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Symposia. Pragmatism and Common-Sense

Knowledge as Potential for Action

Stephen Hetherington


Can we conceive cogently of all knowledge – in particular, all knowledge of truths – as being knowledge-how? This paper provides reasons for thinking not only that is this possible, but that it is conceptually advantageous and suggestive. Those reasons include adaptations of, and responses to, some classic philosophical arguments and ideas, from Descartes, Hume, Peirce, Mill, and Ryle. The paper’s position is thus a practicalism – a kind of pragmatism – about the nature of knowledge, arguing that all knowledge is knowledge-how to act – to do this, to do that. Such a conception can include, too, a distinctive view of the metaphysical relation between knowledge and belief. We see that, contrary to what most contemporary epistemologists say, knowledge need not be a form of belief. Instead, a belief that p can be a way simply of enriching or strengthening knowledge that p. It can do this in a paracticalist way, by allowing one to do more with the knowledge.

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Author's notes

Brent Madison made very helpful comments on a draft of this paper, as did audiences at Soochow University, Australian Catholic University, and Cambridge University.

Full text

1. A Question

  • 1 For overviews of these attempts, see Shope 1983, Lycan 2006, and Hetherington 2016a.

1Western epistemology has long had a focus upon knowledge-that – knowledge of a truth or fact – when discussing knowledge at all. Within contemporary epistemology in particular, definitional analyses of knowledge-that have abounded, especially since Edmund Gettier’s (1963) philosophical bee-sting. He set off a rash of epistemological agreement – allergy-like in its intensity and its speedy spread of the conviction that there is more to knowing than having a true and well justified belief; and putative stories about that ‘more’ have proliferated. In general, though, even those post-Gettier attempts to understand knowledge’s nature1 have not attempted to do so in terms of knowledge-how.

  • 2 Apart, that is, from Stanley & Williamson 2001 and those epistemologists responding to them. Stanl (...)

2Perhaps the closest they have come to doing so2 has been within some versions of a virtue epistemology. Ernest Sosa (e.g. 2007, 2011, 2015, 2016) has emphasized the potential role of cognitive virtues within the production of an individual’s knowledge. These may be regarded as cognitive skills on the part of the person – skills that could in turn be conceived of as instances of knowledge-how. Knowledge-how would thus be involved in at least a person’s gaining some knowledge-that.

3But should we contemplate an even stronger link than that causally productive one between knowledge-how and knowledge-that? Might the knowing-how be literally a part of the knowing-that, even after the knowledge-that has been produced through the agency that is inherent in activating and applying the pertinent knowledge-how? That metaphysically (not merely causally) constitutive possibility – about how knowledge-how might be a vital part even of the nature of knowledge-that – is this paper’s concern.

2. A Traditional Interpretation: Persisting Belief

4We can ease into that discussion by asking about knowledge and belief. And initially we can do this via an example. It describes a familiar sort of situation, involving an array of cognitively charged actions. What might it indicate about knowledge, about belief, and about any potentially constitutive relations between those two?

5Imagine being asked whether you know that 58 + 68 = 126. You reflect for a moment, consciously performing a simple calculation, before replying that, yes, you do have that knowledge. Are you thereby committed to the view also that you believe that 58 + 68 = 126? You may well claim so. Yet what would be your evidence for those views of yourself?

  • 3 Here, I am thinking of Anscombe’s account (1963) of one’s knowledge of one’s own intentional actio (...)

6At this moment, when you actively ponder those two questions – Do you know? Do you believe? – what you are most manifestly aware of are some actions on your part. You notice your engaging in some calculating. You monitor this activity. You might feel yourself accepting the result of that calculating. Then you give voice to – by asserting – that result: ‘126. That’s the answer.’ You hear yourself giving that answer, perhaps as anyone else hears your words, although maybe as only you could hear them.3

7Yet where in all of this have you espied a belief – in the robust sense of a persisting or continuing belief? Presumably, no such belief is identical with any of those actions by you. Is the belief therefore something beyond or behind these actions, maybe underlying them? You have no direct awareness of interacting with a belief like that. Indeed, you cannot have such an awareness. For you cannot introspectively observe the persisting existence of the belief beyond its being interacted with by you. Even if somehow you experience a content within yourself, you experience it only in its capacity as a content present at that time of being experienced. Again, where within this experience is the persisting belief?

8For that matter, where – within all of this – is your knowledge that 58 + 68 = 126? For instance, is it wherever the belief is (wherever that is), due to knowledge’s always being a kind of belief? Many would say so, in tune with the epistemologically entrenched view – perhaps bequeathed to contemporary philosophy by Plato’s Meno (97e-98a) – that any instance of knowledge is a kind of belief, an epistemically enriched belief. The belief (they will say, in explaining that view) is the metaphysically describable ‘stuff’ or substance that, once it is epistemically enriched, is the ‘thing’ that is the knowledge. The belief is the ‘thing’ in which the knowledge’s further required properties – those that are enriching the belief epistemically, properties such as being true and being epistemically justified – ‘inhere’ or to which they ‘attach.’ Accordingly, is it possible, at least in principle, to describe your belief’s presence in this situation in advance of ascertaining whether you also have the knowledge that 58 + 68 = 126?

  • 4 And could one use that sort of explanation in a special way, in crediting oneself with having a co (...)

9Yet how would that happen (if indeed it can)? For example, could you find the belief indirectly, maybe by inference from some of your self-observations in this setting? Various of your actions, such as the calculating, could be said to be generating the belief’s presence. Other actions, such as your accepting or your asserting, would likely be taken to be reflecting or arising from the belief’s presence. The presence of any or all of these actions would supposedly either explain or be explained by the belief’s own presence. In that spirit, should we say that the best explanation of these actions would mention the belief’s presence?4 Not only that; are such actions also best explained – in almost the same breath – as somehow generating and/or reflecting or arising from your knowing that 58 + 68 = 126? If knowledge is always a form of belief, then these actions reflect the belief that 58 + 68 = 126, for example, only if they also reflect – even if possibly not in quite the same way – the knowledge that 58 + 68 = 126.

