Philosophy Practical Knowledge
David Hunter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0010


A person typically knows what she is doing when she does something intentionally, and she usually knows this without having to observe herself. This so-called practical knowledge raises many philosophical questions. Does intentional action require practical knowledge and, if so, what is the strength of this requirement? What is it about intentional action that requires it, since a person can be doing something unintentionally without knowing about it? What is the source or ground of this knowledge? How is it related to observation, bodily sensation, and proprioception? How is a person’s practical knowledge connected to the reasons she has for acting and to practical reasoning more generally? In what sense, if any, is a person’s practical knowledge the “cause” of what it understands, as Anscombe famously claimed? While the notion of practical knowledge was central to the theory of action in the middle decades of the 20th century, it lost this place in the 1960s. But the last ten years has seen a renewed interest in the notion. This article aims to chart both the early debates and the recent discussions of practical knowledge. While it organizes the literature according to certain questions and topics, other ways to organize the literature are possible and nearly all of the texts would fit equally well under several headings.

General Overviews

Because interest in practical knowledge is fairly new, few general overviews are available. Schwenkler 2012 and Roessler 2010 are helpful. They serve as up-to-date introductory surveys of the debate and contain good bibliographies. Haddock 2010 is a helpful discussion of the epistemological significance of practical knowledge. Many of the essays in Ford, et al. 2011 address the views on practical knowledge developed in Anscombe 2000 (cited under History). Wong 2010 is a helpful introductory discussion of the closely related topic of a person’s awareness of her bodily states and movements. The papers in Roessler and Eilan 2003 all consider from a broadly empirical, psychological point of view the awareness people have when they act. Teichmann 2008 provides a critical introduction to the work of Elizabeth Anscombe, including her views on knowledge of action.

  • Ford, Anton, Jennifer Hornsby, and Frederick Stoutland, eds. Essays on Anscombe’s Intention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674060913

    A collection of essays on various aspects of Anscombe 2000 (cited under History).

  • Haddock, A. “Knowledge and Action.” In The Nature and Value of Knowledge: Three Investigations. Edited by Duncan Pritchard, Alan Millar, and Adrian Haddock, 191–260. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199586264.001.0001

    A discussion of practical knowledge within the context of contemporary accounts of knowledge and justification.

  • Roessler, Johannes. “Agents’ Knowledge.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Action. Edited by Timothy O’Connor and Constantine Sandis, 236–243. Chicester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444323528

    An introductory discussion of practical knowledge in the context of, among other things, recent empirical results and discoveries about pathological actions.

  • Roessler, Johannes, and Naomi Eilan, eds. Agency and Self-Awareness: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

    A collection of essays by philosophers and cognitive scientists on the empirical-psychological aspects of practical knowledge.

  • Schwenkler, John. “Non-observational Knowledge of Action.” Philosophy Compass 7.10 (2012): 731–740.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2012.00513.x

    An introductory but critical survey of recent attempts to explain and understand practical knowledge.

  • Teichmann, Roger. The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199299331.001.0001

    An introduction to the general themes in Anscombe’s work, including her views on practical knowledge and the nature of action.

  • Wong, Hong-Yu. “Bodily Awareness and Bodily Action.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Action. Edited by Timothy O’Connor and Constantine Sandis, 227–235. Chicester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444323528

    An introductory survey of recent work on the connections between a person’s awareness of her bodily movements and states and her actions.

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