In This Article Knowledge-How

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Collections
  • Monographs
  • (Theoretical) Cognitive Science
  • Second-Order Controversy
  • Related Themes

Philosophy Knowledge-How
Boleslaw Czarnecki
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0314


People often assess their actions against standards of success and quality. Appreciating non-accidental more than lucky success, they attach greater value still to ways or methods that preserve it: they care more to know how to do things than just to get things right. A notable expansion of the literature on the topic of knowledge-how in 21st-century philosophy, owes much to a disagreement—inspired by Gilbert Ryle—concerning the matter of how knowledge-how should be situated among other types of knowledge. References in this entry begin with a list of overviews, monographs, and collections, followed by selected 20th-century discussions. The last two sections contain sources pertaining to Ryle’s own work on the topic as well as work by other influential thinkers (see “Gilbert Ryle”) and themes that are sometimes associated with knowledge-how (see Related Themes). Importantly, on the approach adopted across the remaining seven sections, contemporary literature on knowledge-how can be usefully reviewed from three perspectives. Firstly, there are generic desiderata for accounts of knowledge-how that comprise interpretation of ascription(s), theoretical characterization(s), and explanatory link(s) between knowledge-how and action (see Discussions by Generic Desiderata). Asking where particular accounts stand with respect to each of these three desiderata allows one to assess the depth of disagreement on situating knowledge-how among other types of knowledge. This non-normative perspective may be further contrasted with or enriched by normative arguments. Secondly, the literature can be approached from the perspective of specific topics that are already well entrenched in the tradition of particular subdisciplines: for instance, testimony within epistemology (see Topics in Epistemology and others). This perspective may prove fruitful when assessing the performance of available knowledge-how accounts against the most representative challenges; or, conversely, the challenges may help draft initial characterizations of knowledge-how. It should be noted that problems listed there do not fit exclusively within their subdisciplinary compartments. Indeed, they have occasionally received interdisciplinary treatment (see (Theoretical) Cognitive Science). Finally, on several occasions the disagreement about situating knowledge-how among other types of knowledge has also incited a second-order controversy regarding distinct assumptions and tools employed in the service of its resolution, as well as the commensurability of those assumptions and tools. This metaphilosophical perspective pertains to questions such as which methodologies are most suited to capture salient features of knowledge-how, or to what extent debaters should even hope to find common ground in addressing issues that arise given methodologies they adopt (see Second-Order Controversy).


In philosophical literature two general positions have been distinguished in the debate over how to situate knowledge-how among other types of knowledge. These are intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. Distinct aspects of the debate as well as subtleties of specific proposals make it difficult to provide definitions of these. In one attempt, an encyclopedic overview, Fantl 2012 characterizes either position as a reaction to a pair of interwoven problems: (1) to what extent knowledge-how is independent from knowledge-that and (2) what knowledge-how consists in. Most broadly, intellectualists hold that knowledge-how, perhaps non-trivially yet strongly, (1) depends on knowledge-that and that it (2) consists in knowing some relevant fact or proposition pertaining to action. By contrast, viewing knowledge-how as a type of (2) ability to perform action, anti-intellectualists stipulate (1) a high degree of independence of knowledge-how from knowledge-that. In another characterization of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, Bengson and Moffett 2012 offers a slightly more complex framework, according to which these positions emerge from two distinct conceptions of what is a mental state, its exercise in action, and the ways in which the mental state and its exercise are entangled. In short, intellectualists hold that knowledge-how must at least involve some sort of propositional or conceptual engagement in the way it bears on action, whereas for anti-intellectualists knowledge-how must minimally involve some disposition to be actualized in action. Note that in line with either characterization both intellectualists and anti-intellectualists, even if they are minimalists, must hold on to these respective claims strongly enough to avoid the charge of collapsing into the opposite view. To capture this varying strength of the two claims, a glance at Bengson 2013 will also be helpful; see also Bengson’s other less detailed overview under “knowledge-how” subcategory in PhilPapers.

  • Bengson, John. “Knowledge How vs. Knowledge That” In Encyclopedia for Philosophy and the Social Sciences. Edited by B. Kaldis. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2013.

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    Sets the debate between intellectualists and anti-intellectualists against the background of four Rylean theses, urging that intellectualists may want to reject the thesis that knowledge-how is strongly contrastable with knowledge-that, while accepting that the former is not equivalent to the latter.

  • Bengson, John, and Marc A. Moffett. “Two Conceptions of Mind and Action.” In Knowing How: Essays on Knowledge, Mind, and Action. By John Bengson and Mark A. Moffett, 3–56. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    An essay on the debate(s) between intellectualists and anti-intellectualists, rich in technical detail. Contains a wealth of remarks and references that will be particularly useful in pursuit of new research directions.

  • Fantl, Jeremy. “Knowledge How.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2012.

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    A major introductory entry to the topic. Sets the debate against the background of ancient and more recent distinctions. Divides debaters into three types: intellectualists, moderate anti-intellectualists, and radical anti-intellectualists. Draws a distinction between dispositionalist and ability anti-intellectualism.

  • Knowledge how. PhilPapers.

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    Contains a short introduction by John Bengson and provides systematically updated online repository of philosophical articles on the topic.

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