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Practical and Theoretical Knowledge

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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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