Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Knowledge How and Abilites
There are now a number of stock cases designed to show that knowing how to X does not entail being able to X. These have tended to fall into broadly three classes. The first are cases in which, as Snowdon puts it, we 'describe cases in which the subject can show, teach, or tell (or otherwise convey to) us how to do something, and hence must be credited with knowing how to do it, but is for some reason or other unable to do it' (Knowing How and Knowing That: 9). Jeff King's example of the ski instructor who is personally unable to perform the stunts is a case belonging to this first class. The second class of cases are one's in which the subject uncontroversially previously both knew how and was able to X, but is now unable to X. The tragic concert pianist who has recently lost his arms in a car accident is a case of this kind. The third class consists of cases where performing X is intuitively 'more of the same' of what it takes to perform Y, where the subject in question uncontroversially both knows how to Y and is able to Y. John and Marc offer the example of Irina, the figure skater who knows how to perform a quadruple Salchow, and is able to. They suggest that intuitively she also knows how to perform a quintuple Salchow, even though she just can't seem to land one. Further cases of this sort have been offered by Jonathan Ellis in unpublished work.
I incline towards thinking that these cases don't yet show that ability is unnecessary for knowledge how, and towards thinking that Noë and Hawley offer responses to these cases that are more or less on the right track. According to Noë, if one knows how to X, and certain 'enabling conditions' are satisfied, one will be able to X. So, of the tragic concert pianist, he writes:
'We judge she knows how to play even though she is now unable to play, because we think of the loss of her arms as comparable (in the relevant sense) to the loss of her piano; as we tell the story, it is reasonable to think that the accident brings about the failure of a necessary enabling condition to be satisfied.' (Anti-Intellectualism: 283)
Hawley suggests that satisfying a counterfactual success condition is necessary for knowing how; if one's knows how to X, then: if one tried to X, under normal circumstances, one would successfully X (Success and Knowledge-How: 22). The ski instructor and the concert pianist meet this condition, since were they to attempt the stunts or playing the piano under conditions which are normal for those activities, they would succeed (23). Their lack of actual success does not impugn their knowing how.I rather suspect these proposals are best treated as variations of the same idea; one should replace the notion of 'normal' conditions for X-ing with the notion of all of the relevant enabling conditions for X-ing having been satisfied. This kind of response puts tremendous pressure on the notion of an enabling condition, and it's far from clear it can bear the strain. There's a real danger of trivialization here (as John has stressed to me in conversation - there's some relevant discussion in Hawley's paper), since we can't allow that having learned to play the piano is an enabling condition for playing the piano; we don't want to count as knowing how to play the piano someone who would be able to play were it not for her failure to have learned to play. Similarly, having practiced sufficiently cannot count as an enabling condition for playing the piano, nor can having lived in Moscow for 5 years be an enabling condition for speaking Russian; one does not know how to speak Russian even if one would be able to speak Russian if one lived in Russia for 5 years (this latter example is Hawley's). We clearly need a much better grip of the notion of an enabling condition than we currently possess.
One option that Hawley mentions in passing (22) but doesn't pursue is that cases in which one knows how to X but is cannot actually successfully X are cases in which 'physical limitations' prevent one from X-ing. This would mean that satisfaction of enabling conditions would amount to the absence of such physical limitations. Of course, this notion of a physical limitation is itself very slippery, but that doesn't show that no progress has been made. We can make what seem to be intuitively correct classifications: lack of limbs is a physical limitation, being unfit or inflexible are physical limitations, whereas not having learned to play the piano and not having lived in Russia for 5 years are not.
What surprised me reading John and Marc's paper again is that they seem to put quite considerable weight on a distinction between being unable to X right now and being unable to X generally. They hold that putative counterexamples to the necessity of ability for knowledge how fail if they are merely cases in which the subject is unable to X right now (Know-How and Concept Possession: fn5). In contrast, they argue that the ski instructor and ice-skater cases succeed in showing that ability isn't necessary for knowledge how.
They also invoke this distinction in response to an objection later in the paper. They argue that a gap between knowing how and being able does not open up with regards to certain activities, such as carrying out simple mathematical and logical operations. But they consider the objection that a small gap can open up even here:
'For instance, Irina might know how to add, but be unable to do so because she presently lacks pen and paper, the use of her fingers, an abacus, etc. (which , owing to a poor short-term memory, she needs to perform even the simplest mathematical calculations). On the face of it , this seems to be a case of knowing how to add absent the corresponding ability. But in fact it is not. For in such a case, Irina is able to add; she is just unable to do so right now.' (36, emphasis in original)
However, this is misleading. It's not just that Irina is unable to add right now; as the case is described she's unable to add generally in the absence of pen and paper (or an abacus, etc.), and it just so happens that she presently lacks these things, which explains her present inability to add. If we want to maintain that Irina knows how to add quite generally, what can we say to prevent her general inability to add under certain conditions from calling into question the necessity of ability for knowledge how even in John and Marc's restricted class of cases?
