Friday, February 6, 2009

On Ryle's Knowledge-How and Knowledge-That

Oxford philosopher and linguist Gilbert Ryle wrote The Concept of Mind in 1949 that proved to be influential in the fields of philosophy of mind and epistemology. His thesis rejects what he calls “The Official Doctrine” of Cartesian dualism that claims that the mind and body are separate entities with different properties. According to Ryle, the mind is categorically different from the body but integrated or simply the same to allow intelligence and the exercise of intelligence observable in behavior. His project is mostly ontological but he also introduces the epistemological concept of knowledge-how and knowledge-that to distinguish between two types of knowledge that also supports his argument for an integrated mind and body. I will provide a brief overview of Ryle’s theory of mind along with what he terms a category mistake in reference to descriptions of the mind. I will then discuss his argument for knowledge-how and knowledge-that in addition to showing how this concept supports his argument for integration of the physical and the mental. Lastly, I will discuss difficulties with Ryle’s thesis and argue that even though he introduces a much broader view of the mind compared to the classical Cartesian model, he still does not provide the scope necessary to explain certain types of knowledge.

According to Ryle, a category mistake is using the same terms to describe properties of the body to that of the mind. Quite simply, the mind and the body are of two distinct logical descriptive types, not similar types that vary by degrees. This is not to say that mind and body are separate as a Cartesian dualist would claim but rather that they have different properties that integrate in a fashion to produce intelligent action. The idea of mental substance compared to physical substance does not make sense because substance refers to matter that is part of the physical world. Location, divisibility, extension, and lack of these properties are also terms that have been used to define the mind. To Ryle, this is illogical because again, those terms are derived from the physical world. As he states, “… saying that ‘there occur mental processes’ does not mean the same sort of thing as ‘there occur physical processes’, and therefore, it makes no sense to conjoin or disjoin the two.” It is important to note that he means that they cannot be conjoined or disjoined in a descriptive sense not in an ontological or functional sense. To Ryle, the workings of the mind are not distinct from the actions of the body. They are simply the same. Vocabulary commonly used to describe the mind or mental processes are, as such, merely a different manner of describing action.

According to Ryle, mental processes are merely intelligent acts. There are no mental processes that are distinct from intelligent acts. The operations of the mind are not merely represented by intelligent acts but are the same as those intelligent acts. Acts of learning, remembering, imagining, knowing, or willing are not merely clues to hidden mental processes or to complex sequences of intellectual operations but are the way in which those mental processes or intellectual operations are defined. Logical propositions are not merely clues to modes of reasoning; they are those modes of reasoning. Ryle argues that there is no hidden entity called "the mind" inside a mechanical apparatus called "the body.” The workings of the mind are not distinct from the actions of the body and are better conceptualized as a way of explaining the actions of the body. The concepts of knowledge-how and knowledge-that illustrate not only Ryle’s mind-body integration in this respect but support a counterintuitive epistemic ideal that justified true belief may not be sufficient to define knowledge.

Ryle describes knowledge-that as propositional in nature. He describes knowledge-how as being skill-based and “of the limbs”. The best way to distinguish the two kinds of knowledge is to use the example of riding a bicycle. When one learns how to ride a bike, she does not learn physics, anatomy, and physiology before jumping on but stumbles her way to proficiency with the help of training wheels and a patient parent. If she did learn the theory of the science behind riding a bike to analyze how to ride it she would be exercising knowledge-that which probably wouldn’t help her much the first time she placed your feet on the pedals. Think of knowledge-how as the knowledge that builds and utilizes muscle memory, coordination, and balance. Proposition formation is not involved with knowledge-how and therefore justification in the strictest sense cannot be claimed. Sometimes we know how to do things without being able to formulate how we know. In regards to riding a bike, imagine trying to explain to someone that has never seen a bicycle before how to ride a bike without showing them or talking them through it with a bicycle present. It would certainly be a challenge if not outright impossible. This is an example of Ryle’s knowledge-how.

Knowledge-that would, however, come later when racing the bicycle in the Tour de France and reasoning your way through the science of increasing your performance. Knowledge-that is what Descartes would classify as the mind in the dualist separation of mind and body by using argumentation before deliberative action. Ryle conceptualizes integration between mind and body with action according to rules and standards as defining intelligence. It is important to remember that knowledge-that is not a priori to knowledge-how or vice versa. Drinking a glass of water without spilling it all over you is an intelligent action that is an example of knowledge-how only. Designing a landscape architecture project would first require knowledge-that in the planning stage and both joint knowledge-how and knowledge-that in the actual drawing of the plans.

The epistemological distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that is important to fully understand Ryle’s ontological position of mind and body. He places himself in a tricky position by arguing for these two types of knowledge because of his theory’s relationship to dualism and materialism. His thesis refutes dualism but knowledge-that does function like the proposition-driven mind as in the traditional Cartesian sense. One version of the intellectualist model argues that reason functions deductively and is the source of all knowledge or justification. Ryle’s knowledge-that functions similarly but does not represent the whole picture or the only source of knowledge or justification. Knowledge-how, on the other hand, implies a type of materialism that he wants to avoid because of categorical difference he posits between the body and the mind. The functioning of the mind is the same as the body but since they are categorically different, the mental is not exactly the same as the physical as a materialist might claim. It is arguably correct to say that Ryle places himself on a spectrum with dualism on one end and materialism on the other. His claim that we have both knowledge-how and knowledge-that minimizes the slippery slope in either direction even though proponents of both camps might disagree in favor of their own position. For example, a Cartesian might claim that the knowledge-how of the riding a bike is simply reasoning functioning deductively or like knowledge-that without the attention given to other types of reasoning such as with logic or math.

