Discussions of Ryle’s regress argument against the “intellectualist legend” have largely focused on whether it is effective against a certain view about knowledge how, namely, the view that knowledge how is a species of propositional knowledge. This is understandable, as this is how Ryle himself framed the issue. Nevertheless, this focus has tended to obscure some different concerns which are no less pressing—either for Ryle or for us today. More specifically, I argue that a version of Ryle’s regress confronts any view according to which the intelligence manifested in action must be inherited from purely inner mental causes. I recommend an alternative account of the metaphysics of intelligent action, which avoids this commitment.
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This is the view that, in the contemporary debate, has come to be called “intellectualism”, though, as we shall see, it is not the same as what Ryle dubbed the “intellectualist legend”. For this reason, I will use the term “propositionalism” to refer to the view that knowledge how is a species of propositional knowledge, and contrast it with “dispositionalism”.
The view that mental states and events are purely inner, in the sense that they are constitutively independent of bodily states and events, is quite plausibly a consequence of Cartesian immaterialism about the mind. Importantly, however, the converse entailment does not hold: a materialist can be an “internalist” in the relevant sense, by taking mental states and events to strictly supervene on brain states, for example. This, incidentally, is the key to answering the puzzlement Snowdon (2004, p. 19) expresses, regarding why Ryle thought that propositionalism about knowledge how has anything to do with Cartesianism: Ryle seems to have thought (wrongly, as we shall see below) that propositionalism is entailed by the relevant kind of internalism, which he (again wrongly, as I just explained) associated with Cartesianism.
Löwenstein (2013, 2017) and Weatherson (2017) defend versions of Ryle’s argument, in part by arguing that the class of intelligent actions is larger than the class of intentional or voluntary actions. In light of Ryle’s insistence on things done “on purpose”, I am not sure he would have agreed. In any case, as we will see, my version of the regress argument does not depend on taking a stand on this.
This may appear puzzling, in light of the fact that “intelligent” in this context does not imply “not silly”. But do silly instances of F-ing manifest knowledge how to F? I assume that Ryle would answer “yes” to this question. To count as F-ing “on purpose” at all, Ryle might say, you need to manifest at least a rudimentary knowledge how to F. For example, even if my driving is terrible, it manifests some knowledge how to drive.
These two premises are slightly different from the ones Stanley and Williamson (2001) attribute to Ryle in the article that begun the contemporary debate, but not in ways that will matter. Regarding (1), Stanley and Williamson (2001, pp. 414–415) attribute to Ryle the claim that if you F, then you exercise knowledge how to F—whatever F might be. However, as mentioned above, Ryle is explicit that his focus is only on actions done “on purpose”. Instead of (2), Stanley and Williamson attribute to Ryle a general claim about the employment of propositional knowledge, rather than specifically about action-guidance. I do not doubt that Ryle was committed to that general claim; I use a more specific one only to simplify the exposition.
What explains the popularity of this conception of human agency? It is not often explicitly argued for. When its proponents turn to its defense, they typically focus on specific challengers, rather than providing positive reasons for its endorsement [see, e.g., Adams (2010); Blomberg and Brozzo (2017); Clarke (2010)]. The following classic argument by Davidson (1980), however, may be in the background. The very same bodily movement, physically described, may sometimes be (part of) an intelligent action, while at other times it is not. For example, the very same movement of my hand may be, on one occasion, a simple muscle-spasm while on another it is an instance of signaling to an accomplice. Since the movements are the same on both occasions, it is natural to think that any difference in whether they express intelligence or not must lie in their inner causal antecedents. The thing to note here, however, is that appealing to inner causal antecedents need not be the only way to mark such differences. I will return to this point in Sect. 3.