I want to suggest that John and Marc have implicitly acknowledged the need for more or less the kind of distinction that the anti-intellectualist seeks to lean on in offering a response to the ski-instructor/ice-skater/tragic pianist cases, but they've mishandled it. In taking it to be a distinction between not being able to X right now, and not be able to X generally, they've thought that it's a distinction which is of no help to the anti-intellectualist. They seem to have seen things as follows. Cases in which a subject is unable to X right now do not show that an ability to X is unnecessary, whether X here is performing a quintuple Salchow or subtracting 2 from 4. However, there are cases in which a subject intuitively knows how to perform a quintuple Salchow but is generally unable to land one, while there are no cases in which a subject intuitively knows how to subtract 2 from 4, but is generally unable to. But the case in which Irina is unable to add without paper and pen is just that; it's a case in which she's only able to add under certain conditions. The anti-intellectualist line I attributed to Hawley and Noë above suggests that just as Irina, idiosyncratically, is only able to add under certain circumstances, people more generally successfully X, for any X, only under certain circumstances; perhaps those are best thought of as circumstances in which the relevant physical limitations are absent - and perhaps not.
This suggests the story about the link between knowledge how and abilites/successful action will be enormously complicated, since we must factor in not only physical limitations or the like, but also idiosyncratic limitations like that displayed by Irina in the simple arithmetic case. But I don't find the conclusion that our story must be complicated a disappointing or objectionable one; it strikes me as one thing we should have all learned already from the ongoing debate between intellectualists and anti-intellectualists.
(Thanks to John Bengson for discussion of these issues over the past year or so).
Two quick comments:
1) Marc and I propose only that knowing how to add (subtract, etc.) entails the corresponding ability. We don't say anything about more "fine-grained" activities, such as subtracting 2 from 4 or adding with pen and paper.
2) It would appear that the inability to F under certain conditions does not generally entail the inability to F, period. (Otherwise nobody would qualify as having the ability to add, subtract, ride a bike, etc.)
You suggest, apparently in disagreement with us, that "the case in which Irina is unable to add without paper and pen is...a case in which she's only able to add under certain conditions" (emphasis added). But, intuitively, Irina is still able to add, period. Her failure to add under certain conditions -- viz., in the absence of pen and paper -- does not entail that she is unable to add, period.
"intuitively, Irina is still able to add, period. Her failure to add under certain conditions -- viz., in the absence of pen and paper -- does not entail that she is unable to add, period."
Actually, I agree entirely. So now the question is: why does her failure to add under certain conditions not call into question her ability to add, period, while the subjects' inability to X in the cases marshalled against neo-Ryleanism's necessity condition does call into question her ability to X, period?
Now, here's one answer, but I don't find it persuasive. The conditions under which the subject can't X in the counterexamples are a permanent fixture, and so unlike Irina in the addition case, the subject is not intuitively able to X, period.
But consider the following case from Snowdon:
'I know how to make a Christmas pudding, and have done so frequently. Alas, a terrible explosion obliterates the world's supply of sugar, so that no one is able to make it. I still know how to but, like everyone else, cannot.'
This sort of case, for me, just reinforces Noe and Hawley's point that we need to think in counterfactual terms; while it's clear that it's now the permanent condition of the world that noone can actually make a christmas pudding, I find it really strange to think that Snowdon's ability to make a Christmas pudding was obliterated in the blast. One can have the ability to make Christmas pudding though one lacks sugar, and one can retain one's ability even though all the sugar has gone (at least for a while - as Noe points out in his discussion of the tragic pianist, these things are sensitive to time). Similarly, I find it odd to think that Irina immediately would lose her ability to add, period, if the world's supply of pen and paper where obliterated.
So I don't find the suggestion that the difference lies in how temporary or permanent the condition which get in the way of successful action is all that impressive.
Here's the question in full generality then. When does being unable to do something under certain conditions block one from counting as being able to do that thing, period, and when is being unable to do something under certain conditions compatible with being able to do that thing, period? And what assurance do we have that the right answer to that question will vindicate the judgments you guys made in the paper, namely that the Irina-addition case is one in which compatibility is possible, while none of the attempted counterexamples to neo-Ryleanism's are?
(I should add that, like Hawley, I'm not wedded to the 'ability' terminology. I've used it here, but the important point is the claim that knowledge how entails a condition requiring counterfactually successful action. Whether one wants to call satisfying this condition possession of an ability isn't the main point. This is just intended as a point of clarification, in case my banding about of the notion of ability has been upsetting people.)
(2) You ask:
When does being unable to do something under certain conditions block one from counting as being able to do that thing, period, and when is being unable to do something under certain conditions compatible with being able to do that thing, period?
That's a hard question. I propose we use our intuitions about cases to come up with a good proposal. But our intuitions about the ski instructor case diverge from our intuitions about the adding case. Absent reason to think that these intuitions are in error, we have no reason to doubt the corresponding judgments. But then the answer we give to your question will deliver the desired results. We thus, almost trivially, have some "assurance...that the right answer...will vindicate the judgments [Marc and I] made in the paper, namely that the Irina-addition case is one in which compatibility is possible, while none of the attempted counterexamples to neo-Ryleanism's are."
I'm not quite getting your last suggestion. What are the intuitions you think we have in the cases? (I.e. the ski instructor and the Irina addition case). I was taking it that they just don't have the right kind of content to decide the issue we've been discussing. So what are you taking to be the content of the intuitions we have in these cases, and how do we base an answer to my question on them? You seem to be suggesting this is all very straightforward, but I'm not seeing quite what you have in mind. (Naturally that doesn't entail that it's not all very straightforward :)