Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Knowledge How and Understanding

Let me continue the theme of working through John and Marc's paper 'Know-how and Concept Possession' while they're too busy at the SEP to notice...

They claim (fn31) that the following case is a counterexample to any account of knowledge how that fails to make understanding necessary (as they sometime put the condition, knowing how to X requires a minimal understanding of X-ing):

'Irina knows a way of doing a salchow, namely, by taking off from the back inside edge of her skate, jumping in the air, spinning, and landing on the back outside edge of her skate. Moreover, she knows that this is a way of doing a salchow (her coach told her). Suppose, however, that Irina is deeply confused about the concepts back outside edge and back inside edge. In particular, suppose that she takes her back outside edge to be her front inside edge and her back inside edge to be her front outside edge. (As per Burge, we take it that this degree of misunderstanding is consistent with attributing to Irina possession of the concepts back outside edge and back inside edge and associated propositional attitudes.) However, as in the case described above, Irina has a severe neurological abnormality that makes her act in ways that differ dramatically from how she actually takes herself to be acting. Whenever she actually attempts to do a salchow (in accordance with her misconception of a correct way of doing one) this abnormality causes her to reliably perform the correct sequence of moves. Despite the fact that what she is doing and what she takes herself to be doing come apart, she fails to notice the mismatch. (48, fn suppressed)

It's supposedly a counterexample since any account that fails to include the understanding condition (including Stanley and Williamson's better known version of intellectualism) will rule this as a case in which Irina knows how.

But I'm sceptical. Here's a skeletal account of knowledge how, inspired by Nozick's tracking account of knowledge that (we may call it the guiding account):

S knows how to X iff:

1. S is able to X (there's a lot of complexity being suppressed here, of course. See the preceding post for discussion)

2. S has a true belief about how to X

3. ~2 []-> ~1

4. 2 []-> 1

If the tracking account gives some content to the idea that if one knows that p, one has the belief that p in virtue of p's being true, then the guiding account gives some (though admittedly not much) content to the idea that one successfully X's (or would successfully X under the right kind of conditions) in virtue of one's having a true belief about how to X.

These 4 conditions obviously raise as many questions and issues as they speak to, but let's not get into that here. The point for now is just that any account that endorses 4 seems to be in a position to deliver the result that Irina does not know how in John and Marc's case. For although in that case Irina is able to perform the jump, and she has a true belief about how to X (as a result of the testimony she's received from her trainer), there is a relevant class of worlds in which she has the belief and yet she isn't able to successfully perform the jumps; the class of worlds in which she lacks the 'severe neurological abnormality' which so fortunately cancels out her misunderstanding.

The guiding account is obviously just a toy account, but the verdict it offers in the case at hand doesn't seem at all ill-motivated. Just as Gettier-man's belief that either Jones owns a Ford or is in Barcelona fails to count as knowledge because it was merely luck that he formed a true belief, Irina fails to know how to perform the jump because her success at performing it is too lucky; there are close worlds in which Gettier man forms the belief by the same method and yet gets things wrong, and their are close worlds in which Irina tries to X, and has a true belief about how to X, but fails to because the factor that cancels out her misunderstanding is absent. On this analysis of why Irina fails to know how in such a case, it's not significant that Irina misunderstands X-ing. The relevant features of the case are just this; there's some factor which prevents her from knowing how and, crucially, it's a matter of luck, in a pertinent sense, that there's a countervailing factor which stops this from interfering with successful performance. Toy account or not, I think the guiding account provides the basis of a challenge to the claim that the case is a counterexample to any account that lacks the understanding condition.

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Hi Aidan,

Marc and I didn't intend to suggest that a non-ad hoc analysis with a condition that's necessarily equivalent to our understanding requirement couldn't get the job done.

Assuming that the nearest worlds are ones in which Irina both has the relevant belief and does not have her neurological abnormality (this isn't obvious), then perhaps condition 4 will do the trick.

Incidentally, it would be strange if the counterfactual was brute. But what would ground the falsity of the relevant counterfactual in this case? Presumably Irina's misunderstanding, in which case it is significant that Irina misunderstands. (After all, her misunderstanding is the factor that prevents her from knowing how -- the abnormality is what you call the "countervailing" factor.)

Finally, I wonder if our analysis of understanding a way, in which the notion of a guiding conception plays a certain key role, might perhaps help here. It's at that point that our account connects the mental states of the agent who knows how to F with successful F-ing -- a connection you seem to be urging.
I absolutely agree it would be strange if the counterfactuals were brute. That's really why I referred to it as a skeleton - I was envisaging a number of different ways of fleshing the thing out by offering different accounts of what makes the counterfactual conditionals true. You're right, of course, that one such account could appeal to your story about the link between understanding and knowledge how. It's an open, and I think interesting question whether there are other worthwhile options.

On the issue of the diagnosis of this case, it might be worth thinking through a range of similar cases. The diagnosis I offered tried to subsume the case in which Irina misunderstands under a more general kind of explanation. Now, one would hope that your suggestion that this isn't really more general - that this kind of explanation in terms of the luckiness of her successful action will also make reference to lack of understanding - will be testable by looking at a range of cases in which it's merely lucky that the subject successfully Xs. We can look at these cases and judge whether it's an essential feature that the subject misunderstand how to X.

I know of one case in the existent literature, and it's the alternative case you guys discuss where Irina has a false belief about how to perform a Salchow, but where her abnormality leads her to successfully perform the jump nonetheless. But this case is no good, since she has a false belief. What we are looking for is a range of cases in which a subject has a true belief (a knowledgeable belief, if you must) about how to X, and is able to successful X, and yet the link between them is too lucky in the relevant sense. Once we have some cases on the table, we can examine whether understanding and misunderstanding is a recurring theme, or whether, as I guess I was assuming when I wrote the post, there are a number of different ways that true or knowledgeable belief about how to X could threaten to fail to lead to successful action, each of which could be 'fixed' in a lucky fashion. So let's have the cases!
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