Löwenstein (2013, 2017) and Weatherson (2017) try to parry this type of response by arguing that Ryle’s conception of intelligent action is broader than that of intentional action, applying also to operations performed “automatically”. It is not clear that this parry is dialectically effective, however. In order to re-instate the regress, we would need to argue that the intelligence of these automatic selection operations is to be explained in the same way as the intelligence of intentional actions; otherwise no regress ensues, even if selection is intelligent in some other sense. But opponents of the regress, like Stanley and Williamson, are unlikely to concede this point. My version of the regress does not hinge on this.
There is a debate in the philosophy of action, spurred by Bratman (1984, 1987), concerning whether intentionally F-ing necessarily involves an intention specifically to F (this is known as the “simple view”). The formulation in the text is somewhat weaker than this, requiring only mental states that in some appropriate way specify your F-ing (an intention to G¸and a belief that F-ing is a way for you to G might count, for example). We will see reasons below for insisting on at least this much.
As an anonymous referee suggests, one might use this point to connect the present version of the regress with the one sketched above, by noting that your I-ing expresses your selection of a way to F. This is correct, but taking selection in this context to be an intelligent operation distinct from your I-ing seems like a further commitment, and one which (as we saw) may be open to objection.
One might wonder whether the regress just described really is vicious. Given that variation beyond a certain fineness of grain is surely irrelevant for discussions of human agency, one might argue that after a finite number of steps the regress will stop, because the corresponding version of (2*) will fail: the distinction between F-ing and a way of F-ing will no longer meaningfully apply. I do not think this response would help, however, even if sound: simply arguing that the regress is not literally infinite does not show that it is acceptable. A finite regress of this sort would still leave adherents of the Wittgensteinian template having to postulate mental states that specify actions with maximal fineness of grain—i.e., grain so fine that the distinction between F-ing and a way of F-ing loses its significance. It seems clear, however, that personal-level mental states do not contain action-specifications with anything like this fineness of grain. This is not to deny that our motor control systems make use of fine-grained specifications of our bodily movements; it is, rather, to deny that such lower-level representations can play the role required of them by the Wittgensteinian template. More on this below.
Notice, in particular, that the examples here are not cases of causal deviance. For one thing, the fact that your sweating and hyperventilating are the results of something else that you do (running up the hill) does not constitute deviance, since most of what we do we do by doing other things. More fundamentally, however, cases of causal deviance typically presuppose something that something like (1*) is a genuine condition on action. Thus, in typical causal deviance scenarios, there is a match between what you do and a relevant intention, but the match is brought about in a deviant way. In the present case, however, there is no such match to begin with.
A referee suggests that views that reject (3*) may be able to account for our taking agents to be responsible for the execution of their actions, indirectly. On such views, the agent is responsible for the execution of her action insofar as she is responsible for cultivating reliable sub-personal action-execution mechanisms. This indeed seems like a viable fall-back position. Still, having to fall back to an indirect account of responsibility for action-execution seems like a cost for such views.
Importantly, no one is suggesting that the content of motor intentions is maximally fine-grained, in the sense sketched in n. 13 above. Questions of how motor intentions are to be implemented are assumed to be sensible.
Fridland (2014, 2017) has criticized some of the views I have been arguing against as well, and on related grounds. Nevertheless, Fridland seems to end up at a somewhat different place from where I do. In particular, while Fridland emphasizes the intelligence of sub-personal action control systems, she does not explain how this accounts for the sense in which the execution of your actions manifests your intelligence. So far as I can tell, Fridland at this point seems to fall back on the idea that overt action is intelligent (or, at least, controlled by the agent) to the extent that it reliably matches the agent’s personal-level mental states (ibid., 2017, p. 1558). But then, it is hard to see how her view constitutes an alternative to the views she criticizes.
An anonymous referee asks why we should attribute the problem solving to the walker, as opposed to (merely) sub-personal mechanisms inside of her. The reason, I think, is just that the case appears to be very different from uncontroversial cases of merely sub-personal problem-solving, such as that involved in our bodies’ maintaining a stable internal temperature, for example. Perhaps we could learn to live with views that erase this intuitive difference; but this is still an intuitive cost we should seek to avoid, if possible.
