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Practical and Theoretical Knowledge

My friend Jason Stanley has a blog post up at the New York Times‘s Opinionator section that might be of interest to you social theorists out there. Jason’s a philosopher of language who teaches at Rutgers. He attacks a distinction which is by now extremely well-entrenched in social theory generally and in specific theories of action in the sociology of culture, the sociology of organizations, and elsewhere—namely, the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge:

Humans are thinkers, and humans are doers. There is a natural temptation to view these activities as requiring distinct capacities. When we reflect, we are guided by our knowledge of truths about the world. By contrast, when we act, we are guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions. If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge. …

Most of us are inclined immediately to classify activities like repairing a car, riding a bicycle, hitting a jump shot, taking care of a baby or cooking a risotto as exercises of practical knowledge. And we are inclined to classify proving a theorem in algebra, testing a hypothesis in physics and constructing an argument in philosophy as exercises of the capacity to operate with knowledge of truths. The cliché of the learned professor, as inept in practical tasks as he is skilled in theoretical reasoning, is just as much a leitmotif of popular culture as that of the dumb jock. The folk idea that skill at action is not a manifestation of intellectual knowledge is also entrenched in contemporary philosophy, though it has antecedents dating back to the ancients.

According to the model suggested by this supposed dichotomy, exercises of theoretical knowledge involve active reflection, engagement with the propositions or rules of the theory in question that guides the subsequent exercise of the knowledge. Think of the chess player following an instruction she has learned for an opening move in chess. In contrast, practical knowledge is exercised automatically and without reflection. The skilled tennis player does not reflect on instructions before returning a volley — she exercises her knowledge of how to return a volley automatically. Additionally, the fact that exercises of theoretical knowledge are guided by propositions or rules seems to entail that they involve instructions that are universally applicable — the person acting on theoretical knowledge has an instruction booklet, which she reflects upon before acting. In contrast, part of the skill that constitutes skill at tennis involves reacting to situations for which no instruction manual can prepare you. The skilled tennis player is skilled in part because she knows how to adjust her game to a novel serve, behavior that does not seem consistent with following a rule book.

… But once one begins to bear down upon the supposed distinction between the practical and the theoretical, cracks appear. When one acquires a practical skill, one learns how to do something. But when one acquires knowledge of a scientific proposition, that too is an instance of learning. In many (though not all) of the world’s languages, the same verb is used for practical as well as theoretical knowledge (for example, “know” in English, “savoir” in French). More important, when one reflects upon any exercise of knowledge, whether practical or theoretical, it appears to have the characteristics that would naïvely be ascribed to the exercise of both practical and intellectual capacities. A mathematician’s proof of a theorem is the ideal example of the exercise of theoretical knowledge. Yet in order to count as skilled at math, the mathematician’s training — like that of the tennis player — must render her adept in reacting to novel difficulties she may encounter in navigating mathematical reality. Nor does exercising one’s knowledge of truths require active reflection. I routinely exercise my knowledge that one operates an elevator by depressing a button, without giving the slightest thought to the matter. From the other direction, stock examples of supposedly merely practical knowledge are acquired in apparently theoretical ways. People can and often do learn how to cook a risotto by reading recipes in cookbooks.

Jason develops the point a bit more in his post and rather more rigorously in recent book, which I haven’t read in any detail as of yet. I won’t say that I’m entirely convinced, and in particular I wonder whether the argument he’s making is going to turn on some very fine-grained aspects of technical philosophy of language which I’m not really in a position to assess. However, the strong division between practical and theoretical knowledge is such a shibboleth in social theory—variously entrenched in Wittgensteinian, phenomenological and cognitive versions—and such a great deal rests on it, that it’s worth taking the time to think against it once in a while to see where that goes.

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Written by Kieran

May 7, 2012 at 12:58 am

45 Responses

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  1. Nicely said.

    The fallacy of dichotomy has been noted before, but it never hurts to repeat it.

    Would only that it need not be said…

    Objective knowledge is at once empirically known and theoretically explained. When my classmates in a graduate class in crim theory were being sucked into the Dark Side of the Force by postmodernism, I pointed out that we all take an elevator to this seventh floor classroom. So, obviously, theory and practice must be one because the elevator was built and as built it never fails… no matter what Paul Feyerabend or Jacques Lacan claimed…. And it was so regardless of the race, class or gender of the technicians, engineers, and scientists…

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    mikemarotta

    May 7, 2012 at 1:17 am

  2. Reblogged this on valuesreasonmind.

    Like

    valuesreasonmind

    May 7, 2012 at 6:08 am

  3. I think you’re right to worry about those “very fine-grained aspects of technical philosophy of language”. The problem is that the insight Stanley is offering here is only an insight after we make some very arbitrary distinctions that were only ever supposed to serve, dare I say, “practical” ends in thinking about certain subjects. Obviously there’s a practical dimension of all supposedly “theoretical” knowledge. Heidegger talks about this in Being and Time, but it can be found also in the pragmatist traditions (for obvious reasons) and in Wittgenstein.

    Stanley’s problem (and his solution) arises by ignoring these earlier attempts. (He says that explicitly in the earlier book Knowledge and Practical Interests, which I enjoyed mainly for its writing.)

