Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Expertise and Educational Practice

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_378
Do experts have distinctive ways of knowing and distinctive modes of deploying knowledge in performance? The idea that they do has been commonplace, but these claims have been subjected to considerable scrutiny in recent years. Consider:
  • H1: There are ways of knowing distinctive of expert knowledge.

  • H2: There are distinctive forms of rationality (the rational deployment of knowledge) characteristic of expert practice.

H1 is the key hypothesis. It is independent of H2, but if H1 were true, that would add weight to the case for H2. Contrariwise, if H1 is false, that erodes the reasons for H2. With regard to both hypotheses, it is useful to think of a spectrum from conservative to profligate conceptions of knowledge and rationality, respectively. The conservative opposes the proliferation of ways of knowing and forms of rationality; the profligate endorses proliferation. The key methodological issue concerns the status of the claims made in favor of either hypothesis: Just what is at stake in claiming H1? I shall focus on H1.

This entry provides (section “History”) a brief overview of some of the historical sources for this debate, (section “Key Theoretical Claims”) a summary of some key theoretical claims and methodological assumptions, (section “Assessment of Lines of Debate”) an assessment of some of the main lines of debate, and (section “Lines of Development”) an indication of potential development.


Sources for the idea of distinctive nonpropositional ways of knowing can be found in Polanyi’s notions of tacit knowledge (1958, 1966), Ryle’s knowing-how/knowing-that distinction (1949), and the Dreyfus and Dreyfus taxonomy of expertise (1986) and appeal to Aristotle on practical knowledge and wisdom (Dunne 1993, Wiggins 2012). Evidence for the appeal to forms of knowing embedded in our practical engagement with the environment is often sourced from Heidegger and Wittgenstein – Stickney (2008), Simpson (2014), and Smeyers and Burbules (2006, 2008) – and the analysis of practitioner behavior (Schon 1983, 1987, 1991) and in psychological theorizing about how experts decide, e.g., Gigerenzer (2000), Gigerenzer and Selton (2002a, b), and Klein and Zsambok (1997). See Searle (1995, 2001) for the Wittgensteinian influence on the role of the “background” in models of rational action.

Key Theoretical Claims

Is there reason to proliferate ways of knowing? In debates in education, the idea of different ways of knowing, some of which are only available to expert practitioners, has become almost commonplace. The Dreyfus model that differentiates ways of knowing from novice to expert has dominated nurse education (Benner 1984), and Schon’s account of reflective practitioners that appeals to both Polanyi and Ryle in its appropriation of the idea of nonpropositional ways of knowing has been influential in many fields of professional education. The prevalence of these claims is due largely to the idea that profligacy captures the phenomenology of expert performance. It strikes many that there is something about “the what it is like” to know and act in the moment that is difficult to capture in ordinary propositional modes of knowing (Eraut 1994, 2000; Hager 2000; Beckett and Hager 2005). Acting on the basis of expert knowledge often seems not to be based on a model of deliberation and weighing of reasons in the scales of some preferred model of rational action (Gigerenzer 2000).

This emphasis on phenomenology raises a central methodological issue: What question is being answered with H1 and H2? Is it a phenomenology question of the form “what is it like for experts to think and act in the moment?”, or is it a constitutive question of the form “what constitutes the knowledge deployed in expert performance?”. That is to say, to what is a theory of expert knowledge and action answerable? Is it answerable to phenomenological adequacy (it describes the “what it is like” of expert knowledge and performance)? Or is it answerable to metaphysical adequacy (it characterizes accurately the nature of the knowledge and its modes of employment in expert performance)? Call the latter metaphysical constraint on theorizing the constitutive constraint, for it amounts to the idea that our account of expert knowledge should deliver what is constitutive of expert knowledge; howsoever, it may seem to the knowing subject. The phenomenological constraint simply takes the requirement on our theorizing to be that our account fits the first-personal avowals of expert knowers in action (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986; Collins 2010).

