Knowledge-how is the norm of intention


It is a widely shared intuition that there is a close connection between knowledge-how and intentional action. In this paper, I explore one aspect of this connection: the normative connection between intending to do something and knowing how to do it. I argue for a norm connecting knowledge-how and intending in a way that parallels the knowledge norms of assertion, belief, and practical reasoning, which I call the knowledge-how norm of Intention. I argue that this norm can appeal to support from arguments which parallel those for other epistemic norms, that it can deal with a number of prima facie problem cases, and that alternative conditions in a norm on intention are implausible.

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  1. 1.

    KNI is related to the following necessity claim:

    K: If A is doing V intentionally, then A knows how to V

    (Anscombe 1957, p. 83; Stanley and Williamson 2001, pp. 442–3; Gibbons 2001, pp. 597–8; Setiya 2008, p. 404; Stanley 2011, pp. 185–90; Hornsby 2016). KNI is distinct from K: K states a necessary conditions on acting, whereas KNI expresses a norm on intending. If we deny that there is a distinction between intending and acting (Thompson 2008; Moran and Stone 2011; Ferrero, MS.), KNI is incompatible with K. However, if intentional action starts soon as one forms an intention, K is implausible.

  2. 2.

    See also (Paul 2009b; Setiya 2009, 2016).

  3. 3.

    Stanley suggests that acting without skill involves norm violation, and he takes it that skill requires know-how (2011, p. 175) giving:

    KNA: One must: V, only if one knows how to V.

    Because KNA is a norm on acting rather than intending, it incompatible with K (see footnote 1).

  4. 4.

    For criticism of the knowledge-how norm of showing, and a discussion of the relation between the showing norm and KNI, see (Habgood-Coote 2017) (note that in this paper the acronym for the knowledge-how norm of intention is INT).

  5. 5.

    See (Brown 2008, p. 571).

  6. 6.

    Taking a lead from Anscombe we might suggest that intentions are the kinds of things to which the question ‘how are you going to do that?’ has application. On the relation between ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions, see (Hornsby 2005).

  7. 7.

    Thanks to Ginger Schultheis for this point.

  8. 8.

    Strictly speaking the parallel question would be ‘do I know how to make a macchiato?’. However, most people mostly know what they know how to do, making it more normal to simply deny knowledge.

  9. 9.

    Directives are typically associated with an asymmetry of power, and it may be that the person issuing the directive responds to the challenge by simply ignoring the challenge and reissuing the directive. I don’t think that this detracts from the inappropriateness of the intention which may be formed. Just as someone in a position of power can use their authority to override moral norms, they can use this authority to override rules of rationality. Cases of knowingly overriding KNI raise the tricky issue of whether it is possible to knowingly flout KNI, or whether knowing that you don’t know how to do something makes it impossible to form a full intention (as opposed to an intention to try).

  10. 10.

    See footnote 3. Questions about know-how functioning as requests to act can also be explained by the hypothesis that knowledge-how is necessary for action (K), making these cases less useful in arguing for KNI. Thanks to Marissa Wallin for this point.

  11. 11.

    Furthermore, in most real-world lotteries buying a lottery ticket has negative expected value because the cost of a ticket is larger than the value of the prize divided by the number of tickets. In a case where the value of the prize is sufficiently large, buying a lottery ticket can be practically rational.

  12. 12.

    Although it would be appropriate to intend to buy a ticket.

  13. 13.

    KNI can also be overridden by practical considerations. If I don’t know how to climb a 6c rated climb, but want to get halfway up, the best way to buttress my resolve might be to form the intention to climb the whole way up. This is a case involving practical reasons to break a norm of rationality. Thanks to Michael Wheeler and Philip Ebert for this point.

  14. 14.

    Broome (1999, 2005, 2013); Bratman (1987, 2009a, b); Setiya (2007); Schroeder (2009).

  15. 15.

    Hawthorne (2003); Williamson (2005); Hawthorne and Stanley (2008). On the distinction between norms concerning treating as a reason versus employing as a premise, see McGlynn (2014, p. 132).

  16. 16.

    This claim is compatible with Anti-Intellectualism, see Hornsby (2005, especially p. 113).

  17. 17.

    Another way to attempt to reduce KNI to KNPR is via the idea that knowledge how to V is an enabler (Dancy 2004, 38–43). If enablers are among the premises of practical reasoning, and knowledge-how is an enabler, then KNPR predicts that practical reasoning requires knowing that one knows how (see Sect. 4.6 below), which entails the knowledge-how norm since second-order knowledge of knowledge entails knowledge. However, the claim that knowledge how to V is an enabler for reasons for V-ing is implausible. Consider the case of learning to dance the tango (given in Sect. 3.3.). In this case Kieran has reasons to dance the Tango despite not knowing how to dance the Tango. Thanks to Kieran Setiya for discussion.

  18. 18.

    See Hawley (2003, pp. 9–20); Setiya (2012, p. 297).

  19. 19.

    Setiya suggests that in this case the agent really intends to learn to dance the tango meaning that their intentions are consistent with KNI (if they know how to learn the Tango). Paul points out (2009b, p. 556) this description of Kieran’s intentions is rather strained: it seems much more plausible that Kieran both intends to learn, and to dance the Tango, and that he has the first intention because he has the second.

  20. 20.

    Setiya (2009, n. 23).

  21. 21.

    Thanks to Jessica Brown for raising this worry.

  22. 22.