    This is really just a word game. Suppose I say, “There’s no such thing as practical knowledge, only practical power; knowledge is just our theory of our practices. Knowledge shapes what we see when we do things. Power shapes what we do when we see things… etc.” That’s my own personal terminology for dealing with the theory-practice or knowledge-power gap. But if Stanley wants to say that what I call practical power implies some (non-theoretical) knowledge of “how to do” things, then I’m not going to stop him. He’s just meaning something by “knowledge” that I don’t when I use the word.

    In fact, it looks like he’s more on my side than on the side of the caricature of those who would distinguish between “two kinds of knowledge”. But really, do these people actually exists? As soon as I explain to you how to operate an elevator I’ve granted everything Stanley needs to make his case. And who would deny that is possible? That is, Stanley is solving a problem that only exists when an analytic philosopher takes (what he himself calls) a folk theory and treats it as though it is a full blown theory of mind, carefully worked out by a philosopher. Nobody holds the view he’s attacking and everyone would grant his argument.

    Yes, “most of us” can distinguish between “practical” and “theoretical” forms of knowledge, at least more or less practical, more or less theoretical. But do we hold to some hard-and-fast philosophical “dichotomy”. Of course not. For the obvious reasons he adduces.

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    Thomas

    May 7, 2012 at 12:53 pm

  4. I agree that this is a bit of a word game. No one believes there is an absolute distinction between these types of knowledge. Real cases are a mixture; there’s no one date at which my driving ability went from fully theoretical to fully practical but there is an important analytical distinction to be made there. And if we’re going to bring linguistic evidence to bear (e.g., “savoir”) then surely we must also acknowledge the persistence of the verbal distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge!

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    Steve Vaisey

    May 7, 2012 at 1:17 pm

  5. As I hinted above, if I were to make this kind of argument, however, I’d be arguing not against the distinction between “practical knowledge” and “theoretical knowledge” but against the idea that that our mastery is itself a kind of “knowledge”. Why not, that is, just maintain a working distinction between knowledge and power?

    So I would say you went from having theoretical knowledge of driving to acquiring a practical “power of facing” the traffic (to borrow a phrase from Orwell). But actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that you developed your knowledge of and power to drive gradually, not necessarily in “textbook” order. You worked out a theory and a practice of driving, in part by seeing and in part by doing, and neither can exist in isolation from each other, no more than your desires can exist in isolation from your beliefs.

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    Thomas

    May 7, 2012 at 2:14 pm

  6. Steve beat me to it. I’m not opposed to Jason’s project, but does he have examples where making a distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge truly leads people (sociologists or others) astray?

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    Michael Bishop

    May 7, 2012 at 2:34 pm

  7. I’m not sure where Jason stands on the naturalism issue, or whether he still believes that Philosophers can legislate what are the most adequate ways to think about this or that matter via this sort of armchair conceptual analysis. To me this kind of question is a decidedly empirical issue not a conceptual one (just because a language does not lexicalize a distinction does not mean that the distinction does not exist in the world). It is not a conceptual issue at all. And the evidence overwhelmingly supports the proposition that the theoretical and the practical are decidedly distinct. First, theoretical and practical forms of reasoning and judgment are dissociable, both in the laboratory and at the level of the relevant neurophysiology. Second, the examples that he gives for the “blurring” of the boundaries all *imply* the distinction. Consider the standard Vygotskian point that he makes regarding the acquisition of Mathematical skill. Yes, it is true that learning mathematics entails beginning with a rule-based explicit representation. With repetition, we can go from effortful, sequential processing of mathematical problems, to pure associative pathways to solving them that rely on pattern recognition and retrieval of instances from long-term memory. But note that this transformation of the theoretical into the practical does not entail that there is no distinction between the two; in fact it presupposes it. The same goes for the point, that in acquiring a skill we also simultaneously acquire explicit representations of the “rule-based” descriptions of what that skill entails (and “episodic” memories of the time when we acquired the skill). But the best science of memory shows that these two representations of the same thing are absolutely distinct at the level of the relevant neurophysiology. That we can have redundant representations of the same domain does not invalidate the fact that you can forget (e.g. let’s say due to aging) the relevant physics of how to ride a bike (to go with the trite Polanyian example) and still be able to actually get on the bike and ride it.

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    Omar

    May 7, 2012 at 3:09 pm

  8. Omar – I think if you read my book you will see all your points responded to in excruciating detail. For example, Chapter 7 is devoted an extensive discussion of the declarative vs. procedural knowledge and memory in neuroscience (I have been invited to write a piece for *Frontiers of Neuroscience* about this). I’m a bit tired to summarize it here – but basically I spend a lot of the book pointing out that the assumptions you are making about theoretical knowledge are ones epistemologists in the analytic tradition have rejected since the 1960s. Take for example your point that we can forget how we learned to ride a bicycle, the mechanism, etc., but still retain our knowledge how to ride a bicycle. In analytic epistemology, Alvin Goldman pointed out decades ago that the same point holds for knowledge of truths. I can retain my knowledge that Lincoln was president despite forgetting how I obtained that knowledge in the first place – who told me, etc. In the book I also show that the distinction between propositional knowledge and knowledge how is not the same as the distinction between what is explicitly represented vs. what is not explicitly represented. One can think that knowing how is knowing a truth if one thinks that all knowledge is explicitly represented (see Fodor (1968)), and one can think that knowing how is know a truth if one thinks that not all knowledge is explicitly represented. My own view is that the issue about explicit representation is about implementation. Some knowledge states are explicitly represented and others are not. The neuroscientific distinction between procedural and declarative knowledge is best understood (as in AI, from which it is inherited), as an implementation distinction.