The phenomenological approach faces an obvious challenge: howsoever, it may appear to practitioners that they are using knowledge that is difficult to articulate and often deployed without full conscious awareness of what is being deployed; is there any good reason to think that what is at stake here (what makes it knowledge) is anything other than what is at stake with ordinary propositional knowledge? It is unclear why an account of what someone knows that informs their performance has to be answerable to what they say they know, let alone why the subject’s first-personal access to what they know should be the deciding factor in how what they know is to be fitted into categories of types of ways of knowing. For this response to Gigerenzer’s phenomenological case in support of H2, see Chater and Oaksford (2000).

Philosophers working outside education debates have only recently taken detailed interest in this, and the key debates are now foundational – is there anything distinctive about expertise with regard to the types and deployment of knowledge?

There are two main lines of debate – the McDowell/Dreyfus debate and the debate about the viability of Ryle’s knowing-how/knowing-that distinction. In the former debate, McDowell (locus classicus1994; see also 2013) has a line of argument that pushes the conservative view that all knowledge is propositional, contra the profligacy advocated by Dreyfus. The latter debate draws on McDowell but is more concerned with assessing Ryle’s argument that knowing-how is separate from and cannot be analyzed in terms of knowing-that.

Assessment of Lines of Debate

See Schear (2013) for a thorough collection essential for the McDowell/Dreyfus debate. Central to the debate is the question:

What’s a Proposition?

A key driver for proliferating ways of knowing is phenomenology. It is oftentimes difficult for experts to articulate the knowledge they deploy in their moment by moment expert action. At the extreme, they might even say that their response is intuitive. Dreyfus uses “intuition” to pick out the highest level of expert knowledge. The case for proliferation is based on the difficulty and sometimes inability to articulate a propositional content. Suppose you cannot articulate fully what you know in a situation and words are inadequate to express what you know. McDowell’s key claim is that it does not follow from such inarticulacy that what is known is not a proposition. To understand how the inarticulate can nevertheless still be propositional, we need to clarify the concept of a proposition.

If you individuate propositions with sentences (you count propositions and distinguish between them by counting and distinguishing sentences – strings of symbols), then inarticulate knowings cannot be propositional. For example, a nurse might express the way she performs a complicated four-layer bandaging technique by saying:
  1. 1.

    I do it like this.


Sentence (1) does not individuate a proposition. The same sentence can be used by a pianist to express the way they play a particular phrase – the same words, different items of knowledge. If you count propositions by sentences, then what the nurse knows cannot be propositional. But the assumption that propositions are individuated by sentences has no good basis, and hardly anyone in contemporary philosophy would endorse that assumption. It is commonplace that we can make sense of propositions that are only expressible with context-sensitive words (like the demonstratives, “this” and “that”); see Luntley (1999) for overview and McDowell and Pettit (1986) for an early key collection. If so, the fact that experts often express themselves with such sentences tells us nothing about whether or not the knowledge expressed is propositional. It might seem to the expert that it is impossible to articulate what they know. But if that just means “impossible to express in full in context-independent language,” that says nothing about what constitutes the knowledge in question, and it says nothing that is inconsistent with the idea that the knowledge is knowledge of a proposition.

A proposition is a complex structure, a combination of concepts that in virtue of its structure forms a whole thought that can be either true or false. A concept is a repeatable component of such structures. There is no more need to identify a concept with a word, as there is to identify a proposition with a sentence. There can be context-dependent concepts, and, when the words used in a context to express such concepts are then deployed in a sentence used in a context, you get a context-dependent proposition. Here’s a simple example. Consider a shade of blue for which you have no name. You call it simply “that shade” as you point to it. Suppose you can recognize that shade on different occasions. If so, you can use the words “that shade” as a repeatable component of thoughts when, for example, you look at the paint color chart and think:
  1. 2.

    I like that shade; it will look good on my wall.

and use it again when looking at swatches of material for the curtains and you think:
  1. 3.

