Friday, August 03, 2007


Is Knowledge-How Gettier-Susceptible?

I think the force of one of Dean Pettit's arguments in 'Why Knowledge is Unnecessary for Understanding Language' has been somewhat missed by a lot of people (on the most common interpretation I've encountered, this includes Pettit himself). The point turns out to have significance for the recent debate about knowing-how sparked by Stanley and Williamson's very influential and important JPhil piece.

Pettit's target is epistemic accounts of linguistic understanding, whereby understanding an expression just is, or at least requires, knowledge of some proposition stating that expression's meaning. Pettit's first attack on the epistemic view proceeds by offering a case in which a subject's belief in the proposition that 'Krankenschwester' means 'Nurse' is Gettierized, and yet we are strongly drawn to judge that the subject nonetheless understands 'Krankenschwester'. The natural reading of Pettit takes his argument to proceed as follows. The moral to draw from the case described is that understanding language, in stark contrast to propositional knowledge as it is usually understood by epistemologists, is unGettierizable. Hence the identification of linguistic understanding with propositional knowledge is untenable, and Gettier cases like the one Pettit offers will be examples of understanding without the relevant piece of propositional knowledge.

But it seems clear that Pettit does not need to make the really strong claim that understanding is unGettierizable. All he needs, and all his case strictly speaking shows, is that there are Gettier cases in which we are prone to judge that a subject understands some expression, and yet that subject's belief in the proposition knowledge of which - according to the epistemic view - constitutes or necessarily accompanies understanding of that expression is Gettierized. That's enough to defeat the epistemic view.

(I should stress, I don't buy Pettit's conclusion. I've been convinced by Stanley in his reply to Hornsby that there's a lot still to be said in favor of the epistemic view. Here I'm simply pointing out that the argument need not rely on drawing the moral that understanding is immune to Gettierization.)

Pettit and others have suggested that his argument against the epistemic view can also be wielded against Stanley and Williamson's proposal that it is true that one knows how to x (in a given context) if and only if for some contextually relevant way w, one stands in the knowledge-that relation to the (Russellian) proposition that w is a way for one to x (and one entertains this proposition under a practical mode of presentation). The basic suggestion is that while propositional knowledge is usually taken to be vulnerable in Gettier cases, knowledge-how - like linguistic understanding - is unGettierizable.

Stanley and Williamson offer two replies to this (435). Firstly, they doubt that propositional knowledge in general is Gettier-susceptible. Secondly, they describe what they take to be a Gettier case for knowledge-how, undermining the claim that knowledge-how is unGettierizable.

But, as with the epistemic view of understanding, it would suffice to object to their proposal if it could be shown that there are Gettier cases in which Stanley and Williamson's biconditional fails: so cases in which we would on reflection attribute the subject knowledge-how to x, and yet we'd hold that the subject fails to stand in the knowledge-that relation to the proposition that w (for some appropriate w) is a way for her to x because her belief has been Gettierized. On a first pass, Stanley and Williamson's responses don't seem to address this point; once we refrain from making the strong claim that knowledge-how is unGettierizable, their purported Gettier case for know-how is besides the point, and unless we have good reason to think that beliefs in propositions of the form 'w is a way for me to x' are amongst the ones that it might be plausible to regard as Gettier-immune, it's hard to see how it helps to point out that some knowledge-that might enjoy such immunity.

The upshot is it seems that there's still room to explore a version of the Pettit objection against the Stanley-Williamson proposal. Mark Sainsbury has suggested to me that if one accepts their account, it will be quite plausible that there could not be Gettier cases in which their biconditional fails (so their first reply, that not all knowledge-that is Gettier-susceptible, is very much to the point after all). As I've blogged before, Stanley and Williamson see themselves in part as trying to challenge the Rylean account of the nature of the knowledge-that relation, and Mark's suggestion is that once we take that challenge seriously, it's very difficult indeed to come up with Gettier cases in which it's intuitively the case that the subject knows how to x, and yet fails to possess the knowledge-that which the right-hand side of the Stanley-Williamson biconditional would have us attribute. So the suggestion is that once we understand the kind of view of the nature of knowledge-that which Stanley and Williamson favor, their proposal is not vulnerable to a Pettit-style objection, even as I've reconstrued it here. I think Mark's probably right about this, and there's no counterexample to Stanley and Williamson in the offing here, but it seems worth thinking more about, and I don't know of any discussion in the literature.

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