10Still, is knowledge always a form of belief? For a start, not all of philosophy’s relevant history insists that it is. What, indeed, of the strongly contrary picture, on which knowledge and belief are metaphysically disjoint, so that to know that p is not, even in part, to believe that p? That contrary picture was also first painted for us by Plato, this time in the Republic (475b-480). On this picture, belief and knowledge are taken to be so deeply distinct in nature as to underlie the idiom, ‘No, I don’t believe it; I know it.’ And if this disjointness thesis is correct, how should we interpret your actions, described in this section, as indications of your believing – or, distinctly, of your knowing – that 58 + 68 = 126?

11§ 9 will discuss this issue more fully, by attending to a recent argument – from Blake Myers-Schulz and Eric Schwitzgebel (2013) – for the disjointness thesis. Until then, however, let us stay with the knowledge-as-a-kind-of-belief picture, given its being the most widely accepted view among contemporary epistemologists as to what kind of thing an instance of knowledge is.

3. An Alternative Interpretation: Inner Actions

12The line of questioning introduced in § 2 might remind us of a famous argument by David Hume (1978 [1739-40]: book I, part IV, sec. VI). I have in mind his objection to the thesis that within each person there exists an identifiable, distinct, and persisting personal substance – with its continuing existence being an essential explanatory element of a person’s numerical identity over time. In presenting his argument, Hume conducted the same sort of self-search as I asked you to perform a moment ago.

13So, look within – for your self (asks Hume) or for your belief (this is my request). Seek that privately persisting substance or that persisting belief. In neither case will you succeed: all that you will clearly meet are experiences occurring at that time of their being uncovered by your inner investigation. And whatever else, if anything, these are at a moment of being met by your inner explorations, you can meet such an experience only in its capacity as something itself active, something happening and alive.

14An experience can have a content adverting to more than this moment. And often you may feel that you are meeting within you a persisting attitude to that content. But that feeling could be misleading. What you meet at that moment is an attitude present at least at that time; and you do not thereby meet something present at another time. Even if the attitude you meet has a content that you feel yourself to be accepting also for other times, you are not meeting it while it is functioning as an object of acceptance at other times. As Hume says (1978: 252):

when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist.

15Is that merely a Humean eccentricity? Far from it; the similarity of this Humean reasoning to Descartes’ Cogito, no less, is striking. In perhaps modern Western philosophy’s most famous reasoning, Descartes reassured himself that, so long as he was thinking (even if only by doubting), he knew himself to exist – but only as that active thinking. He could not know himself within that setting – ‘Meditation II’ – as a persisting and independently existing substance, even when restricting his known features to mental ones. And with this assessment of what he can know and what he cannot know, Descartes claimed to answer his metaphysically foundational question, ‘But what then am I?’ (1984 [1641]: 18, 19, 22):

I am, I exist – that is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking. For it could be that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist.

[…] But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.

[…] But what am I to say about this mind, or about myself? (So far, remember, I am not admitting that there is anything else in me except a mind.)

  • 5 I mention introspection here because it was what Hume and Descartes were using.

16And so far I am saying something similar about your inner experienced self as a knower. You cannot ever know that you are finding within you (at least by introspection) a persisting and independently existing epistemic substance – such as a continuing state of belief – able to be the metaphysical ‘stuff’ of your knowing that 58 + 68 = 126.5 Only inner actions – cognitive ones – existing at the time of the introspective search will be knowingly encountered. Yet this should not be surprising. Only by acting could you know, as a result of effort at that time, something present within you at that same time. Such acting cannot know that it has found anything inner beyond something existing as an object of such acting. (Some acting is being known, we may suppose. And in order to know something inner and beyond that acting, one has to continue one’s inner acting; with which effort, you continue meeting only what is thereby, at any such moment, not existing at any further moment.)

4. Knowledge-that as Knowledge-how

17Is that a worrying picture? Does it confront us with a reason never to regard ourselves as believers, or even as knowers?

  • 6 Here is a possibly significant aspect of it upon which I will not dwell (partly because it arises (...)

18Not if we are prepared to make some correlative conceptual adjustments. Specifically, we can respond to that line of thought about knowledge somewhat as Hume responded to his own about persons. He proposed a reconception of the fundamental nature of personal identity. What is a person? Hume’s answer was that each of us is a republic or commonwealth of experiences (1978: 261), a bundle of ideas and impressions (1978: 252). What persists as a person’s persisting is the bundle as such – not necessarily its particular members, and not a further inner substance underlying and binding together those phenomena. Might an analogous picture illuminate the relationship between a person’s persisting knowledge, such as her knowing that 58 + 68 = 126, and her related cognitive actions (such as calculating, accepting, and asserting)? This possibility merits attention.6

19First, let me describe it a little less schematically.

  • 7 Stanley (2011) talks at times of various actions as manifesting some knowledge-that. But actions m (...)
  • 8 On this way of conceiving of knowledge-how, see Hetherington (e.g. 2008, 2011a, 2011b, 2015) and G (...)

20Let those cognitive actions – your calculating, your accepting, your asserting – be expressions or manifestations, in their different ways, of your knowledge that 58 + 68 = 126. But let them be expressing or manifesting this knowledge, precisely as actions can express or manifest knowledge-how.7 For now, we may think of this as the actions expressing or manifesting associated abilities or skills.8 (Thus, you would be calculating aptly as an expression of your knowing how to do so. The same would be true of the subsequent actions of your accepting, and your asserting, that 58 + 68 = 126.) Finally, we may also propose or hypothesize that this knowledge-how – this collection of skills – would be your knowledge that 58 + 68 = 126. To describe the knowledge-how would be to describe all that there is in having the knowledge-that.

21Notice how the relationship being described as obtaining between your actions and your knowledge-how is metaphysically constitutive. Your cognitive actions, in being the actions they are, express or manifest those attendant abilities or skills, the accompanying knowledge-how. Their nature as those actions is to be such expressions or manifestations. They are not merely caused by your having the associated knowledge-how.