    I’m not sure that shade will go well if I use this material for the curtain.


If you endorse the proposition expressed at (3), that bears on the rationality of continuing to endorse (2) – most likely you will decide that the earlier thought expressed in (2) was mistaken. But your thought expressed with (3) only bears on your assessment of what you thought with (2) if the phrase “that shade” picks out the same shade of blue. But that is exactly what we ordinarily think is happening in such examples. The fact that what we are thinking is not fully expressible in words (we rarely remember the names for subtle shade differences on paint manufacturers’ color charts) does not mean that we are not thinking propositional thoughts with (2) and (3). Indeed, the obvious explanation of why, on thinking (3), we retract the thought at (2) is precisely because there is an ongoing way of thinking about the shade of blue expressed by “that shade.” That concept figured in a candidate for knowledge at (2), it figures again in the knowledge expressed at (3) which is why, if we endorse the proposition expressed with (3), we retract the earlier claim. There is a continuous way of thinking of a color shade that features in both propositional knowledge contents. The knowledge at stake in the example is propositional knowledge.

The point generalizes. Consider the nurse who finds it difficult to articulate why she thought the patient was relapsing – it was something about their look and the pallor of their skin, but quite what it was that they spotted slips through the net of their descriptive vocabulary. Experienced nurses typically respond to very fine shades of appearance and behavioral difference in forming judgments about the well-being of patients. It does not follow that their knowledge is nonpropositional, for there is the option of saying that what they know is that the patient “looks like this” and then they point. Those who share their experience and training (including regular exposure and attention to fine differences of pallor, temperature, anxiety in patients’ demeanor, etc.) will see what they are pointing at and be able to use that appearance in other cases. They will have a concept. See Luntley (2007).

The McDowellian idea that all experience, even the most finest grained differentiations, can be captured conceptually is a powerful tool in the case against proliferating modes of knowing; see Gascoigne and Thornton (2014). It does not mean that there are no differences between expert knowing and novice knowing, but the difference lies not in different modes of knowing. The difference might be in the objects of propositional knowings. The novice performs on the basis of propositional knowings, the content of which is given in context-independent propositions – the sorts of propositions that can be expressed in context-free language and the sorts of propositions that figure in general rules for performance that are applicable across many if not all situations. In contrast, the expert, although still using propositional knowledge, is able to exploit propositions that represent the particular details, the fine grades of difference in the saliences of situations. So their engagement with situations is more dependent on experience and what their perceptual skills make available to them (they notice more details than the novice). Their perceptual attention provides more bearing on what they do than the novice, but what their perception provides is not a different nonpropositional way of knowing. See Ainley and Luntley (2005, 2007) for details of a pilot empirical study of experienced classroom teachers that concentrates on the role of attention in differentiating expert knowledge.

A related debate concerns Ryle’s (1949) distinction between know-that and know-how. Ryle had argued that it is impossible to reduce know-how to know-that. The knowledge that makes action skilful cannot consist solely in propositional knowing-that. His idea was that skilful performance required knowing-how and not mere entertaining of a proposition. Whatever propositional knowledge might be relevant in considering action, the agent needs to know not just what the proposition is, but how to deploy it. Skilful action requires knowing how to apply knowledge. If knowing-how were not separate to and more basic than know-that, then one could never act on knowledge, and one would merely entertain propositions. In a number of seminal publications, this argument has been put under intense pressure Stanley and Williamson(2001), Stanley (2005, 2011). The point exploits the McDowell insight outlined above.