    One thing is for sure – I think I do establish this – what neuroscientists call “declarative knowledge” is not co-extensive with what epistemologists call “propositional knowledge” – at least not if externalism about propositional knowledge is correct. At any rate, I know this is terse, but it’s all spelled out at great length in the book (including, for those lacking the neuroscience background, a lengthy history of the distinction between procedural, declarative, and episodic memory in the neuroscience literature).

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    Jason Stanley

    May 7, 2012 at 3:32 pm

  9. Omar – you write “the evidence overwhelmingly supports the proposition that the theoretical and the practical are decidedly distinct. First, theoretical and practical forms of reasoning and judgment are dissociable, both in the laboratory and at the level of the relevant neurophysiology.”

    This is, as you can imagine, the focus of a good portion of the book (explicitly, all of Chapter 7, but there are many other places in the book where it’s addressed as well). Neuroscientists have shown that *something* is dissociable from something else. But it’s up to others to figure out whether the two neuroscientific categories correlate with functional ones. It’s true that neuroscientists and psychologists have used the knowing that/knowing how distinction as the functional categories that correspond to procedural/declarative. I show in the book that the operational definition of declarative knowledge makes it completely unsuitable as a representative of anything like what epistemologists would call knowing that. I also think that there are serious confusions of vocabulary that result in the appropriation of the AI terminology into neuroscience. I also argue that there are some problematic conceptual confusions in the neuroscientific literature itself (but this is a separate point). Anyway, you will see this all discussed in the book. I am not (ahem) someone who lacks knowledge of relevant empirical research.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 7, 2012 at 3:51 pm

  10. as reading schutz, berger/luckmann and some ethnomethodology… why am I not surprised?

    thinking is a practical activity, of course. Mind is shaped by (bodily) communication?

    What the hell is new about that point?

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    renetu

    May 7, 2012 at 8:40 pm

  11. p.s. Bourdieu draws this distinction – but bascially arguing that theoretical knowledge is a specific form of preactical knowledge that can only be generated in a certain position …

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    renetu

    May 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm

  12. Kieran – after suffering so much abuse from philosophers over the years about these points, I’m relieved to hear that your friends think I’m obviously right. The fate of the philosopher – always to be either absurdly wrong or obviously right (and when all else fails – to be making a merely terminological point).

    Anyway, the view that theoretical knowledge is a certain form of practical knowledge would be the exact opposite of my view.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 7, 2012 at 9:53 pm

  13. To be precise – I argue that both theoretical and practical knowledge are instances of knowledge of truths. So while I agree with the view that the practical and the theoretical are the same, certain continental traditions would hold that it is knowledge of truths that must go – that really it’s all practical knowledge, which is not best understood as knowledge of truths. That position agrees with me on the uniformity of practical and theoretical knowledge, but has the opposite view of which is the core category.

    I think the weird thing about analytic philosophy is that we write so clearly that when we are successful it sounds like what we are saying is obvious.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 8, 2012 at 12:17 am

  14. I think it’s odd that in this one comments thread I’ve been accused of (a) making a merely terminological point, (b) saying something falsified by recent science and (c) just reiterating well-known truths.

    On (c) Bourdieu is influenced by Merleau-Ponty, who is one of the targets in the book. Merleau-Ponty is arguing that skills are not instances of action guided by knowledge of rules. I’m saying that they are. Obviously more to say in detail.

    Omar is right that there is a serious empirical issue from neuroscience that needs to be adjudicated with what I’m saying. Of course I was aware of that when I wrote my book. I take that objection very seriously in the book and discuss it at length.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 8, 2012 at 1:21 am

  15. In the NY Times but not the orgtheory version you write,

    “….Our society is divided into castes based upon a supposed division between theoretical knowledge and practical skill. The college professor holds forth on television, as the plumber fumes about detached ivory tower intellectuals…. The world of the college professor is supposedly so different than the world of the plumber because they are viewed as employing fundamentally different mental capacities in their daily lives. The college professor doesn’t “get it,” because her knowledge is purely theoretical, knowledge of truths. The plumber isn’t qualified to reason about a political system or the economy because skill in complex action is not an exercise of such knowledge….The distinction between the practical and the theoretical is used to warehouse society into groups. It alienates and divides. It is fortunate, then, that it is nothing more than a fiction.”

    I want to highlight the words above, because they represent the practical basis of your theoretical argument (and directly answer the question put forth by Michael Bishop). The sociologists here are attacking the theory you present. I wonder what they think of the empirical image behind it.

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    Austen

    May 8, 2012 at 1:33 am

  16. Thanks for calling attention to that, Austen. My worry is that the distinction robs people of a sense of mindedness, leaving them feeling alienated from public discourse and the ability to deliberate as equals when confronted with supposed “experts” about (say) economics. As it happens, I borrowed the practical basis from a sociologist (my father, in his 1978 book) who worried a lot about the dangers to deliberative democracy that come from feeling alienated from expert discourse.