22Notice also how a single case of knowledge-how can encompass several – maybe many – distinct kinds of action: knowing-how can be multi-twined in that way. It is a picture with a Peircean tenor. Think of C. S. Peirce’s (1931-58: vol. V, para. 265) conception of evidential support:

  • 9 That advice is from Peirce’s 1868 paper, ‘Some consequences of four incapacities’. An echo of it, (...)

Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premises which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibers may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.9

23Your calculating, your accepting, your asserting: these are actions expressing or manifesting your knowing that 58 + 68 = 126. Equally, they are ways of expressing some or all of whatever skills are jointly constituting a commonwealth or bundle of your associated abilities. That commonwealth or bundle may then be regarded as some complex knowledge-how: you have some specific knowledge insofar as you have some pertinent abilities, each of which is such that an action expressing or manifesting it is thereby an expression or manifestation of knowing.

24And so we have this explanatory hypothesis:

Actions that seem to reflect knowledge-that are expressions of knowledge-how; and to note this is to explain all that would be explained in positing the knowledge-that. Hence, if we insist on knowledge-that’s being present, we are free to regard the knowledge-that as the knowledge-how. In short, knowledge-that is knowledge-how and nothing else.

5. The Order-of-Explanation Objection and Intellectualism

25But is that proposed order of explanation actually the reverse of what it should be? The objection generating this question would insist (as follows) that the knowledge-that’s presence explains the knowledge-how’s presence; and not vice versa:

You know how to reach, accept, and assert ‘126’ as an answer to our mathematical question (and hence, other things being equal, you do provide this answer) in a way that is recognizably knowledgeable – only in part because, independently and already, you know that 58 + 68 = 126. You can perform those actions – calculating, accepting, asserting – as expressions or manifestations of the knowledge-how, only because you have the knowledge-that. Those skills – your abilities to calculate, accept, and assert in this circumstance – are means only of putting into effect your knowledge-that. The knowledge-how that enters this simple story amounts only to being your knowing how to manifest or give expression to what is already and independently your knowledge that 58 + 68 = 126.

26This is the order-of-explanation objection. It bespeaks what is for many people a natural conception of how knowledge and action coalesce. The objection gives voice to what Gilbert Ryle (1949, 1971) called intellectualism. It was Ryle who brought to epistemology’s attention the potential categorial difference between knowledge-that and knowledge-how – their being irreconcilably different kinds of knowledge. Whether there is that metaphysically deep difference between them depends upon whether intellectualism is true. Like Ryle, I say that intellectualism is false – demonstrably false.

27Intellectualism concerns what Ryle called intelligent actions – what we have been referring to as exemplifications or manifestations of knowledge-how; what Jason Stanley (2011) calls skilful actions. How do these come to exist as actions with this epistemic character? According to intellectualism, they are guided into existence by some knowledge-that, perhaps regulative knowledge-that describing a method or technique. So, go ahead: climb aboard that bicycle. Then start riding. In doing so, you will be applying your knowledge that B – for some proposition B describing enough of what would suffice for successfully riding a bicycle. You will be putting into practice some practical knowledge – your knowledge how to ride a bicycle. But intellectualism claims that you can do this only in part through possessing, and being guided by, some already-present and independently constituted propositional or theoretical knowledge – in this case, your knowledge that B.

28Nonetheless, here is one way in which, by taking our cue from Ryle, we might argue against any such intellectualist picture.

29The intellectualist hears of your riding the bicycle skilfully. She infers that you must have applied some knowledge-that, such as the knowledge that B. But your applying the knowledge that B is itself a further intelligent action. (Although it is perhaps not consciously applied, it is at least reliably directed. And it is relevantly different to digesting, which is also reliably directed yet which you never learnt, for example.) Somehow, you skilfully apply your knowledge that B. However, this will likewise attract the intellectualist’s attention: she must posit a further piece of knowledge – this time, your knowledge that B1 – as being applied by you. B1 is knowledge of some means of applying your knowledge that B (your knowledge of a way of riding a bicycle). Can the intellectualist’s analysis end there? Not if this further knowledge has also been applied skilfully. And surely it has; in which case, intellectualism requires you to have been applying yet another piece of knowledge – call it knowledge that B2. As before, this new knowledge will be guiding into action the previously hypothesized knowledge – this time, the knowledge that B1. And so on: in turn, you will be required to have known that B3, to have known that B4, etc. More and more knowledge is thus being expected from you, unendingly and impossibly, even to explain just a single intelligent action on your part. For Ryle, the reason for this unwelcome result was evident: namely, intellectualism is false.

30In what follows, I will assume for argument’s sake that Ryle was right about this – because he might well have been, and because I am asking what conceptual possibilities are realistic if he was right. If he was, then the following possibility is available as we try to understand how knowledge and action intermingle:

There can be intelligent actions – ones manifesting or expressing knowledge-how – that need not have been guided into existence by knowledge-that.

31This implies that it is possible for at least some knowledge-how not to include knowledge-that within itself. If in each case knowledge-that was to be part of the knowledge-how, then manifesting the knowledge-how would include manifesting the contained knowledge-that. But Ryle’s form of reasoning implies that it is possible for an intelligent action to be performed – knowledge-how thereby being manifested – without any involvement by knowledge-that.

6. Knowing Actions

32I am hypothesizing that all knowledge-that is knowledge-how, not that all knowledge-how is knowledge-that. Accordingly, not all intelligent actions – even though they express or manifest knowledge-how – express or manifest knowledge-that. Still, we must face the question of whether all knowing actions (as I call them) do so.

  • 10 ‘But is your calculating intended to convey knowledge? Or is its aim instead to reach the knowledg (...)