Suppose you thought that knowing how to open a door by turning the knob was an irreducible item of knowing-how. Propositions about the way in which locks work can be entertained, but mere grasp of the propositions does not explain the action of opening the door – you need to know how to use the knowledge contained in the propositions. Stanley’s key initiative is to note the existence of practical modes of presentations – practical ways in which things can figure in thought by virtue of practical concepts. One can know that doors open when the knob is turned like this. This practical mode of presentation is, like the McDowellian perceptually dependent concept – the shade looks like this – a context-dependent concept. It is a concept available to the thinker in virtue of their grasp of a way of acting. As such, grasping the proposition that the door opens when you turn the knob like this would suffice to explain the action of opening the door despite the fact that it uses propositional knowing-that, not knowing-how. Once again, the case for proliferating modes of knowing is undermined by an analysis that shows that know-how can be captured with know-that.

Note that the intellectualist case shows that it is possible, once one grasps the point of context-sensitive modes of presentation, to analyze know-how in terms of know-that. The Stanley argument for intellectualism is a powerful tool in defense of conservatism about modes of knowledge. It does not, however, settle all the questions one might have about the knowledge that shapes expert performance.

If your question is, “Is it possible to analyze all the knowledge deployed by experts in performance in terms of propositional knowing-that?” then the McDowell and Stanley arguments provide a powerful case for epistemic conservatism. But suppose your question is slightly different. Consider the following:
  1. (a)

    How does knowledge of activity-dependent propositions depend on activity?

  2. (b)

    How do we acquire activity-dependent modes of presentation?


It is tempting to think that we acquire the knowledge involved in knowing that this is the way to open the door, by first knowing how to open the door. We first acquire the skill at door opening, and then we can label exercises of the skill by using the activity-dependent concept in thinking and talking about our opening it like this. In other words, one might think that although once acquired we can, as theorists, represent what the skilful actors know as propositional knowing that the door is opened like this; the skilful actor might never think or talk about their skill and simply know how to open the door. In that case, one might think that the know-how is, in terms of what underpins the skilful performance, the knowledge that matters. See Winch (2010, 2011, 2015). Wiggins (2012) has a defense of know-how against the intellectualism that repays careful consideration. Wiggins acknowledges the Stanley and Williamson point but claims that knowing-that is the “step child” of knowing-how. It is not fully clear what the force of Wiggins’ claim is at this point. Is it just a return of the prioritizing of phenomenology of the knower’s point of view, or is it a move toward a deeper point that attempts to tackle questions (a) and (b) above. If the latter, it suggests a direction that warrants further development.

Lines of Development

Context-sensitive concepts (whether perceptually dependent or performance dependent) are concepts that are dependent on experience – our experience of things as we perceive them and our experience of our own actions. If question (b) makes sense, there ought to be an account of how we acquire such concepts. One of the problems with the McDowellian position is that it can give no such account, see Crane (2013), Schellenberg (2013). For McDowell, experience is conceptually structured through and through; there is no level of experience other than that delivered to us by concepts. There is, then, for McDowell, no account of the origin or acquisition of context-sensitive concepts. One line of potential enquiry in these debates is to explore the scope for such an account.

There are many problems with this line of development. At a minimum, any answer to (b) requires a theory of how experience can present us with things (including the form of our own actions) in patterns that are less than conceptual. The very idea of a nonconceptual content to experience is, however, fraught; see Carman (2013) and Noe (2013), and see Gunther (2003) for overview of that debate. But it is not necessary that the contribution of experience need be in terms of content, albeit a nonconceptual content. Experience might provide a relation to things and properties in conscious attention and that is what enables concept possession. This idea is exploited in Luntley (2009) developing insights due to Campbell (2002). See also Luntley (2015) for the idea that a relationist account of attention contributes to the way the aesthetics of experience plays a foundational role required for answering (b). That suggests a quite different account of what differentiates experts and novices: it is not the type of knowledge they deploy; it is their capacity for learning and generating new concepts. Experts tend to use more context-sensitive concepts and propositions because the form (aesthetic) of their experiential sensitivity and scrutiny provides them the resources to notice and attend to new things, find new saliences, and develop new ways of thinking and talking about the phenomena at hand. See Luntley (2011) for this way of differentiating expert and knower.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of WarwickCoventryUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Nick Peim
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BirminghamBirminghamUK