The output of knowledge-how and knowledge-that including Ryle’s conceptualization of knowledge and belief are also important to understand his ontological position of the mind. According to Ryle, consciousness might be analyzed into what Ryle calls “episodes” of behavior. These episodes of behavior are events that actually occur so can be empirically observed. In addition, when we describe people we do so in terms of dispositions to behave in certain ways, which means that they will do certain things if a certain situation arises. Therefore, their “mental” state of belief and knowledge can be analyzed as potential behavior, which would be observable if it occurred. Ryle uses the example of cigarette-smoking to show that actually smoking a cigarette is an episode but to say that someone is a cigarette smoker is a disposition because we do not mean anything about their consciousness, merely that they have a disposition to buy cigarettes and smoke them. Knowledge for Ryle then is when a person ‘knows’ something they have a disposition to be right about it when the situation arises. A person has belief if they have a disposition to behave in a certain way when the situation arises. This is the epistemological link to his ontological position that distinguishes him from and provides a broader picture of the mind than classical Cartesians or materialists.

The Concept of Mind no doubt contributed significantly to the field of philosophical psychology in addition to epistemology. Many of the difficulties of his theory are beyond the scope of this essay; however, I will argue that knowledge-that and knowledge-how do not provide the scope necessary to explain certain types of knowledge. For example, intuition does not seem to fit within either type of knowledge or as a combination of the two. By definition, intuition is the faculty if attaining knowledge or cognition without rational thought or inference. It is not propositional like knowledge-that and it is not of the limbs or muscle memory like knowledge-how; however, it is at least a small part of how we define certain kinds of knowledge and belief. For example, it is a common view that “Mother’s Intuition” sometimes allows a mother to know when something is wrong without any direct evidence or justification. Ryle might argue that this is a form of knowledge-how but it does not seem to be a part of the body like drinking a glass of water or riding a bike. Further, religious belief seems to be outside Ryle’s two types of knowledge in the same way as intuition. For most non-theologians or those that claim to believe in God but are inconsistent with religious practice, ‘knowledge” and/or belief in God is not propositional or even arguably rational and certainly not an example of knowledge-how unless one were to claim that being religious is somehow built into our bodies. The complexity of the human mind and how we come to claim knowledge or belief is beyond Ryle’s theory of mind. This is not to say that his refutation of Cartesian dualism is fallacious, only that more work on his project is necessary to fully describe the human mind.


Anonymous said...


You might also care to check out my forthcoming paper on Ryle:



Roger Aboud said...

Thanks Leslie! I just finished reading part of your treatment of Ryle and Oakeshott ... I 'd love to read the rest but could not navigate there. Great blog. I'll be sure to check it out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Roger. I still tinkering at the edges on two papers that spend a significant time on Ryle's KH/KT distinction. The first is one on Hayek - he too references Ryle. I'll post both papers just as soon as I have got shot of them.



Roger Aboud said...


I look forward to reading them! Thanks again.

Thoughts said...

I prefer Berkeley's concept of mind in which he observes that ideas are passive. If this is the case then Ryle's characterisation of mind as related to intelligence is false. See Materialists should read this first

Roger Aboud said...

I think Ryle was trying to answer the question of why we seem to be able to do certain actions without apparent propositional thinking or even a succinct level of awareness. I don't see how Berkeley's notion of passive thought or the materialist position accounts for functioning under various levels of awareness or other human faculties such as intuition or conscience. Thoughts?

Thoughts said...

Ryle's use of words like awareness and knowledge always irritates me because in "Concept of Mind" he has already dismissed mind. For Ryle, if there is mind at all, it is largely states of the world outside the body. As you note this puts him in a tricky position if he wants to discuss propositional knowledge.

We could get into an analysis of how, given Ryle's constraints, his ideas of types of knowledge are reasonable or unreasonable but his constraints are entirely unreasonable in the first place. In Concept of Mind he manacles himself into a crudely behaviourist position by focusing on various types of regress argument. What I pointed out in my comment above is that these arguments are unsustainable if the conscious mind is passive. A passive conscious mind does not produce active thoughts or process knowledge. It might be involved in some sort of intuition or "becoming" but its passivity would preclude knowledge-that and knowledge-how as products or output of mind, they would instead be products of processing in non-conscious parts of the organism.
Like Berkeley, Descartes also spotted that ideas spring into conscious experience unbidden and there is a certain irony in the fact that Descartes' Res Cogitans is really a name for this non-conscious processor.

If we split the brain into a conscious part that doesn't think mechanically and a non-conscious part that processes internal and external events then skilled behaviour is smooth processing due to repetition and contemplative behaviour is processing that uses representation in the workspace of conscious experience for some reason as yet unknown (see Time and conscious experience).