An anonymous referee wonders how this proposal addresses the Davidsonian challenge (mentioned in n. 8 above) of how to determine, given some bodily movements, what (if any) intentional action is performed. On views that conform to the Wittgensteinian template, this challenge is answered by looking at the inner causes of the relevant bodily movements: if my egg-breaking is caused (in the right way) by a desire or intention to make an omelet, then this is what I am intentionally doing. In an entirely parallel way, on Thompson’s view we appeal to the “bigger” action by means of which my egg-breaking is explained (or towards which it is directed): since it is my omelet-making (rather than, say, my writing a paper about action) that explains why I am breaking the eggs, this is what I am intentionally doing in breaking the eggs.
Of course, if the means you take are inadequate, you may never end up having F-ed. However, as Thompson (2008, pp. 120–146) rightly emphasizes, the fact that you never end up having F-ed is consistent with your F-ing for a time. Some actions are botched or abandoned, and so never reach completion.
For a similar emphasis on the distinction between action manifesting knowledge and action being guided by that knowledge, see Dickie (2012). Dickie uses this distinction for a somewhat different purpose, namely, giving an account of how skill and knowledge how relate to propositional knowledge. On her view, a skilled agent’s actions manifest or embody propositional knowledge, of roughly the same sort as we are considering here. This type of approach to skill and knowledge how would, broadly speaking, be congenial to the view of intelligent action that I am suggesting (though a lot of details would need to be worked out, of course). For related points see also Löwenstein (2017, pp. 250–256) and Kremer (2017).
For such views of singular thought, see Evans (1981, 1982), McDowell (1984, 1986), Campbell (2002), Stanley (2011). Some authors draw a distinction between “content externalism”, which concerns the determination of the contents of our thoughts, and “vehicle” or “active externalism”, which concerns the thoughts themselves (Clark and Chalmers 1998; Hurley 1998; Rowlands 2011). As these authors intend the distinction, the labels “passive” or “content” externalism apply to views on which the content of (some of) our thoughts is determined by their causal history (e.g., Putnam 1975; Burge 1979). Regardless of the merits of this distinction in general, the views on singular thought I am appealing to here include present relations to the objects of your thoughts in their identity conditions. They would thus seem to meet the conditions for “active” or “vehicle” externalism as well as for content externalism. Wilson (1989) appeals to a similar notion of “act-relational” intention, and puts it to similar use in criticizing causal accounts of action. Interestingly, McDowell (2011) argues against this view, but I cannot consider this argument here. Butterfill and Sinigaglia (2014) also draw upon accounts of de re (or demonstrative) thought in their solution to what they call the “interface problem”—i.e., the problem of explaining how personal level states such as intentions are integrated with lower-level motor representations. Their concerns, however, are different from my own, leading them to focus on thoughts about action types, rather than particular actions (ibid. 2014, pp. 133–134).
Some support for this claim may be provided by recent work that links the phenomenology of agency to the neuroscience of motor control (Bayne and Pacherie 2007; Blakemore et al. 1998; Frith et al. 2000a, b; Frith 2005; Marcel 2003; Pacherie 2008). While this is not the place to enter this debate in any depth, what all these views have in common is that they suggest that our awareness of our own actions depends upon the mechanisms in us that produce the movements that constitute our actions. Such accounts, therefore, seem to support the idea of distinctively productive information links to our own actions. This notion of a distinctively productive way of thinking about our own actions echoes Anscombe’s (1957) famous distinction between “contemplative” and “practical” knowledge. The parallel is worth exploring further, but I cannot do so here.
In writing this paper, I benefited from discussions with Olle Blomberg, Yair Levy, and Melissa Merritt. I would also like to thank two anonymous referees for Synthese, for their patience and their thoughtful and penetrating comments.
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Valaris, M. Thinking by doing: Rylean regress and the metaphysics of action. Synthese 197, 3395–3412 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1893-6
- Knowledge how
- Embodied cognition