‘Know How’ or ‘Know That’?

Posted on February 20, 2013 by

**I know that moving the pedals forward moves a bike. I know that holding on to the handlebars and turning them when appropriate will steer the bike. I know that squeezing the right lever on the handle bars will engage the rear brake and slow down the bike’s momentum. Do I know how to ride a bike?


Intellectually, I can explain to someone how to ride a bike, but this sense of ‘how’ does not imply that I can or have the ability to do so. Having the ability to ride a bike involves some sort of practical knowledge, but the practical knowledge seems distinct from having intellectual knowledge. Practical knowledge often times requires dispositional abilities—I might not be able to intellectualize how to ride a bike, but I can do it. Know-how of the dispositional sort seems to conflict with our standard intuition of the concept ‘knowledge’.

One question that we should ask is how distinct are ‘knowledge-that’ and ‘knowledge-how’?

Answers to this question will have ramifications for normative areas of study as well. For instance, consider an obsessive compulsive agent who continuously washes her hands over and over. She knows that she ought not do it excessively. But she does not know how  to stop washing her hands continuously. This example shows that we can hold beliefs about what we ought to do, but we don’t know how to carry out the beliefs. Consequently, one may be intellectually rational in her deliberation on how to act, but fail to carry out the appropriate action that accords with her practical reasoning (here weakness of will or akrasia comes to mind). This, I think, may have an interesting impact on practical rationality, ethics, and other normative fields. This also brings forth a few other interesting questions.

Does not having the ability to “intellectualize” how you ride a bike  mean that you do not have the ‘know that’ knowledge that seems to be a necessary requirement to have ‘know-how’ knowledge.  Or, maybe know-that is not necessary for know-how knowledge. Is know-that knowledge simply a recognition of (or knowledge of)  normative obligations? Is this the only knowledge that is connected to epistemic evaluations? Ah! So many questions…


**This post is a culmination of a prior post by a colleague and an ensuing discussion that followed. It has been modified for Aphilosopherstake.com