Knowing-how, showing, and epistemic norms


In this paper I consider the prospects for an epistemic norm which relates knowledge-how to showing in a way that parallels the knowledge norm of assertion. In the first part of the paper I show that this epistemic norm can be motivated by conversational evidence, and that it fits in with a plausible picture of the function of knowledge. In the second part of the paper I present a dilemma for this norm. If we understand showing in a broad sense as a general kind of skill teaching, then the norm faces counterexamples of teachers who know how to teach, but not to do. On the other hand, it we understand showing more narrowly as involving only teaching by doing the relevant activity, then the data which initially supported the norm can be explained away by more general connections between knowledge-how and intentional action.

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  1. 1.

    The knowledge-norm of assertion is formulated in several different ways: as an imperative or must claim (Williamson 2000: pp. 241–243), as a claim about appropriateness (Brown 2008a), or as a claim about permissibility (Turri 2011: p. 37). There is also debate about whether the norm should also encompass the sufficiency claim (Brown 2008a, b, 2010, 2012). I will not consider these issues since the counterexamples to the knowledge-norm of showing concern the necessity of know-how for appropriate showing, and will cause problems to any of these formulations.

  2. 2.

    From this point on, I will use unqualified claims about permissibility to refer to epistemic permission.

  3. 3.

    Although KNS is only significant if it is possible to show without having know-how. This is a point we will return to in Sect. 4.3.

  4. 4.

    The fact that I focus on cases in which one person learns from another’s teaching should not distract us from the fact that we can also acquire know-how through imitation, practice, and simple trial and error. Since our focus will be on the norms on interpersonal teaching, giving a full account of the ways in which we can acquire know-how is beyond the scope of this paper. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.

  5. 5.

    These cases might either be due to an intention to mislead, or innocent error. Thinking about false instructions is made more complex by the fact that show+wh constructions appear to be factive in the sense that one cannot show how to V, without the demonstrated way being genuine (for parallel discussion of tell+wh see Karttunen (1978: p. 11; Vendler 1980: pp. 283–284), Holton (1997)). To avoid talk of apparent showing, I will assume that the show+wh construction is not factive. For the same reason, I will assume that ‘teach’ is not a success term meaning that giving false instructions about how to V counts as teaching.

  6. 6.

    This explanation is of a kind with Searle’s explanation of indirect requests (Searle 1979; McGlynn 2014: p. 93).

  7. 7.

    In what follows I will use capitalisation to refer to concepts.

  8. 8.

    This is a generalisation of Fricker’s point that Craig’s view of KNOWS-THAT leads to KNA (Fricker 2015). A number of authors have also suggested that Craig’s account naturally fits with the knowledge norm for practical reasoning (Greco 2008, 2012; Hannon 2013; McKenna 2013, 2014).

  9. 9.

    Can know-how ever be picked up from testimony? Poston (2015) is sceptical, but Hawley (2010) argues that it can.

  10. 10.

    See also Reynolds (2002: pp. 158–159).

  11. 11.

    On this distinction, see Williams (1973: p. 149) and Craig (1990: p. 19)

  12. 12.

    This connection is suggested by Fricker (2015: pp. 74–84). Williamson also claims that the point of having a speech act governed by the knowledge-norm is to facilitate the pooling of knowledge (2000: pp. 266–269).

  13. 13.

    One might think that the point of KNOWS is to help us pick out people who can be relied upon to do things for or with us. For allusions to this view of KNOWS-HOW, see Moore (1997, p. C8), Hawley (2011: pp. 287–290). Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.

  14. 14.

    In all of these norms the phrase w is a way to V is within the scope of the verb. The assumption that show+how is non-factive is also crucial here (see footnote 5).

  15. 15.

    KNS* is really only one of a family of knowledge norms which claim that different kinds of non-practical knowledge about how to V is the norm on showing. KNS* is the most general of these norms, but there is space to develop a norm that claims that some specific kind of non-practical knowledge about how to V is the norm on showing. For example, one might think that knowledge-how can be broken down into a propositional knowledge component and a practical component, and that the propositional knowledge component is the norm on showing. It would lead us too far astray to consider every possible way to formulate a knowledge norm relating to showing, especially since the evidence considered in Sect. 2 points toward KNS, rather than any more complex knowledge norm. Thanks to anonymous reviewer for this point.

  16. 16.

    As with the norms stated above, KNS* says that knowing is necessary for appropriate showing, but not that it is sufficient for appropriate showing. This means that it is compatible with KNS* that even when an agent has knowledge, their showing can be inappropriate, for some reason other than ignorance. For example, we might think as in the cases of assertion and action there are high-stakes showing cases, in which more than knowledge is required for appropriate showing (Brown 2008b: pp. 174–181, 2010: pp. 555–556). Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this point.

  17. 17.