33Knowing actions encompass such actions as those that we imagined you performing in response to the question, ‘What is 58 + 68?’ – your calculating, your accepting, your asserting. Any knowing action has an apparent point of manifesting or expressing knowledge. We may parse this as the knowing action’s point being that of conveying knowledge. Riding a bicycle, for example, is an intelligent action without being a knowing action. In contrast, answering the question ‘What is 58 + 68?’ with ‘126’ does occur with the aim of conveying knowledge. Hence, it is a knowing action.10

34Nonetheless, knowing actions remain a kind of intelligent action (in Ryle’s sense of the latter). So, at this stage of our thinking, we have no reason not to apply Ryle’s general anti-intellectualist argument to them. Courtesy of Ryle, therefore, we may infer this:

Even when knowledge-how is being manifested by a knowing action, this need not be occurring because of some knowledge-that’s guidance. (Yes, a knowing action typically has a point of conveying knowledge. Even this does not entail knowledge-that’s also guiding the action.) In which case, equally, the knowing action need not be occurring under the guiding influence of some knowledge-that’s presence. (For according to intellectualism, the pertinent point of the knowledge-that’s presence would be precisely to provide such guidance. If – as is shown by Ryle’s anti-intellectualism argument – guidance by knowledge-that is not needed, then neither is the presence of knowledge-that.)

35Correlatively, too, we need not posit the existence of some knowledge-that as accompanying the knowing action. Doing so would be explanatorily idle. I am not saying that no knowledge-that could be present. But there need not be any, even given the occurrence of knowing actions. The latter actions can be knowing ones, given simply some accompanying knowledge-how.

7. Knowledge in Action

36Yet § 6’s picture of how we can act knowingly could well sound implausible, along the following lines:

Maybe Ryle was right to deny that an intelligent action such as riding a bicycle must be accompanied, let alone guided, by some knowledge-that. Surely, however, when the intelligent action is also a knowing action in particular – such as your asserting an answer of ‘126’ to the question, ‘What is 58 + 68?’ – knowledge-that does need to be present, playing some causal role in the knowing action’s coming into existence.

37Not only that (continues the objection); presumably some epistemologists will object that if no knowledge-that is present then the actions are knowing ones only in a distressingly weak way. These would be knowing actions only in the sense of being intended to convey knowledge.

38But that objection begs the central question to which my proposal is offering an alternative answer. That answer begins by clarifying Ryle’s result, as follows.

39What he showed (when his point is formulated more precisely) is that intelligent actions are not guided into existence by some categorially distinct knowledge-that. Nor, therefore (I infer), are knowing actions. And the significance of that added precision is its revealing how we have conceptual room for interpreting such actions (intelligent actions in general; knowing actions in particular) as able to exist as expressions or manifestations of knowledge-how – and thereby of knowledge-that. The knowledge-that would now not be categorially distinct from knowledge-how. So, we may say that, whenever a knowing action occurs, there is knowledge accompanying it. However, this knowledge is the knowledge-how that is being manifested or expressed by the knowing action.

40And we can distinguish these cases of knowledge-how – the ones that are knowledge-that – from other cases of knowledge-how. We do this, not categorially, but by attending to the content of the respective intelligent actions that would be expressions or manifestations of the knowledge-how in question. Your knowledge that 58 + 68 = 126 is a complex of abilities, each of which aims at conveying a truth. Your knowledge how to ride a bicycle is a complex of abilities, probably none of which aims at conveying a truth.

  • 11 ‘Yet how could one know that one has a persisting ability to perform such actions, if (as was argu (...)
  • 12 Elsewhere (2011b), I have argued for a distinction between knowledge and knowing. But in this pape (...)
  • 13 I am not sure that Ryle himself saw this. He does say (1949: 134) that, when one knows that p, one (...)

41Knowing actions are thus instances of knowledge in action. Each such action is an instance of knowledge activated – knowledge being activated. In general, though, knowledge-how can exist even when it is not activated. After all, abilities need not be manifested – put into action – in order to exist.11 And this is as it should be: much of your knowledge does not disappear when you sleep, even when all of your manifestations of that knowledge – the knowing actions distinctive of the knowledge in question – do so.12 So knowledge is inactive or unactivated other than when knowing actions are expressing or manifesting it. Then it is activated, at least for a while. Your accepting the right answer; your uttering the right answer: each of these is your putting into action the knowledge-how that is your knowing that 58 + 68 = 126. The knowledge as such, though, remains knowledge-how.13

8. Perceptual Knowledge

42We have focused upon a case of mathematical knowledge. How does my account apply to perceptual knowledge?

43Elegantly so. Imagine being outside a field, looking at what seems to be a barn; as indeed it is. So you think to yourself that it is a barn. You do not also consciously note its roof being red. Nevertheless, you can know that the barn’s roof is red, by having pertinent abilities. Are you able to picture, if asked, the colour of the barn’s roof? Are you able, if asked, to describe that colour? If you have one or both of those abilities, you have the knowledge – even if you are never asked those questions.

44However, this knowledge could remain inactive if those questions are never posed. In that sense, the knowledge – by being knowledge-how – is a potentiality within you. It is your having a potential for many knowing actions, both inner ones and outer ones. It is a potential for answering questions and/or for forming questions and/or for consciously describing an aspect of the surroundings and/or for drawing that aspect and/or etc. If the knowledge was to be activated (such as if you were to be asked about the roof’s colour), you might proceed to have a consciously held experience of believing about the roof’s colour. Even so, this would not be your knowledge of the roof’s colour. Your inner experience – even if it feels to you like it is the mere ‘tip’ of an inner persisting belief – would instead be only a manifestation or expression of the perceptual knowledge, the perceptual knowledge-how.

9. Knowledge and Belief

45I have been outlining how we might begin to conceive of all knowledge as being knowledge-how. The idea has been that, in general, any instance of knowledge that p is a complex instance of knowledge-how – complex in the range and number of specific skills or abilities that are somehow bundled together within it, each of them bearing relevantly upon p. That idea should now be tested by our trying to answer the question – mentioned in § 2 – of where belief fits into this picture of knowledge.

  • 14 For this traditional conception of belief, see Cohen 1992, for example.

