Knowing How

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“That’s all well and good in practice… but how does it work in theory?” is a popular slogan on student t-shirts on this campus. This joke depends on a distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge—a distinction enshrined in philosophical orthodoxy by Gilbert Ryle’s mid-20th-century essay “Knowing How and Knowing That.” Ryle attacked the “intellectualist legend” that to do something intelligently is “to do a bit of theory and then to do a bit of practice.” In the 21st century, though, Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson (Yale and Oxford) have attacked Ryle’s distinction, arguing that “knowing-how is a species of knowing-that.” I will sketch a bit of the history of this debate. By looking at the use of the term “intellectualism” in Ryle’s day, I will show that his actual position has gone missing in the 21st-century discussion. We’ll see how history of philosophy can inform philosophical inquiry, opening up neglected insights and restoring our sense of the genealogy of philosophical arguments and problems.