Last time we talked about what philosophers mean by “rational animals” and “perceptive beings”. Yet, what does this have to do with shoelace-tying? Is knowing how to tie shoelaces learned through pure reasoning or practical experiences then?
Before we can jump start to the discussion on this topic, we must first refer to the differences between “knowing how” and “knowing that”.
Knowing How vs. Knowing What
In his presidential address in 1945, the English philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, noted the over emphasis placed by preceding thinkers on the pursuit of abstract concepts such as knowledge and truth, thereby neglecting the significant role of concrete things, e.g. methods and skills. Early thinkers like them have confused “knowledge that” with “knowledge how”, which according to Ryle is dissimilar (Ryle, 1945). In other words, he believes that knowing the method to doing something (knowledge-how/ know-how) is not identical with knowing the essence or nature of doing this something (knowledge-that/ know-what) (Ryle, 1945, p.4).
Take shoelace-tying for instance. We may know the steps to tying shoelaces, but we may have difficulty explaining why we must cross the two shoelace ends first instead of making the lace holes first. Perhaps, you’d think, “Well, if we don’t cross the two ends of the shoelace, we won’t be able to tie it at all! Besides, it should be done this way!”
Does it? Or rather, is knowing how to tie shoelaces passed down to us by our predecessors, and we’ve just become so acquainted with the skill that we confuse them with knowledge-that? Yet, they probably have never really equated one another?
Gilbert Ryle further points out that unless we gain the access to knowing how first, we can never reach the point of knowing that (Ryle, 1945, p.4-5). In other words, the reason why we could recognize a particular truth and use theories to support our findings is because we receive a prior experience to it in which practical skills and actions are involved. The knowledge is thus built on a previous set of experiences.
That being said, however, we cannot conclude and promise a victory of experientialist over intellectualist. Citing what the American contemporary philosopher on human cognition, Jerry A. Fodor:
There is a real and important distinction between knowing how to do a thing and knowing how to explain how to do that thing. But ‘that’ distinction is one that the intellectualist is perfectly able to honor. Dogs, cats, and preverbal children know how to do all sorts of things they can’t explain how to do; the ability to give explanations is itself a skill—a special kind of knowing how, which presupposes general verbal facility at the very least. (Fodor, 1968, p.634)
However much we wish to separate the knowledge what and knowledge how of shoelace-tying and use that as the basis of our taking sides with Intellectualism or Experientialism, we can neither resolve the tension between them nor reject the fact that they are complementing each other.
Despite such dilemma, we may perhaps let go of the dual-thinking approach, and consider the compatibility of the two. This may be the start of a new perspective toward the knowledge how and knowledge what of shoelace-tying.
- Fodor, Jerry A. “The Appeal to Tacit Knowledge in Psychological Explanation.” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 65, no. 20, 1968, pp. 627-640., doi:10.2307/2024316.
- Ryle, Gilbert. “Knowing How and Knowing That: The Presidential Address.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, vol. 46, 1945, pp. 1-16.