    Another related move is to endorse is a graded norm, which claims that the strength of one’s intention ought to match one’s degree of knowledge-how. For example, we might connect Holton’s notion of partial intention (2008), to partial knowledge-how (Pavese 2017) giving us:

    PKNI: One must: have a partial intention to V, only if one knows at least in part how to V.

    Setiya also alludes to a graded norm (2016, pp. 12–13) involving degrees of belief.

  23. 23.

    Hawley (2003); Bhatt (2006); Braun (2006, 2011); Parent (2014).

  24. 24.

    Thanks to Justin Snedegar for discussion.

  25. 25.

    We can find this idea in Bratman: “Of course, means-end coherence does not require that my plans specify what I am to do down to the last physical detail. Rather, my plans will typically be at a level of abstraction appropriate to my habits and skills” (Bratman 1987, 31).

  26. 26.

    This idea is even more attractive if we think of partial plans as question-relative (Snedegar MS), since if we think of a partial plan as leaving open practical questions the knowledge-how requirements will be knowledge of the answers to those practical questions.

  27. 27.

    Coarse-grained plans will also involve open issues involving other wh-questions. If I am cooking lasagne I might leave open when to start cooking. Many of these will be closely related to how issues. If I leave open when to start cooking, I better know how to plan my cooking to finish by dinner-time.

  28. 28.

    Thanks to Caroline Touborg for this suggestion.

  29. 29.

    For simplicity, I focus on policies suited to single parenting. The two parent case will involve more complex policies.

  30. 30.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.

  31. 31.

    Perhaps I know how to learn how to learn how to run a 2.30 marathon—i.e. I know how to learn how to distinguish good and bad running coaches—which would mean that I could legitimately intend to learn how to learn how to run a 2.30 marathon The possibility of iterated learning means that it is possible to intend to V, despite not knowing how to learn to V, provided that one knows how to learn how to learn to V (where V might itself be learning how to do something). Although the possibility of iterated learning means that we need to extend the range of activities which are in principle possible to intend appropriately, the practical costs of carrying out an iterated intention to learn will be fairly high. There might also be activities which are impossible to learn how to do either for particular agents or in general. I cannot learn how to train a dragon (or learn how to learn) because there aren’t any dragons.

  32. 32.

    As in the case of knowledge-that, some of these conditions are entailed by others, meaning that someone who endorses a particular norm also endorses all of the logically weaker norms (so the supporter of a knowledge norm is also committed to a truth norm). When I say that someone supports an X norm of intention, I mean that they claim that X is the strongest normative condition on intention.

  33. 33.

    One way to avoid these problems would be to switch to a no-failures norm, where changing one’s mind, and outside interference do not count as failures.

  34. 34.

    This is not to say that success is irrelevant to the normative evaluation of intentions. Plausibly success is the constitutive aim of intention, meaning that only a successful intention will meet its constitutive aim.

  35. 35.

    One way to avoid this problem is to tweak the safety condition to allow some error possibilities in close worlds (Pritchard 2005). However, allowing any errors in close worlds means that SSNI loses its explanation of the inappropriateness of intending to lose the lottery.

  36. 36.

    Since we can know how to perform difficult actions, although our success in them will be unsafe, these cases provide counterexamples to the claim that knowing how to V entails safe success in V-ing.

  37. 37.

    To explain these cases, Holton floats the suggestion of a partial belief norm on intention (Holton 2008, pp. 56–58) where the notion of partial belief that p is a doxastic state which takes both p and not-p as live possibilities. This yields the following norm:

    PBNI: One must: intend to V, only if one partially believes that one will succeed at V-ing.

  38. 38.

    See Anscombe (1957); Velleman (1989); Moran (2004); Ford et al. (2011).

  39. 39.

    My discussion here closely follows (Setiya 2016: 12–13).

  40. 40.

    Grice (1972); Langton (2004); Paul (2009a).

  41. 41.

    Harman (1976, n. 8); Velleman (1989: 56–64).

  42. 42.

    This norm has not been defended in the propositional case, but it behaves something like an objective probability norm.

  43. 43.

    This norm is suggested by Paul, see (Paul 2009b, 555). BKNI shares with BNI the problem is that it does not distinguish whether the belief is well-supported or not.

  44. 44.

    Another worry is that higher-order knowledge of competence is rare (Kruger and Dunning 1999).

  45. 45.

    This idea mirrors Buckwalter and Turri’s picture of the relation between the knowledge-how norm of showing and the knowledge-that norm of assertion (Buckwalter and Turri 2014).

  46. 46.

    For more on the norms of treating something as an option, see Hedden (2012, 2015). Thanks to Nilanjan Das and Abby Jacques for raising this idea.


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Thanks to: Dylan Bianchi, Jessica Brown, Niel Conradie, Nilanjan Das, Philip Ebert, Rachel Fraser, Abby Jacques, Brendan de Kenessey, Katherine Hawley, Matthew McGrath, Sarah Paul, Carlotta Pavese, Ginger Schultheis, Kieran Setiya, Justin Snedegar, Eric Swanson, Caroline Touborg, Michael Wheeler, Quinn White, Marissa Wallin, an anonymous reviewer for this journal, and audiences in St Andrews, MIT, and Valladolid.


Funding was provided by Arts and Humanities Research Council (GB).

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Habgood-Coote, J. Knowledge-how is the norm of intention. Philos Stud 175, 1703–1727 (2018).

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  • Knowledge-how
  • Epistemic norms
  • Intention
  • Partial plans
  • Bratman