Workshop: knowing how and pragmatism

June 24 & 25, 2014 Campus Descartes

IFE,  Salle de Conférences 1

9am – 5pm


Marcelo Carvalho, Universidade Federal de São Paulo

Stéphane Madelrieux, Université Lyon III

Quanmin LI, East China Normal University

Jean-Michel Roy, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon

Pierre Steiner, Université Technologique de Compiègne

Peter Sullivan, University of Sterling

Zhenhua YU, East China Normal University

Workshop general argument

The general goal of the Workshop is to examine the relationship between the notion of knowing how and that of pragmatism, both from a theoretical and a historical perspectives. It is organized in the context of the Sino-French Research Operation The Knowledge & Action Lab (KAL), conducted under the auspices of the Joint Research Institute for Science & Society (East China Normal University & ENS de Lyon).

From a theoretical point of view, one of the key questions that have emerged in the context of the KAL research operation is that of determining to what extent knowing how can be considered as the, or at least a, defining feature of pragmatism ; and if so, under what conditions exactly. Such a view of the ‘essence’ of pragmatism is clearly suggested by the current debate around concept pragmatism, where some of its main protagonists (particularly J. Fodor and R. Brandom) converge on the idea that a theory of concepts is pragmatist to the extent that it considers the possession of a concept as a know how capacity, even though they sharply diverge as to the validity of a pragmatist theory of concepts.

This conception of the deeper nature of pragmatism seems to require at least that knowing how be analyzed in an anti-intellectualist way, to use the standard terminology introduced by Ryle’s seminal analysis of 1949. An anti-intellectualist analysis sees knowing how as a form of knowledge that is, at a minimum, (a) distinct and (b) independent from propositional knowledge, or knowing that. A more radical type of anti-intellectualism goes one step further and makes knowing that itself dependent on knowing how, considered as the most basic kind of knowledge from which all others derive.

The hypothesis that an anti-intellectualist conception of knowing how could be the, or a, defining feature of pragmatism, not only as regards the theory of concepts but in general, raises two main difficulties.

On the one hand, it makes the receivability as well as the very possibility of pragmatism dependent upon such an anti-intellectualist analysis. Indeed, if an anti-intellectualist analysis of knowing how  proves to be wrong or even impossible, pragmatism is ipso facto eliminated as a theoretical option. However, the question whether an anti-intellectualist reading of knowing how is right or wrong is far from being settled, as evidenced by the controversies that still surround it. In this perspective, the most important task in the effort to understand and assess pragmatism is to make progress in this debate and to solve the issue inherited from Ryle that lies at its heart: Can and should knowing how be analyzed in anti-intellectualist terms ?

The second issue is, more fundamentally, whether it is appropriate to tie the fate of pragmatism to that of an anti-intellectualist analysis of knowing how. In other words, whether anti-intellectualism so understood is a necessary or even sufficient requirement for pragmatism. Accordingly, the task is here to examine whether pragmatism should be essentially conceived as an anti-intellectualism, and even possibly reduced to it, or whether the step from anti-intellectualism to pragmatism requires some additional ingredients.

In order to answer this second difficulty, it seems particlularly indispensable to look back in time and to investigate the relations that the notions of pragmatism, knowing how and anti-intellectualism have entertained in the course of history.

Two historical elements will be privileged in the workshop.

The first one is classical pragmatism. It is fairly undisputable that anti-intellectualism looms large in the doctrine of some at least of the main representatives of classical pragmatism. Under what forms exactly, however, and how central is it really? To what degree, in particular, is it connected to the notion of knowing how ?

The second is Wittengsteinism. A fairly common view is that the 2d Wittegentsein, in particular through the analyses carried out in his Philosophical Investigations dedicated to rule-following, threw the seeds of radical anti-intellectualism by turning all rule following activities into a kind of practical knowledge, thereby revising his early intellectualist positions on this matter. And that he gave, in addition, a pragmatist twist to his thinking that initiated a new and original branch of pragmatism in contemporary philosophy. Clarifying and assessing this pragmatist reading of the evolution of Wittgenstein and scrutinizing its connection with his analysis of knowing how can only be illuminating for the treatment of the second theoretical difficulty at the heart of the workshop, without mentioning its obvious benefit for the first one also.