46The question is pressing because many philosophers would say that the complex potentiality that, on my view, is the given instance of knowledge is present only because, in turn, knowledge is a kind of belief. More fully, the potentiality that, I have suggested, is part of an instance of knowing is actually part of the belief that is (by being suitably embellished) the instance of knowledge. And if so, there is no motivation to conceive of knowledge in practicalist terms. Rather (say those epistemologists), we could rest content with a traditional view simply of belief – as a required element within knowledge – as a dispositional state: that is, if confronted by a pertinent circumstance (such as one’s being asked whether it is true that p), one would respond in a p-affirming or p-reflecting way.14 Such an action could be an intelligent action, in Ryle’s sense. It could also be a knowing action, in my sense. Is a dispositional conception of belief therefore already adequate for capturing the potentialities that I have described as constituting knowledge (and thus as motivating a move to a knowledge-practicalism)? If it is, then maybe knowledge could still be thought of in more traditional terms, as being a form of belief (albeit an epistemically blessed or augmented form). Consequently, we would not need to reach – in the less traditional way that I have been advocating – for a practicalism about knowledge’s nature.

47I grant that a belief-manifesting action, say, can also be a knowing action. Hence, I also grant, at least some of the dispositionality within believing could be at least part of the potentiality within a given instance of knowing. But this does not entail that the former dispositionality ever – let alone always – exhausts the latter potentiality. After all, there is an alternative explanation of this apparent overlap of potentialities – one that preserves a knowledge-practicalism. This alternative explanation also offers us a middle way between the Republic-Platonic disjointness thesis – whereby to believe that p is to not know that p, and to know that p is to not believe that p – and the Meno-Platonic tradition – whereby any instance of knowledge is at least a true opinion or true belief, bolstered by a logos (an account, an understanding).

  • 15 For discussion of Ryle on this issue, see Scheffler 1968, Myers-Schulz & Schwitzgebel 2013, and Kr (...)

48Ryle is suggestive here (1949: 133-4):15

‘Know’ is a capacity verb, and a capacity verb of that special sort that is used for signifying that the person described can bring things off, or get things right. ‘Believe’, on the other hand, is a tendency verb and one which does not connote that anything is brought off or got right. […]
Roughly, ‘believe’ is of the same family as motive words, where ‘know’ is of the same family as skill words; so we ask how a person knows this, but only why a person believes that […] Skills have methods, where habits and inclinations have sources. Similarly, we ask what makes people believe or dread things but not what makes them know or achieve things.

49Ryle thus emphasizes a standard sense in which knowledge strengthens belief. One has a success-relationship to a fact that p in knowing that p, a relationship that one need not have in believing that p: knowledge is always factive, while belief is not.

50Nonetheless, Ryle overlooks a sense – a practicalist one – in which the converse strengthening relation can obtain: believing can strengthen knowing. Specifically, when one both knows and believes that p, the belief, even if dispositionally so, opens up some possible ways of using the knowledge. By having a belief that p, I suggest, one is able – indeed, one could be well able – to perform various actions that (i) can also be manifestations or expressions of the knowledge that p, (ii) do not exhaust the range of possible manifestations or expressions of the knowledge, and (iii) could be unavailable to one in the absence of the belief.

51In support of that picture, we may consider the cases with which Myers-Schulz and Schwitzgebel (2013: 374-7) have argued that there can be instances of knowledge without an accompanying belief. Myers-Schulz and Schwitzgebel offer five cases (‘the unconfident examinee,’ ‘the absent-minded driver,’ ‘the prejudiced professor,’ ‘the freaked-out movie-watcher,’ ‘the self-deceived husband’) – using these cases as experimental philosophers would. But we can also use the cases a priori, while engaging with this question: ‘Is there something missing from what the knowledge could be, insofar as the knowledge is present yet the belief is not?’

52The first case will suffice here. It is an adaptation of Colin Radford’s (1966) oft-cited case. Myers-Shulz and Schwitzgebel imagine someone, Kate, being asked, in an exam, ‘In what year did Queen Elizabeth I die?’ Kate has studied for the exam; but this question arises for her only when the exam period has almost expired – as the teacher announces. Hearing the announcement, Kate panics, tries to recall the answer, fails – and writes, albeit with no confidence, the correct answer. Is that answer knowledge on Kate’s part? Is she lacking belief (in the correctness of her answer) at that moment? A significant proportion of respondents surveyed by Myers-Schulz and Schwitzgebel attributed knowledge but not belief to Kate; as would I. For the sake of argument, therefore, I will accept that Kate has knowledge – not belief, though – as to Queen Elizabeth’s dying in 1603.

53And what does Kate – as that knower – lose by not having that belief? In particular, does she lose anything relevantly epistemic? Indeed she does. For example, deprived of the belief in the way described by Myers-Schulz and Schwitzgebel, she would lack the confidence to express consciously the knowledge, at least in many situations. Seemingly, she would qualify or weaken her answer of ‘1603’ if that action was available to her. And, if not for being forced by the exam’s strictures to provide an answer, she might well have opted not to do so. Clearly, there is a respect in which, by lacking the belief in this way, Kate lacks some meta-knowledge: she does not know that she knows the year of Queen Elizabeth’s death, even though she does (I am assuming) have the latter knowledge, the knowledge directly about Queen Elizabeth. And the lack of that meta-knowledge, given its both reflecting and expressing itself for her in a conscious lack of confidence in her having the knowledge about Queen Elizabeth, will itself affect her ability to respond aptly in various circumstances where the latter knowledge is being investigated or sought. So, the lack of belief – as manifested in Kate’s lack of conscious confidence – does weaken her epistemically in this setting. Even if it does not deprive her of the underlying knowledge, it could deprive her of at least some knowing actions, ones that would – by expressing the belief – express or manifest the knowledge. It thereby weakens the knowledge’s power for her, at least in practise. Again, though, this is not to say that the knowledge is absent: there are still knowing actions that she will perform (such as providing, if forced, the correct answer in the exam). But there are others that she will not perform.

  • 16 See Hetherington (2011a: ch. 1) on the many respects in which traditional epistemology has side-st (...)