    The supporter of KNS* might argue that there is some other explanation for the inappropriateness of Jared’s showing (see footnote 16), but it is difficult to see what that explanation might be: Jared’s showing seems to be a paradigm case in which showing fails precisely because it does not meet the relevant epistemic standard. Jared’s case certainly seems rather different from the high-stakes cases in which knowledge is insufficient for assertion.

  18. 18.

    Landsman (2014).

  19. 19.

    HipBoneMusic (2016).

  20. 20.

    Maine Suzuki School. (n.d.). Thanks to Matthew McGrath for pointing this passage out to me.

  21. 21.

    In a piece about the role of non-disabled athletes in para-sports, Chuck Aoki relates that whilst he was playing for the US wheelchair rugby team, half of the coaches were non-disabled (Aoki 2013).

  22. 22.

    Of the female artistic gymnasts currently profiled on the British Gymnastics webpage, 3 of 13 have male coaches. British Gymnastics (2017).

  23. 23.

    This distinction suggests a general recipe for coming up with counterexamples to KNT. Whatever one thinks of the distinction between skill at doing and skill at teaching, take a case of someone who is skilled at teaching something but not at doing it, and ask whether that agent’s teaching is epistemically permissible. I take it that there be at least some cases in which this kind of teaching is permissible.

  24. 24.

    For a similar case see Stanley (2011: p. 128).

  25. 25.

    Here is another recipe for cases of generative teaching. If one thinks that knowledge-how can be undermined by Gettier-type luck (Stanley and Williamson 2001: p. 435; Poston 2009; Cath 2011; Carter and Pritchard 2013), then there will be cases in which someone lacks knowledge how due to the presence of luck, but would otherwise be as well-placed to teach as someone who did have know-how. Thanks to Jessica Brown for this point.

  26. 26.

    Because this example goes through on both Intellectualist and Anti-Intellectualist theories I need not make any particular assumptions about what makes knowledge-how practical, in particular whether knowledge-how requires being able to act. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.

  27. 27.

    In the sense of having what Glick calls ‘internal’ ability (Glick 2012).

  28. 28.

    I don’t want to suggest that all practical knowledge requires practice; only that some does (Hawley 2010: p. 401). There is a large body of empirical evidence stressing the importance of deliberate practice for skill acquisition. See Ericsson (2006) and Ford et al. (2015).

  29. 29.

    Asserting ‘S knows how to V’ often implicates ‘S can teach you to V’, and denying it can plausibly generate the opposing implication.

  30. 30.

    There are interesting variants of this case concerning the instruction of groups. A coach who has never played Rugby might instruct her team how to do a particular move—say, a Springbok Loop—without knowing how to do any of the sub-activities involved in that move. Thanks to Matthew McGrath for this suggestion.

  31. 31.

    See Anscombe (1957: p. 89), Stanley and Williamson (2001: pp. 442–443), Gibbons (2001: pp. 597–598), Stanley (2011: pp. 185–190), Hornsby (2016).

  32. 32.

    For example, NEC has trouble with luckily successful action (Setiya 2008, 2009, 2012), and seems to rule out the possibility of learning to do something by practicing doing it. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising these worries.

  33. 33.

    Although it is tempting to think that NEC entails KND (albeit a trivial version of KND), this is not the lesson that I want to draw. Instead, my contention is that if NEC is true then KND cannot be a genuine norm.

  34. 34.

    See (Habgood-Coote unpublished manuscript).

  35. 35.

    On the face of it INT faces problems with intentions to learn. One might think that INT makes it impermissible to learn to V by practicing V-ing, and that it cannot explain cases in which one intends to V by first learning to V, then V-ing (see Setiya 2008: p. 406). These cases are tricky for the supporter of INT, but she does have moves to explain such cases (see Habgood-Coote unpublished manuscript). For example, one might think that someone who is learning to V cannot permissibly form the full intention to V, but that they can form the intention to try to V. Similarly, as Seitya suggests, one might think that someone who is intending to V by learning can only permissibly intend to learn how to V. Thanks to two anonymous reviewers for raising these worries.

  36. 36.

    INT does not entail a pedagogical knowledge-how norm on teaching (requiring that one know how to teach in order to appropriately teach). Rather it entails a pedagogical knowledge-how norm on intending to teach. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.

  37. 37.

    One might offer a practical function for KNOWS-HOW and keep the pooling story about KNOWS-THAT. This view is unattractive because it loses a general explanation of the function of KNOWS.

  38. 38.

    I take it that this dictum is a criticism, and not a descriptive claim.


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Thanks to Mark Bowker, Jessica Brown, Joshua Dever, Katherine Hawley, Matthew McGrath, Andrew Peet, Fenner Tanswell, Alexander Sandgren, Kieran Setiya, Caroline Toubourg, Brian Weatherson, and audiences at St Andrews and MIT. This research was supported by a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Scholarship.

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Habgood-Coote, J. Knowing-how, showing, and epistemic norms. Synthese 195, 3597–3620 (2018).

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  • Knowledge-how
  • Epistemic norms
  • Assertion
  • Showing
  • Teaching