    I should confess, however, that some of the NY Times comments are making me feel quite sympathetic for the distinction.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 8, 2012 at 2:38 am

  17. I’m enjoying watching Jason Stanley debate himself in the comments.

    Like

    cwalken

    May 8, 2012 at 5:40 am

  18. @Jason Stanley: When I reviewed Knowledge and Practical Interests (Oxford, 2005), I tried to show how that book is shaped by the eccentricities of what you call “analytic philosophy”. You touch on them in this discussion as well. You say, for example, that you have “[suffered much] abuse from philosophers over the years about these points” and that you are “now relieved to hear that [Kieran’s] friends think [you’re] obviously right.” But that’s a bit disingenuous isn’t it? After all, you are well aware that the only place you ever get any serious abuse is in your own narrow analytic circles. I K&PI you write: “The conclusions I draw here are occasionally distressing to me. It has been no comfort at all to realize that friends and family members more at home in non-analytic traditions in philosophy find them unsurprising.”

    “I think the weird thing about analytic philosophy,” you say, “is that we write so clearly that when we are successful it sounds like what we are saying is obvious.” Actually, the weird thing, which Wittgenstein noted many years ago, is that philosophers are able to disagree about these obvious truths. Indeed, you say you have discussed “every aspect of this book [with Timothy Williamson] and he’s given [you] extensive comments at each stage of the project”. And yet, you also say, he doesn’t agree with your views. It’s this cultivation of disagreement in analytic philosophy that is weird (or at least peculiar to it).

    There is of course dispute in all fields, but it is always anchored in a broad consensus about fundamentals. What we get in analytic philosophy is a field that is entirely constituted by the particular disagreements between members of the community, whose positions in turn are normally defended by insisting that others have misread or misunderstood or distorted them. Philosophers expend an enormous amount of energy distinguishing their position from their closest competitors for what Randall Collins called “the attention space”. In K&PI, in particular, after having been away from analytic philosophy since writing my master’s thesis, I was struck how much depends on the very particular disputes you are having with particular specialists rather than with bodies of established theory.

    That’s why this foray into a public position about a piece of folk epistemology misses the mark, I think. After all, your method is “to preserve as much as possible of common-sense intuition” (K&PI, p. v), presumably in the face of your abusive colleagues in the analytic tradition. You forget, precisely, that once you move outside the narrow interests of your particular community of epistemologists (even “analytic” strikes me as too broad a term) you are, precisely, among friends. The problem that you have a solution to simply does not come up out here, certainly not if the solution is simply to abandon, by some magical act of intellection, a particular “philosophical” distinction.

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    Thomas

    May 8, 2012 at 6:26 am

  19. Bourdieu is the weakeast aim here (as I mentioned). Haven´t you read Schutz and the newer stuff from this tradition? You did not refer to that in your answers.

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    renetu

    May 8, 2012 at 6:38 am

  20. I just would like to point out the possible relevance of some org literature to this conversation.

    The dichotomy between theoretical and practice knowledge is an important topic to those related to the Knowledge Management/Organizational Knowledge field.
    Eschewing the difference between ‘know how’ and ‘know what’, some have widely demonstrated how knowing is intertwined to practice (Lave and Wenger, Orlikowski, Blackler, Gherardi, Nicolini).

    This recent paper by Nicolini is a good summary of this debate.
    http://orgsci.journal.informs.org/content/22/3/602.short

    Like

    Monteiro

    May 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm

  21. Let me clarify that I’m not saying that this is a mere terminological distinction or that this work isn’t very valuable (I haven’t read the book). My point was just that the distinction corresponds to something important in our lived experience whether the types are “really” distinct or not. And I think the distinction matters for sociological theories of action.

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    Steve Vaisey

    May 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm

  22. Is it too old-fashioned to consider theoretical and practical knowledge as two ideatypes? The former with more of some characteristics, the latter with less of the same or more of some other characteristics, but almost never to be found, as a extreme categories, in the real world. In order to “demonstrate how knowing is interwined with practice” don’t we need to differentiate between the two concepts with some sort of analytical device, as the weberian one or likewise?

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    lubetano

    May 8, 2012 at 6:11 pm

  23. This is not a distinction I’ve ever felt to be particularly interesting personally, and my gut reaction is that Jason is right (I’ll read the book). Is there a generic opinion I should hold about Searle’s stuff on practical reasoning? His arguments about practical reasoning seemed very very closely related to theoretical reasoning in form, and I pondered if there is (for him) any real distinction between rules actors use to formulate actions through practical reasoning (applying I suppose practical knowledge) and those they use to formulate claims (applying I suppose theoretical knowledge)? Searle didn’t seem bothered to read cognitive science.

    And neuroscience? Maybe I’ve read old stuff but the validity issues Jason brought up seem huge. They make do have findings, but most of the stuff its really difficult to tell whether they have any validity in terms of the sociological vocabularies we use.

    And with regards to Steve’s comment, isn’t the key distinction in lived experience mostly captured by Giddens in terms of discursive consciousness? Do we have to assume that knowledge we are discursively able to articulate is somehow qualitatively different from the knowledge we haven’t reflected upon? Well, at least the ability to articulate our experiences into words is tacit (or are there good examples of humans elaborating how they turned non-verbal into verbal knowledge).

    Personally I think Berger & Luckmann should be thrown out of the discourse already. I find it difficult to believe much of their argumentation would survive a thorough critique built on more recent cognitive science stuff. That whole socialization/taken-for-grantedness story is a cumbersome dogma that just doesn’t really explain much anything.