54My practicalist suggestion, then, is that, insofar as knowledge that p is present without belief that p, a person can do less of what would count as manifesting or expressing the knowledge. In not believing that p, she loses the ability – the capacity – to perform, in at least some ways in at least some situations, actions that would be natural expressions or manifestations of the knowledge that p. Nonetheless, this remains consistent with her having enough other abilities that suffice for her having the knowledge. To believe is thus to have an ability, perhaps dispositional in nature, that can be present as part of having some knowledge – even if its being so is not essential for the knowledge’s being present. Other things being equal, a given instance of knowledge’s potential for producing knowing actions can be strengthened by including a belief among the sub-abilities that happen to jointly constitute it as being the complex potentiality that it is. Yet the knowledge that p’s being stronger in this way than it might have been is not essential to its mere presence; what it is essential to is knowledge’s having a specific epistemic strength as knowledge that p. It is not essential to the complex potentiality’s being strong enough (however strong that is)16 simply to be present as knowledge that p.

10. The State of Knowing

55Implicit in this paper’s practicalism is a metaphysics of knowing, one element of which is the following.

  • 17 Is that state only ever of a person – and of nothing else in addition? For the idea of some knowin (...)
  • 18 See, for example, Sosa (2011, 2015, 2016) for statements of this approach. Reed (2016: 108) accomm (...)

56Insofar as all knowing is knowledge-how, we are free to maintain a view of knowing – and, for that matter, of believing – as a state.17 That is a traditional picture, as far as it goes. But not everyone would accept it. §1 mentioned Ernest Sosa’s recent attempts to develop a virtue-theoretic conception of knowledge. On that conception, both knowledge and belief are kinds of epistemic performance.18 If such a conception succeeds, then epistemic norms – of behaviour, of action – are applicable; which is indeed what Sosa deems to be the case. Such a conception goes further in that direction than my practicalism does, in that it treats knowledge, say, as an action, whereas I treat knowledge only as potential for actions.

57I take heart, then, from the linguistic data’s being against Sosa in this respect. Matthew Chrisman (2012: 601) explains:

The basic result is that belief and knowledge attributions seem, by virtue of their meaning, to be about something nondynamic, whereas paradigmatic performance descriptions (for example, of arrow shootings [an example used often by Sosa]) seem to be about something dynamic and so nonstative. I think this shows that Sosa’s suggestion that belief is a performance – which when successful (true) because skillful (justified) is apt and so a kind of knowledge – involves him in a sort of metaphysical category mistake in the way he uses these words.

58Again, on my picture believing and knowing are states. A belief that p, when present as part of some knowledge that p, brings with it various possibilities for action; and some of these (as we saw in §9) are possible actions that knowledge-without-belief would not ground. So, a belief-state can enrich a knowledge-state. It is not a mere part of a knowledge-state: to believe is to have more possible actions – specifically, further knowing actions – available to one, other things being equal.

  • 19 And because it could be a potential grounded in the person as such (I have said nothing to the con (...)

59Nevertheless, I am saying that, even when a person does both know that p and believe that p, the knowledge is not itself the belief. The contrary tradition – the Meno-Platonic one – tells us that knowledge is a belief, so long as the belief has various epistemically welcome features. Proponents of that tradition are using, in effect, a substance-attribute model of what knowledge is. They are treating the belief as needing to be present, and as amounting to some ‘metaphysical unit’ that is the knowledge, so long as it also has various epistemically pertinent features, such as being supported by good evidence. I am arguing, however, that this traditional metaphysical picture is optional at best. I am offering instead a potentialities model of knowledge. On this model, all that constitutes the knowing is the person’s potential, however this is realised or grounded, for various suitably related actions.19 I have explained that these actions may be conceived of as knowing actions: like other Rylean intelligent actions, they are manifestations or expressions of the knowledge, given its being knowledge-how; unlike some Rylean intelligent actions, though (such as riding a bicycle), these are ones whose point is at least to convey or express the knowledge.

60These knowing actions can be useful, in turn, for further ends. But in all such circumstances this is because the actions express knowledge. C. I. Lewis’s words are apposite here (1946: 3):

The primary and pervasive significance of knowledge lies in its guidance of action: knowing is for the sake of doing. […] [O]nly an active being could have knowledge […] A creature which did not enter into the process of reality to alter in some part the future content of it, could apprehend a world only in the sense of intuitive or esthetic contemplation; and such contemplation would not possess the significance of knowledge but only that of enjoying and suffering.

61I concur; and I extend Lewis’s pragmatist point. His pragmatism is not as far-reaching as it could be, in that he retains the Meno-Platonic structuring – what contemporary epistemologists usually call the conceptual analysis – of knowledge. He tells us (1946: 9) that knowledge is ‘an assertive state of mind’: that is, knowledge is at least a belief, of some or other form. Surrounding this, he holds in place the standard substance-attribute model that I described above. He says (ibid.) this: ‘Knowledge is belief which not only is true but also is justified in its believing attitude.’ In contrast, I say, knowledge is only a potential that can include whatever potential is inherent in believing; knowledge is not automatically in part an instance of believing.

11. Truth in Action

62If we are to conceive of knowledge-that as a kind of knowledge-how, it is imperative that we answer this question:

How radical a reconception of knowledge is being contemplated? Which of knowledge’s constitutive properties (as these have formerly been envisaged by epistemologists) will stay? Which will depart?

63I have already argued that belief – persisting belief – is not essential within knowledge. (I have hypothesized that knowledge is knowledge-how, having argued that knowledge need not include a persisting belief.) What now of truth? Where is it to be located within this alternative picture – what I have elsewhere (e.g. 2011a) called a practicalism about the nature of knowledge-that?

  • 20 ‘How does a belief – which is a state, not an event, let alone an action – express or manifest kno (...)

