know how
Epistemically praiseworthy, non-propositional procedural elements of a cognitive system thought to underlie abilities where performance of a task is consistently better than chance. See knowledge, epistemology.


In philosophy, know how ascriptions cover abilities ranging from simple motor skills (knowing how to walk or how to ride a bicycle) to abstract highly contemplative cases (such as knowing how to prove Fermat's Last Theorem).

Historically, Gilbert Ryle brought the notion of know how to the forefront of philosophical thought in epistemology and philosophy of mind. In his book, The Concept of Mind, Ryle claimed that all human behavior relevant to psychology could be explained exclusively in terms of know how. Ryle offered a dispositional account of knowledge how, which is now widely discredited. In Ryle's own words:

In judging that someone's performance is or is not intelligent, we have, a certain manner to look beyond the performance itself. For there is no particular overt or inner performance which could not have been accidentally or 'mechanically' executed by an idiot, a sleepwalker, a man in a panic, absence of mind or delirium or even, sometimes, by a parrot. looking beyond the performance itself,.... We are considering his abilities and propensities of which his performance was an actualization. Our inquiry is not into causes (and a fortiori not into occult causes), but into capacities,.... (Ryle 1949, p.45)

One can find four general criticisms of Ryle's view in the literature. First, commentators often criticize Ryle's view because it is dispositional. A dispositional analysis holds that one is disposed to behave in a certain way in the specified conditions. As with dispositional accounts generally, it is difficult, even impossible to specify non-trivial conditions under which one manifests one's dispositions. If one analyzes knowing how to play chess in terms of dispositions to move chess pieces, one must specify the conditions under which a player manifests those dispositions. Such specifications are difficult since a person's reaction to a chess board and an invitation to play is subject to all manner of physical and psychological preconditions. If the person has been injected with curare, they will likely not react. If they believe themselves to be overmatched, they may demur. A second criticism of Ryle's view is that many cases of ostensive know how seem to involve explicit, conscious knowledge of procedural rules. For example, in exercising one's cake- baking know how, one may well explicitly follow a remembered recipe. Still a third criticism claims that dispositions are superfluous in explaining behavior in that they are merely restatements of the facts to be explained. In this way they are like Moliere's famous satirical explanation of opium's ability to put people to sleep by noting that opium has a dormative virtue (virtus dormitiva). Finally, critics of Ryle note that dispositions, being always potentially active, cannot explain know how in the absence of ability. An arthritic piano player can be said to know how to play the piano without being capable of manifesting the ability to play as required by Ryle's account. The most pervasive response to Ryle's position analyzes know how in terms of conscious, explicit representations of procedural knowledge. Know how remains distinct from propositional knowledge (knowledge that). However, know how, like knowledge that, is construed as explicitly, conscious represented knowledge. David Carr's work (1981) is typical of this approach to know how:
...knowing how in the strong sense to play football is knowing the rules of the game, but a statement of the rules of the game is not a theoretical statement but a description of a set of rules of practice, and mastery of the rules brings with it an understanding of an activity rather than a theory. Statements of the rules of a game are essentially of relations between prescriptions rather than descriptions requiring a grasp of practical rather than theoretical discourse. (Carr 1981, pp.60-1)
One might criticize the above view because, just as some ascriptions of know how seem to involve explicit representations of procedural rules, some ascriptions of know how, like one's ability to walk or ride a bicycle, seem to involve abilities that are not plausibly explained by explicit, conscious representation of procedural rules. In psychology and cognitive science, researchers often equate the 'know how/know that' distinction with the procedural/declarative knowledge distinction. This usage is not consistent with the usage in philosophy. Declarative knowledge is generally characterized as knowledge which can be expressed by a cognizer and which is propositional in nature. While philosophers agree that know how is not propositional in that it is properly understood as true or false, they do not assert that it is inexpressible. Likewise, procedural knowledge is generally held to be a restricted to motor skills in cognitive psychology, whereas philosophers favor a wider applicability for know how, including contemplative activities.


 Charles Wallis