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    henri

    May 8, 2012 at 7:05 pm

  24. Jason – First, thanks for making my research account 40 bucks poorer. Given my own theoretical interests your book is one that I should be reading anyways, so thanks for the pointer. Second, it seems to me that there are several interrelated issues here. I’m willing to follow you all the way on some things. On other things, I don’t foresee any radical change in core beliefs, but we will have to wait until I read the book.

    First, there is the issue of whether the “folk” distinction between practical and theoretical (either of laypeople or neuroscientists) can withstand the conceptual scrutiny of an analytic philosopher. I am willing to accept from induction from similar cases that I’ve encountered in the past that this will not be the case. I am also willing to grant you that the reason for why this distinction will not survive is because it is not a well-founded one. As I understand it so far, your argument is that so-called “practical” knowledge possesses features that are usually ascribed to propositional or theoretical knowledge. It can refer, carry intentionality, support truth-conditions, etc. I think that you also want to argue that theoretical knowledge has properties that are usually applied practical knowledge. I think that this is a fair point. We need to get clearer on what are the relevant differences here and I think this is a worthwhile effort. Progress in science requires that we make the right distinctions and pick out the most relevant criteria. My sense is that you are choosing one such overarching criterion: supporting the (traditional) epistemic conditions for calling something “knowledge” which is the potential capacity for being true or false. You are saying that both practical and theoretical knowledge satisfy this criterion, and therefore this is not an interesting distinction to make.

    However, it seems to me that criticizing the folk distinction or making the technical philosophical argument that epistemically the practical and the theoretical share a really important capacity (they both can refer to truths) is a very different thing from establishing the claim that there is nothing to distinguish in the first place. I understand from your comments and from the blog post that the larger motivation for your critical project (the folk distinction legitimates systems of inequality), this was the point of most of the work of the (now) the world’s most famous sociologist (Pierre Bourdieu) so in that particular point you have my sympathies. But the same sociologist also pointed out that this was not simply a distinction based on smoke, mirrors and confusion. The distinction can be recruited to do such legitimating work *precisely* because it picks up a very real difference in the way in which somebody can come to “know” something. This difference makes a difference because it is experientially powerful. We can just see when somebody is a natural or an expert and when somebody is a novice that is obviously following explicit rules. Once again the fact that we can see a qualitative transformation (e.g. Dreyfus and Dreyfus’ stage model of going from novice to expert) seems to indicate that we are not making a vacuous distinction here.

    To answer some of your more concrete points.

    1) I don’t know if the Goldman example is necessarily relevant. All that Goldman seems to be saying here is that there can be a shift from so-called “episodic memory” (retaining information about the “what, where and and when” of a learning episode) into “semantic memory,” were most of these details are lost and only the “gist” is retained. This “semanticization” process is actually pervasive and operates for most “long-held” memories and has been correlated with neurophysiological shifts in the underlying retention mechanism (e.g. from retention that involves the hippocampus and related structures to retention that does not involve these structures). I don’t see exactly what it has to do with the “how/that” distinction.

    2) I grant the point that “explicit/implicit” distinction cross-cuts the “how/that” distinction. So does the “conscious/unconscious” distinction. But the distinction that we are talking about here is “theoretical versus practical.”

    3) I grant that a lot of neuroscience is hopelessly muddled by theoretical or philosophical standards. Once again, this does not imply that there are no distinctions to make. Your examples imply such distinctions. So one very mundane criterion to differentiate theory of practice could be this: How many exposures do I need? It is clear that for you to “get” a practice you require multiple trials. You can “know” after a single exposure (by reading a book) that the best way to throw a knuckleball is by digging your nails into a baseball. That does not imply that you will be magically endowed with the *ability* to do so. Lexically, English is ambiguous on this score, because we can say that “R. A. Dickey knows how to throw a knuckleball” and mean both that Dickey can *actually* do it. or that he read about how to do it in a book or both. This ambiguity does not imply that the distinction is not picking up something important.

    4) Another criterion is processual and is implied in the math example. I can solve a long-division problem in two ways. I can follow the mechanical rules that thye taught me in third grade or I can (after doing thousands of such problems) simply train my associative memory to such an extent that the answer just “pops” to mind via pattern completion or recall of instances. These are two empirically distinct processes. As Sloman (1996) has argued the best sort of evidence that we are in fact facing *two different things* here is that the two processes can produce contradictory answers at the same time, so that we can have an intuition that is different from what rule-based theoretical reasoning dictates. So I can know *theoretically* that if I don’t put my seatbelt on and the car is going at full speed that I will continue to go at the speed after a sudden stop and end up with my brains splattered on the windshield. Yet, there is always that nagging intuition produced by the pattern completing Aristotelian intuitive physicist who lives in my brain that tells me: “Really? but I’m really heavy. How can that even be? Maybe I don’t need this belt after all.” The fact that we get two answers (there’s a bunch of evidence from problem solving, categorization and decision-making research that shows the same thing) tells us that we are dealing with two decidedly distinct processes here.

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    Omar

    May 8, 2012 at 8:08 pm

  25. Kieran, thanks for the interesting discussion starter. surely the general thought that the distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge is difficult to defend is well represented in least one group of social theories– those influenced by Wittgenstein. I’m thinking here of, for example, the now long standing and very diverse tradition of work in the sociology of science influenced by Kuhn (who was himself profoundly influenced by the later work of Wittgenstein).