64Certainly we expect knowledge to incorporate truth. But this requirement must be formulated carefully. Suppose we say that part of your knowing that 58 + 68 = 126 is its being true that 58 + 68 = 126. Well, it remains true that 58 + 68 = 126, regardless of what it is to know this truth. So, that formulation was not quite correct. The question is one of how the specific truth is to be part of the knowledge – included in the knowledge – rather than of how the truth is to obtain regardless of the knowledge’s nature. Traditional accounts of knowledge say that knowledge includes truth because knowledge includes a belief (or something similar) and because this belief’s content is true. How will my practicalist analysis replace that supposed explanation? On my picture, what within the person is true (if not necessarily a belief)? I have not said that believing is never present within a case of knowledge. I have denied only that it always need be present: believing is just one of the possible ways of manifesting or expressing the knowledge in question.20 When believing is present, it could be true – making the knowledge true – in the usual way. Nonetheless, that is not an adequate explanation, on my conception of knowledge. I need a more general account of truth’s presence, covering also the other possible manifestations or expressions of the knowledge-how that is the knowledge-that.

65Accordingly, I welcome Richard Campbell’s (2011) discussion of the concept of truth. His key contention is that we need not restrict ourselves to what he calls the linguistic conception of truth (ibid.: ch. 2); for that is not the most fundamental or general conception of truth. A traditionally motivated focus upon belief-contents as the only way in which truth can be part of knowledge would reflect only that more restrictive conception of truth. Campbell argues (ibid.: chs. 4, 5) that we may think of truth first and foremost as a feature of actions (and only derivatively as a feature of believings, say). Reflect on how readily we do speak of an action’s being true. Let us take such talk literally, by saying that an action is true when it is reliable or faithful. (For example, a kick can be true, as can a swimming stroke – in each case, pure and clean and effective and thus what it should ideally be, other things being equal.) We may then extend that insight. A true friend, for instance, is likewise reliable and faithful (ibid.: 104). She can be relied upon in her actions, or she will be faithful in her actions – all of this, given her character (ibid.: 110-1). We thus begin to understand how truth can be a property of actions and even of their agents. An action is true insofar as it treats – rather than represents – things as they are (ibid.: 123).

  • 21 An infallibilist would replace this ‘at least most’ with ‘all.’ My formulation is thus fallibilist (...)
  • 22 There is a noteworthy overlap between this conception of the truth condition within knowledge, and (...)

66We may thereby speak similarly of your knowledge-how – including the particular knowledge-how that is your knowing that 58 + 68 = 126 – being reliable and faithful. This will be part of your being reliable and faithful in relevant respects. You can be relied upon, and you will be faithful, in how you act when in relevant situations – all of this, when you are asked related questions, when you undertake to think about them, when you offer answers, etc. Such actions – including knowing actions – by you will thus be true. Hence, this knowledge-how of yours can incorporate truth. It would be true as a friend is true. It would be true in a ‘larger’ way. More technically: it would be true in a supervaluational way, by at least most21 of its actual or possible manifestations – the knowing actions expressing it – being true. These would be true by treating the world aptly. And all of this is so, on any of the more specific ways in which the knowledge-how could be expressed or manifested by a knowing action.22

12. Conclusion

67Arguments by Hume, Descartes, Ryle, and Peirce helped to motivate this paper’s reasoning. I will close with another pattern of welcome historical resonance.

  • 23 God is at least aware of the tree. Does He ever really observe it? Apart from our having to use a (...)

68Berkeley’s idealism about physical matter is surprisingly relevant. He faced the conceptual challenge of accounting for the nature of unobserved physical matter. How does a tree in the quadrangle continue to exist once no one observes it? We are aware of Berkeley’s answer: God observes the tree even when none of us does so.23 We are also aware of John Stuart Mill’s phenomenalist attempt to preserve Berkeley’s idealist emphasis upon acts of perceiving, without relying on any Berkeleian talk of God. This was Mill’s suggestion (1979 [1865]: 183): ‘Matter may be defined, a Permanent Possibility of Sensation.’ Matter thus has a modal dimension – this inescapable sort of permanent possibility. That dimension constitutes the physical object’s persistence, when the object is not being perceived.

69I regard knowledge in similar terms. I have been advocating an analogue of a Millian phenomenalism – mine is about knowledge-that as knowledge-how – built upon an analogue of a Humean bundling – mine is of manifestations or expressions of the knowledge-how that is the knowledge-that. That combination has generated the following picture.

70Whenever you have a particular piece of knowledge-that, there are various actual and/or possible knowing actions standing to your knowledge much as various actual and/or possible perceptual experiences stand to an object’s physicality. The knowledge is partly potential – a permanent possibility of being manifested or expressed. The knowledge is thus modal in its metaphysics, even if not its content; for it is knowledge-how; which is a more or less complex skill or ability; which will or can typically be manifested or expressed by various knowing actions; but which also might never be manifested or expressed. Still, when those actions do occur, they amount to the knowledge in action – that is, to activated knowledge. There need not be anything beyond those actions, uniting them, other than the particular knowledge-how to produce them – that particular potential for such performances. This is what knowledge is; or so I am proposing.

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1 For overviews of these attempts, see Shope 1983, Lycan 2006, and Hetherington 2016a.

2 Apart, that is, from Stanley & Williamson 2001 and those epistemologists responding to them. Stanley and Williamson’s aim was to understand knowledge-how as knowledge-that. (See also Stanley 2011.) §8 will discuss that issue.

3 Here, I am thinking of Anscombe’s account (1963) of one’s knowledge of one’s own intentional actions: perhaps only you know qua intentional action what you are asserting. (Of course, you might have uttered your words inwardly, too, perhaps rehearsing before giving them a public performance. That would be a distinct way in which only you would know of your words.)

4 And could one use that sort of explanation in a special way, in crediting oneself with having a continuing belief? I have two responses to that question. (1) Such a way of reaching an attribution of persisting belief to oneself is an onlooker’s way, an external way. It bespeaks no pre-theoretical hint of privileged access. It could not be one’s knowing of one’s inner belief in a way that is possible only for oneself. (2) If we are restricted to such onlooker’s knowledge of our persisting beliefs, we have a perspective from which the alternative account proposed in this paper is even better supported. I will be talking of a person’s ability to do this or that. Such an account (i) can accommodate the same data as would be explained by talking of a persisting belief, and (ii) fortunately has no pretension – unlike beliefs – to being able to be known introspectively.

