who offers an extended discussion of embodied ethical know how.

  22. 22.

    See Clark (2000) for criticism. Clark argues that the public symbols of natural language provide important “cognitive scaffolding” for the development of moral know how.

  23. 23.

    I don’t suppose we have any intuitive purchase on whether or not prototypes qua prototypes entail the possibility of performance errors.


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Thanks to Richmond Campbell, Terry Horgan, Bruce Hunter, Heather Logue, Duncan MacIntosh, Chris Maloney, Farid Masrour, Adam Morton, Jennifer Nagel, Shaun Nichols, Brendan Ritchie, Mark Timmons, Robert Wilson, Jennifer Woodrow and an anonymous referee at Philosophical Studies for very useful feedback. Earlier versions of the essay were presented to audiences at Dalhousie University, MIT, Arizona State University and The University of Arizona. All of these audiences were generous with helpful questions, comments and criticisms. Work on the essay was supported by a fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Victor Kumar.

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Kumar, V. In support of anti-intellectualism. Philos Stud 152, 135–154 (2011).

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  • Know how
  • Propositional knowledge
  • Intellectualism
  • Direction of fit
  • Functional role
  • Performance errors