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    steve

    May 9, 2012 at 2:02 am

  26. Omar,

    Thanks for your comments. They reveal that you and I have been thinking about some of the same literature, and thinking about its impact for the same reasons. For example, you will see from my book that I am deeply immersed in the neuroscience literature on the distinction between episodic memory and semantic memory, on the one hand, and procedural and declarative knowledge and memory, on the other. In fact, I present a view of what each amounts to, and a view about how the two distinctions relate to one another. This confluence of interests confirms my view that I have been carving nature at its joints.

    That said, I must register disagreement about some of your particular points. For reasons of space, I will only discuss the first.

    Recall that you originally wrote:

    “That we can have redundant representations of the same domain does not invalidate the fact that you can forget (e.g. let’s say due to aging) the relevant physics of how to ride a bike (to go with the trite Polanyian example) and still be able to actually get on the bike and ride it.”

    I took you here to be providing an argument that knowing how is not a kind of knowing that. I took you to be providing the following kind of argument: it is possible to retain knowledge how to ride a bicycle, while forgetting the reasons that got you to know this in the first place (you write that one could forget the “relevant physics”, but one never needed to know the relevant physics. Nonetheless, on my view you have to have some factual knowledge, and I agree that you can forget this and still know how to ride a bicycle). I saw in this argument of yours an appeal to internalism about knowledge, the view that knowledge requires access to your justification.

    (posting this so as not to lose it again)

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    Jason Stanley

    May 9, 2012 at 4:24 am

  27. The reason I raised Goldman was as follows. Goldman objected to internalism about knowledge by pointing out that one can retain one’s knowledge of a proposition, while forgetting (and hence losing access) to one’s justification. So that defangs the internalism about knowledge I saw you as presupposing.

    You responded by writing:

    “All that Goldman seems to be saying here is that there can be a shift from so-called “episodic memory” (retaining information about the “what, where and and when” of a learning episode) into “semantic memory,” were most of these details are lost and only the “gist” is retained.”

    But I don’t see that this is Goldman’s point at all. In particular, I don’t see how Goldman is relying on the distinction between episodic and semantic memory in his objection to internalism. It’s a different issue.

    At any rate, there is lots to say about your other points too. I confess to being criminally ignorant of the details of the work of Pierre Bourdieu (the world’s most famous sociologist). But I suspect that people outside philosophy are ignorant of the details of the work of Alvin Goldman (one of the two or three most influential epistemologists of the last fifty years). I think probably there is a lot of literature sharing that needs to be done.

    I was interested also in the literature you cited as widely accepted – for example, you cite Dreyfus as an authority. But Dreyfus’s views are one the main targets of the book – I think his views on the relation between a novice and an expert are totally wrong. If those are presumed by people who get a lot out of Bourdieu then we will be conflicting on central assumptions (but talking about the same issues).

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    Jason Stanley

    May 9, 2012 at 4:34 am

  28. Jason, I’ve not looked at your book, but reading your NYT blog, I am unclear whether your point is:
    1) That the distinction between theory and practice is incoherent, because no element of any activity can be categorized as theoretical or practical.
    or,
    2) That no activity can be categorized as purely theoretical or purely practical, because when we reflect on any activity, it immediately becomes apparent that it contains both practical and theoretical elements.
    For example, your final comment, that the distinction between the practical and the theoretical (not, note, the distinction between activities categorized as practical and those categorized as theoretical) is ‘fictional’, seems to imply 1). But the examples you give elsewhere in the piece involve picking out theoretical elements in supposedly practical activities (eg. reading a cooking book as part of the supposedly practical skill of cooking) and, conversely, showing the practical side of supposedly theoretical activities (eg. the know-how mathematicians demonstrate in navigating novel difficulties). Picking out elements in this way seems to leave intact the conceptual distinction between theory and practice. It also leaves open the possibility that the distribution of practical and theoretical elements across different activities is different, so that some activities are more practical (or theoretical) than others. If that is the case, presumably we could retain the distinction between practical and theoretical activities as a distinction of degree rather than a distinction of kind. Although we could not say that cooking *is* practical, while pure math *is* theoretical, we could still say that cooking is *more* practical than pure math.
    To complicate matters further, in your responses in this discussion you imply that your ultimate position is that practical know-how is really knowledge of truths, and that this assimilates the practical to the theoretical (as opposed to pragmatists who collapse theory into practice).
    So I’m a bit confused. I’m sure your position is clearly laid out in your book.

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    steve

    May 9, 2012 at 9:28 am

  29. Steve – my ultimate position is that practical know-how is really knowledge of truths. I don’t like describing the position in terms of theoretical vs. practical elements, since it’s confusing and misleading. I do think that knowing a truth is a dispositional state that requires that the agent have certain dispositions. I think that there is a difference between truths you can learn by reading a book and truths you can only acquire by moving your arms or trying to do stuff (I have an account in the book of the nature of propositions that explains why some probably couldn’t be grasped by reading a book). I’m not even sure it’s helpful to group propositions into kinds even along this dimension, though.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 9, 2012 at 2:19 pm