5 I mention introspection here because it was what Hume and Descartes were using.

6 Here is a possibly significant aspect of it upon which I will not dwell (partly because it arises as a general question about Hume’s picture):How could one know introspectively that there is a bundle present at all, since one does not introspect the bundle’s limits or boundaries?

I have two tentative suggestions. You could observe (i) some bundling, if memory is available to you when you are introspecting, and/or (ii) a bundle as it is present so far, even if perhaps not thereby what might be the completed or final bundle.

7 Stanley (2011) talks at times of various actions as manifesting some knowledge-that. But actions more clearly manifest knowledge-how than knowledge-that, since knowledge-how is knowledge how to perform some sort of action. In any case, we will soon return to this issue, when we discuss what I call knowing actions.

8 On this way of conceiving of knowledge-how, see Hetherington (e.g. 2008, 2011a, 2011b, 2015) and Glick 2012.

9 That advice is from Peirce’s 1868 paper, ‘Some consequences of four incapacities’. An echo of it, apparently, drives Wittgenstein’s (1958: para. 67) concept of family resemblance:“Why do we call something a ‘number’? Well, perhaps because it has a – direct – relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.”

Importantly for this paper’s conception of knowledge, Wittgenstein continues thus:

“But if someone wished to say: ‘There is something common to all these constructions – namely the disjunction of all their common properties’ – I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: ‘Something runs through the whole thread – namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres’.”

10 ‘But is your calculating intended to convey knowledge? Or is its aim instead to reach the knowledge?’ The latter could be parsed as the action’s aiming to convey the agent to the knowledge. I will not complicate my presentation with this detail.

11 ‘Yet how could one know that one has a persisting ability to perform such actions, if (as was argued earlier) one cannot know introspectively of one’s having a persisting belief?’ I have noted that abilities are in general not aspects of oneself that we would pre-theoretically expect to be known introspectively. In contrast, people do expect to be able to access purely by introspection at least many of their beliefs. (In my terms, though, that expectation misleads them. They self-attribute a persisting belief when what they experience is at most an active manifestation of what would be such a belief. Still, the expectation is present.) But an ability, by definition, is not like that. We expect in general that an ability’s presence is known, if at all, not purely introspectively at a given time. This is so, even for cognitive abilities.

12 Elsewhere (2011b), I have argued for a distinction between knowledge and knowing. But in this paper I am not relying upon the details of that distinction.

13 I am not sure that Ryle himself saw this. He does say (1949: 134) that, when one knows that p, one acts in related ways. He also says (ibid.: 135) that, for example, to say of someone“who keeps to the edge, [that he does so] because he knows that the ice is thin, is to employ quite a different sense of ‘because’ […] from that conveyed by saying that he keeps to the edge because he believes that the ice is thin.”

Could this ‘because’ in the person’s knowing be due to the actions being more an expression of the knowledge than, say a mere consequence of it? Ryle does not say. Kremer (2017) portrays Ryle as offering a picture of knowledge-that and knowledge-how as inter-related. But the relations described by Ryle (and by Kremer on Ryle’s behalf) are only causal, not metaphysically constitutive. My focus is on the question of whether there are metaphysically constitutive relations here that reveal at least part of what it is to know even a particular truth.

14 For this traditional conception of belief, see Cohen 1992, for example.

15 For discussion of Ryle on this issue, see Scheffler 1968, Myers-Schulz & Schwitzgebel 2013, and Kremer 2017.

16 See Hetherington (2011a: ch. 1) on the many respects in which traditional epistemology has side-stepped answering this implicit question. See Hetherington 2001 on the general idea of some knowledge that p’s admitting of being better or worse – stronger or weaker – as knowledge that p.

17 Is that state only ever of a person – and of nothing else in addition? For the idea of some knowing being attributable not only to the person, but to the person plus some epistemically pertinent factors, see Hetherington 2012.

18 See, for example, Sosa (2011, 2015, 2016) for statements of this approach. Reed (2016: 108) accommodates it in this way: ‘even if knowledge is not itself an action, this is no bar to its being action-like in important ways.’

19 And because it could be a potential grounded in the person as such (I have said nothing to the contrary, at least), the potentialities model has the capacity to preserve what, for some, is an insight that belongs with virtue-theoretic accounts of knowledge – the idea that the virtues in question are whole-person rather than more narrowly cognitive. That idea is particularly prominent within character-based forms of virtue epistemology, such as Zagzebski’s 1996. But it is also part of Sosa’s reliabilist form of virtue epistemology: see Reed 2016 for an elegant explanation and expansion of its role within Sosa’s approach.

20 ‘How does a belief – which is a state, not an event, let alone an action – express or manifest knowledge-how?’ From §2’s argument: what we find, when introspecting to ascertain what we believe, are believings – actions or occurrences to which we may choose to apply the term ‘belief’ but whose continued life past our interacting with them we are not experiencing. They are, in effect, themselves expressions or manifestations of belief.

21 An infallibilist would replace this ‘at least most’ with ‘all.’ My formulation is thus fallibilist. For more on the nature and viability of knowledge-fallibilism, see Hetherington (1999, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2013, 2016b).

22 There is a noteworthy overlap between this conception of the truth condition within knowledge, and Craig’s 1990 influential view of our concept of knowledge. He regards that concept as reflecting our needs for reliable informants – people upon whom we can rely as we seek information. In Campbell’s sense, Craig’s approved informants are true, in that they are reliable and faithful in what they convey to us.

23 God is at least aware of the tree. Does He ever really observe it? Apart from our having to use a physical perceptual mechanism, we must await the tree’s presence before we can observe it. Unlike God, we are partly dependent on contingent aspects of the tree, aspects beyond our making or our control. If that is perception, God does not perceive.

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Electronic reference

Stephen Hetherington, “Knowledge as Potential for Action”European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], IX-2 | 2017, Online since 22 January 2018, connection on 24 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Stephen Hetherington

University of New South Wales

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