Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (part II: Efficacy or Truth?)

"Natural selection does not care about truth; it cares about reproductive success." —Steven Stich, 1990
In his 2011 book "Know How", Jason Stanley argues that to know how to do something is to know a fact that answers the question: "How can I do this?" According to this view, know-how is based on knowledge of truths and to this extent it is a sub-species of knowledge that something is the case, or what philosophers call "propositional knowledge." Propositional knowledge is a somewhat controversial idea because many philosophers assume that animals also possess certain kinds of propositional knowledge despite the fact that many otherwise intelligent creatures have significant difficulty understanding basic abstract ideas let alone truths. Perhaps this is why psychologists prefer to talk of "procedural knowledge" (knowledge how) and "declarative knowledge" (knowledge that) and to reserve the latter for the discussion of strictly linguistic capacities. 

Other philosophers contend that whilst non-human animals may not be capable of propositional skills they do possess beliefs and desires that are not linguistically enabled and that deserve to be considered as "propositional attitudes" (more on this along the way). Stanley makes no claims about non-human capacities in this book so it is uncertain whether he regards his theory as being applicable to our animal cousins. If he does, then he faces a considerable challenge if he wishes to explain how propositional knowledge could emerge prior to know-how.

Stanley describes himself as an "intellectualist" and as such he rejects Gilbert Ryle's arguments against intellectualism put forward in Ryle's 1949 book "The Concept of Mind." The arguments Stanley mounts against Ryle are by no means inconsequential and were Ryle still around he might well have his work cut out defending what until now have been some very serviceable arguments, the most famous of which has become known as "Ryle's regress." Basically Ryle's idea is that if intellectualism is true, then every intelligent act would need to be preceded by an intelligent thought and this thought itself would have to be initiated by another intelligent thought and so on ad infinitum. Ryle uses this regress to refute what he calls the "doctrine of intellectualism" and to argue for the logical possibility of unpremeditated acts of intelligent know-how. Stanley argues that if intelligent acts of know-how are possible in the absence of prior acts of intellection then so are acts of intellection themselves and consequently Ryle's regress fails to convince. Stanley explores several of Ryle's further variations on the same basic thesis, all of which he contends, similarly fail in their refutation of intellectualism.

So what should the anti-intellectualist do in the face of such counter arguments? Is Ryle's regress the only defence we have against the claim that intelligent action is conceptual to the core? If Stanley is correct, Ryle's arguments represent the only serious challenge to intellectualism — unless Stanley is picking a conveniently absent adversary in order to create the impression that he has anti-intellectualism on the run. In 1982 Gareth Evans' book "Varieties of Reference" made several frequently cited arguments against intellectualism, none of which Stanley mentions, even though he quotes Evans widely on other matters.

Stanley's position relies on the supposition that to know how to do something intelligently amounts to knowing a truth. My contention (pace Stich 1990) is that where efficacious action is concerned, truth is, at best, of secondary importance. If being able to swim is knowing a truth, as Stanley claims, then what purpose does this truth actually serve? The concept of truth is irrelevant when compared with the competences from which the ability is comprised. Stanley would presumably contend that each atom of competence is also an atom of truth. But if knowing how to do things like swimming were simultaneously the acquisition of constituent truths, then teaching by description would be the only educational method necessary. Demonstration and practice would have nothing further to impart. However, skill in describing a procedure does not bestow a skill in the performance of the procedure described. A knowledge of linguistics does not make an orator. And a witness who provides a clear description for a identikit image need have no expertise in drawing.

In a response to a related 2001 paper by Stanley and Williamson, Ellen Fridland (forthcoming) writes: "knowledge of rules and facts is not identical to the practical knowledge of how to put those facts and rules into practice effectively." In a footnote she continues:
Of course, Stanley and Williamson would agree with this. They would say that the knowledge has to be represented in a particular way.  My claim is that such a way of representing would itself necessarily be a kind of (nonpropositional) knowledge.
Indeed, if the knowledge must be represented in a particular nonpropositional way then this representation cannot be symbolic—on pain of circularity. If we require a non propositional representation, as Fridland suggests Stanley and Williamson would concede, then the choice will necessarily be limited to one or other of the following: a demonstration, performance, exemplification, illustration, image, diagram etc. None of these is easily  translated from even the most rudimentary propositional truth because abstract concepts simply do not lend themselves to nonverbal representation.

Truths are typically statements or stories. A true statement is a statement of truth but a true likeness is not a likeness of truth.  Truths are linguistic items that we take  to represent objects and events objectively. But if it could be shown that a widely employed and extremely useful class of nonverbal representations are never objective then the intellectualist's position would be in need of major revision. I think such a counter-example is ready-to-hand in the commonplace practice of representational simulation (Brook 1969, 1997, 2014). In order to avoid the incredulity of theorists who do not share my convictions concerning the perceiver-dependence of simulating representation, rather than arguing this line directly I will instead take a more indirect route via the more widely acknowledged arguments raised by Evans (1982). I intend to show that in each case Evans' arguments against intellectualism are best understood in the context of skills of non-verbal representation (including simulation) production and use, a fuller understanding of which will challenge not only Stanley's view but intellectualism per se.


Post a Comment