  30. Thanks Jason, I think I see what you are driving at– but I suspect that the folk distinction between the theoretical and the practical does not turn on the issue of whether or not practical activity involves knowledge of truths. I would imagine that most people in the general population who use the distinction would concede that practical know-how involves knowledge of truths. The central issue in the practical-theoretical folk distinction might rather be the nature of the truths that are known (their imagined scope, for example), the way in which they are known, and how they are acquired. Differences along these dimensions are surely captured in the popular opposition drawn between ‘book learning’ and ‘hands-on’ knowledge (note that the relative value of these two is not cut and dry. ‘Book learning’, of the sort often associated with pointy-headed coastal types, is often denigrated as being in some sense less real (less true?) than practical know-how).
    But I guess this opens up an empirical question, of a kind Bourdieu liked to pursue; on what basis is the folk distinction made between practice and theory? Is it a matter of knowledge of truths versus just knowing how to go on? Or is it more an issue of deeply held attitudes towards the body that are ultimately anchored in things like class-based distinctions between different kinds of work.
    I guess my point is that if the objective of your intervention, at least for your NYT piece, is to undermine a status hierarchy ordering kinds of activity, then it is not clear to me that making the point that all activity involves knowledge of truths provides the best angle of attack. Perhaps a more direct approach would be to attack the notion that some truths are better than others (and if that is the way to go, then flattening theory into practice, rather than ‘upgrading’ practice into theory, might be the more effective strategy). And in any case, to return to the empirical point, perhaps it would be useful to get a clearer sense first of just what are the grounds on which ‘hands-on’ work is seen as being in some sense inferior to ‘theoretical’ work.

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    steve

    May 10, 2012 at 12:58 am

  31. Steve – you are right that one could create a status hierarchy of the one I was criticizing even on the view that skilled action, like theoretical reflection, amounts to knowledge of truths. As you rightly point out, one would have to say that there are distinct kinds of truths, with some ‘better’ than others (or more valuable or something). This would be a way to retain the status hierarchy I’m criticizing, consistently with the view that both practical skill and intellectual reflection are exemplifications of propositional knowledge. But the defense of the hierarchy would have to take a different form – an argument that some truths are considerably harder to access maybe in principle than others.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 10, 2012 at 5:29 pm

  32. … Or more likely that some truths are more general than others (the kind of thing captured by the old distinction between idiothetic and nomothetic knowledge). It seems to me that it is not clear how exactly the hierarchy would be defended– it would need first to be systematically interrogated! Just noting that there is a hierarchy of this sort does not tell us about its underlying logic. As I say, we would need to pointedly question those who unthinkingly make use of it, or maybe conduct some genealogical investigations, to come up with a reasonably grounded account of what’s really going on in the practice-theory hierarchy.
    On another note, you make brief mention of rule following in the above discussion. In opting for truth as the lynchpin of what we take to be practice, rather than taking practice as grounding what we usually think of as theory, are you committing yourself to the view that rules can be self-grounding in a way that avoids infinite regress? I ask because one philosopher who has been very influential on at least some currents of social theoretic thinking about practice is Wittgenstein, especially his insights about rule-following. I think Wittgenstein’s influence, for example on science studies, ethnomethodology, and on certain currents of European social theory, accounts for why social theorists tend to be much more sympathetic to the project of grounding of theory in practice (taken to be what Wittgenstein is getting at in his notion of a form of life) than the kind of truth centered account of practice you seem to be advocating.

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    steve

    May 10, 2012 at 10:39 pm

  33. Steve – you are right that the main 20th century objection against a view like mine is that it leads to an infinite regress. The very first chapter of my book is devoted entirely to dispelling different infinite regress objections against the view that I argue for in the book, viz. that all skill is guidance by known truths. So yes, it is a major objection, but I also think I satisfactorily answer it.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 11, 2012 at 4:13 am

  34. The aim of the book, as you say, is to give a truth centered account of practice (or rather more accurately, a knowledge centered account of practice – knowledge first, practice second). You are right that the view I hold is the target of a lot of 20th century philosophy, e.g. Wittgenstein, Ryle (especially), and Heidegger. I think the arguments against the view I advocate are incorrect. This is the ground I cover in the book – once you have the right account of propositions (i.e. rules), the right account of knowledge, and the right account of guidance, the objections to the “truth centered” view by earlier figures such as Ryle, and later figures such as Dreyfus, vanish.

    I admit to being surprised by learning from the discussion on this blog about the influence in the social sciences of the practice before knowledge view, i.e. the influence of Wittgenstein, Ryle, Heidegger, and Dreyfus. I think they are quite wrong about a lot of things, mainly because they are making false assumptions about the nature of propositional knowledge.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 11, 2012 at 4:25 am

  35. Why does it have to knowledge *before* practice? I think the answer is simply that philosophers want to ground the notion of value (and therefore social status) in their area of expertise. In fact, there’s a kind of snobbery in the idea that someone who decides on being an auto mechanic at an early age might rob herself and her society of an “important” contribution to mathematics or literary analysis.

    Why not trace the value of practical activity back to another virtue, like “justice”? Rawls does this at the beginning of his Theory of Justice, saying that justice is the “first virtue of social institutions, just as truth is the first virtue of our systems of thought”. In a similar vein, I think tracing the value or (“rightness”) of practice back to truths and propositions misses the distinct contribution of practical activity to living. More poetically (and less philosophically), why not approach practical activity through its emotional rather than its conceptual “content”?

    In any case, it’s telling that we first have to have a “right account of propositions”. Presumably this means that our pocket version of Frege and the early Wittgenstein won’t suffice. (Roughly, a proposition is that which is made true by a fact.) And this just underscores my point that you have to be deep into very technical issues of contemporary analytic epistemology before the dichotomy, its problems, and this solution, has any bite.

