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Wittgenstein on “Knowing That,” “Knowing How” and “Being Able to Do”

November 9th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

At §150 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein invites us to consider three separate concepts:

1. {“knowing that”};

2. {“knowing how”}; and

3. {“being able to do”}.

Wittgenstein states their “grammar” is “evidently closely related.” Wittgenstein has a propensity to put forth “stalking horses” as a way to delineate his position more sharply. And, frequently, he does not identify them as the heuristic devices they are. I think §150 is an illustration of this. That is, I don’t think Wittgenstein actually contends they “are” closely related, even though their “grammar” “evidently” might be.

One possible interpretation of §150 is:

4. 2 3. For example, as Wittgenstein illustrates at §148, one might be able to recite the alphabet, or the multiplication table, yet not be able to apply them.

5. 2 1. Knowing how to do something is knowing a compilation of propositions about what it is one is doing, or proposes to do: the steps involved, the success conditions, the practical constraints, and similar factors.

6. 3 (1 2). Actually being able to do something is a combination of 1 and 2, or, at least, elements of 1 and 2.

I don’t think 4 – 6 are true, and I don’t think Wittgenstein does, either. Rather:

7. 3 (1 2). Accomplishing an activity in the world doesn’t entail “knowing how” or “knowing that.” For that matter, it doesn’t entail “knowing” anything at all.

8. 2 1. Even to the extent one knows “how” to do something, this doesn’t mean one can enumerate the many elements identified at 5.

9. {1a, 1b, 1c … 1} {2a, 2b, 2c … 2}. Knowing all of the ingredients or propositional elements about a skill or process isn’t the same thing as knowing how to do it. The converse is equally true.

A possible response to 9 is:

10. 2 {1a, 1b, 1c … 1}; and

11. 2 {1a, 1b, 1c}, i.e., 2 occurs in a “referential context;” you don’t need to know everything there might be to know about 1, in order to have 2.

The first problem I have with 6, 10 and 11 is that they are “too cognitive.” Certainly Tractatus-Wittgenstein would agree with 6, 10 and 11, and probably go further (for example, he might say we have “mental representations” of the propositions). But I think this is what Philosophical Investigations-Wittgenstein is trying to rebuke.

For example, at §68, Wittgenstein invites us to consider a game of tennis. Although there are “rules,” many aspects of it are “unregulated.” For example, there are no “rules for how high one throws the ball in tennis, or how hard.” I think what he is trying to say here is, the expert tennis player simply plays tennis. She does not have a set of rules in mind when doing so. Nor does she adopt a propositional attitude while playing (e.g., “now it’s time to hit the ball over the net and between the lines”). Indeed, doing so would disrupt her game. In this respect, the expert is unlike the novice, who might indeed be following, or attempting to follow, a more explicit schematic.

The reciprocal of this also seems true. That is, the expert might not be able to unpack, or articulate, all of the rules (or non-rule “principles of play”, or “factors affecting play”) she considers. And there would be many of them, for example:

1. The ball’s velocity;

2. Its rate of spin;

3. Its elevation;

4. Its direction;

5. Its trajectory;

6. Its anticipated point of landing;

7. The wind speed;

8. The temperature;

9. Her position on the court;

10. The traction afforded by the court’s surface;

11. If she was feeling limber and able to move quickly from one point on the court to another;

12. The influence of gravity;

13. The geographic orientation of the court vis-à-vis the sun;

14. Spectator distraction;

15. etc.

Rather, she just incorporates these factors automatically into her play.

Tennis might be a silly example, because, after all, it’s just a game. I think Wittgenstein’s larger point is about how we “are in the world.” At §202, he introduces the concept of a “practice”: to “think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule.” In other words, we just go about our daily business, doing whatever it is we do. We are familiar with the world, its procedures and constraints, and we comport or conform ourselves to them. We certainly don’t “think” about what we are doing (except in those rare instances when we do).

Wittgenstein’s example might be Aristotle’s phronemos, who unthinkingly (non-cognitively) navigates the world with a practical understanding of its dynamic and effortlessly responds to its challenges and stimulations. Think of all of the elements the phronemos would have to enumerate, if making a list like the one I started to construct for the game of tennis. It would be infinite. And, it couldn’t be done, because it doesn’t account for “common sense.”

This leads to my second objection to 10 and 11, which is, what would the “relevancy criteria” be for comprising the set

{1a, 1b, 1c}

which I hypothesized at 11? That is, what particular “thats” would one have to “know,” in order to “know how”? If the selection criteria are determined by the referential context, then what procedure or mechanism do we use to evaluate it? And what about those criteria? Etc. etc. I think the answer is, the whole undertaking is flawed, and we don’t do anything like this, at all. Rather, like Wittgenstein says at §199, we “master a technique.” But the technique we master isn’t simply a “language,” rather, it’s the technique of the “practices.” There is no “mental process of understanding,” §153.