    The rest of us will just go on distinguishing between theory and practice in the ordinary way, and respecting people for who they are and how well they do things, not whether they happen to have chosen a life as a mechanic or epistemologist. It’s clear to me that this argument hinges on first accepting the ideological dogma that we live in a “knowledge society”. The argument in fact is just part of the propagation of that dogma. It does more to entrench the status hierarchy than to overturn it.

    As others in this thread have pointed out, the social valorization of “theoretical” over “practical” labour is not a “fiction”; it’s part of social reality. We look up to scholars and down on plumbers in one sense; and in another sense we think of scholars as pretentious fakes and plumbers as authentic craftsmen. That’s because they actually do different things and social life is like that. It converts natural differences into cultural ones. It’s not fair. But you can’t just think yourself (or your readers) out of it.

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    Thomas

    May 11, 2012 at 6:27 am

  36. well there has been a something of a pragmatic turn in social theory in recent years– influenced not only by continental philosophers like Merleau Ponty (via Bourdieu) and Wittgenstein, but also by a recovery of American pragmatism,especially Dewey and G H Mead (pragmatism was a big influence on early American sociology).
    To an extent practice centered philosophers are I think preaching to the converted when read by social scientists. Certainly Marx, and in some ways arguably Durkheim also, could be characterized as proponents of the ‘practice before knowledge’ view. Since these two figures have been hugely influential on the development of social science, looking to first to practice probably comes as second nature to most social scientists.

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    steve

    May 11, 2012 at 6:51 am

  37. Jason (forgot to address you,so have re-posted) – well there has been a something of a pragmatic turn in social theory in recent years– influenced not only by continental philosophers like Merleau Ponty (via Bourdieu) and Wittgenstein, but also by a recovery of American pragmatism,especially Dewey and G H Mead (pragmatism was a big influence on early American sociology).
    To an extent practice centered philosophers are I think preaching to the converted when read by social scientists. Certainly Marx, and in some ways arguably Durkheim also, could be characterized as proponents of the ‘practice before knowledge’ view. Since these two figures have been hugely influential on the development of social science, looking to first to practice probably comes as second nature to most social scientists.

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    steve

    May 11, 2012 at 6:57 am

  38. I agree with Steve. There’s a kind of “return of the repressed” here. Analytic philosophy has kept not only the continental, but also the pragmatist and (late-)Wittgensteinian influence at arms length. It’s now slowly learning, in its way, things that are obvious in other fields. I always love telling this story about the reception of Austin’s How to Do Things with Words among rhetoricians. The rhetorical tradition, of course, is the original act of philosophical repression. Suddenly (in 1962) a philosopher notices that you can “do things” words. Wow!

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    Thomas

    May 11, 2012 at 7:12 am

  39. Thomas, don’t want to sidestep. But a word of caution, if you think that your short link captures what Austin did in his book, you are very far off and I’d advice you to re-read it. Rhetoricians had not put forward this message about speech-acts before Austin did. Of course they had talked about shaping and manipulating the world, but not an actual speech-act. There is a reason why later research usually refers back to Austin (he does have quite a few citations you know), and not to rhetoricians.

    Like

    Anonymous

    May 11, 2012 at 9:10 am

  40. Of course not. It’s a story about how the difference between “rhetoric” and “philosophy” is constructed. Always, of course, by reductive readings of major figures. So I often have to say “If you think that captures what Foucault/Derrida, Wittgenstein/Heidegger, James/Dewey did in their books ….”

    That said, I don’t think the “reasons” that people cite Austin over, say, Kenneth Burke, have to do with the intellectual contents of their respective works. It has to do with precisely the sorts of eccentricities that shape intellectual traditions and academic disciplines. Austin didn’t “just” do any one simple thing in “How to…”, I agree, but he certainly didn’t discover the phenomenon of a speech act (though he may have coined that term, of course). What he did was identify a particular blind spot in a particular philosophical tradition that happened to be dominant at the time.

    This has had the peculiar (and partly comical) effect of forcing even rhetoricians to jump through Austin’s hoops. Knape was expressing resentment over Austin’s rhetorical success. Ah, irony!

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    Thomas

    May 11, 2012 at 9:25 am

  41. This question is to Jason Stanley specifically: what exactly do you feel that Wittgenstein, Heidegger, et al. have “wrong” about propositional knowledge (and practice)? I’ve found this thread fascinating, but in the main unsatisfactory because I am unable to see how any of your arguments would lead me to renounce any of my current support for Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, or Bourdieu’s positions on theoretical (and) practical knowledge. Do explain…

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    Coltrane

    May 13, 2012 at 6:48 am

  42. Let me be clear. After reading all of this, I am still unconvinced that simply blurring the distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge because *both* forms of knowledge contain propositions about truth necessitates doing great violence to the prevailing folk idea of practical v. theoretical nor jettisoning the idea that some types of action are “hotter” than others (see decision-making lit. in Economics).

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    Coltrane

    May 13, 2012 at 6:57 am

  43. Coltrane – actually in my book I argue that knowledge of truths (propositional knowledge) is the only kind of knowledge that there is. There is no other kind of knowledge. So the position I defend is not the view that there are two kinds of knowledge, but propositional knowledge is implicated in both of them. It’s rather the view that the only kind of knowledge is knowledge of truths. That’s it.

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    Jason Stanley

    May 13, 2012 at 5:47 pm

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    "Peneus"

    March 28, 2013 at 2:54 am


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