What kind of intellect do you possess, when you know how to do something specific?

Published: 2019-10-24 06:30:00
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Philosophers and thinkers have grappled with this question, yet they have not been able to answer it competently and sufficiently. Some posit a concept known as intellectualism, which states that the knowledge of doing something is a varied kind of prior knowledge, that is, the knowledge that. On the other hand, the most profound counterargument is proposed by Ryle (1946, p. 21225), who dissects intellectualism down to an absurd and infinite cycle of vicious regress. He postulates a seemingly successful argument on the regress of intellectualism.

Ryles (1949) regression of intellectualism implores us to adopt the method of reductio ad absurdum to prove the fallacy of intellectualism. Through this, supposedly, he shows that intellectualism and its variant premises result in a sequence of infinite regression. Consequently, intellectualism is, therefore, a false concept. However, for Ryles intellectualism regress argument to verify its soundness, the deductive processes that result in regression ought to be valid (Noe 2005, p. 27890). Again, other than reductio ad absurdum premises, all other introduced premises must also be valid, and the intellectualism regress should be authentically false rather than spurious.

Does Ryle succeed in his regress argument against intellectualism? This essay aims to analyze, assess, clarify and advance this rather controversial debate on whether Ryle successfully convinces that knowledge how is simply not a benign species of knowledge that, but knowledge how, is, in fact, logically prior to knowledge that, unlike the traditionally held reverse view. The paper will delve into the alternatives, if any, that Ryles offers and systematically conclude whether they are plausible.


Intellectualism, a traditional doctrine pushed by intellectualist, contends that the knowledge how is a species of the knowledge that. Essentially, practical application or performing specific actions, that is, the knowledge how, is a matter of invoking the knowledge that by following a set of procedures, methods or techniques in relation to that practical action (Noe 2005, p. 27890). For instance, if you want to play the game of chess, there are certain rules that are to be learned and followed, that is, the knowledge that, to play effectively the knowledge how. Ryle (1946, p. 21225) finds this fallacious. The intelligence of the the knowledge how, is directly practiced and needs no internal process of invoking maxims, imperatives, and regulative propositions (Ryle 1946, 21225). In other words, there is no gap between theory and practice.

To illustrate this, he gives the example that it is possible for a boy to learn the game of chess without ever having heard of or read the rules of the game. The boy can learn chess by simply watching others play or correcting the moves he concedes. This is despite, unfamiliarity with the regulations regarding correct or incorrect moves in the game. Similarly, a boy who learns the game through explicit instruction in the rules may be required to recall the rules from the heart during the first few games on how they apply in particular situations. However, he will soon apply the rules like a second nature the more he plays. Like the other boy, he will make the permitted moves and avoid forbidden ones without thinking of them. He will also notice if his opponent makes them.


Ryle (1949) speculates that the prevailing intellectualist legend results in regression. The mere process of considering propositions is in itself an operation, that is, knowledge how and its execution can be a failure or success. Therefore, if any action is to be performed intelligently, a prior theoretical action has to be performed and performed intelligently, a cycle logically impossible to break (Ryle 1946, p. 21225). He goes further to assert that, it is entirely possible for people to carry out various operations intelligently before considering any maxims, imperatives, and regulative propositions to be executed (Ryle 1946, p. 21225). In other words, various intelligent performances are independent of any mental instructive principles.

This forms the bedrock of his argument against the claim that knowledge how is simply a species of knowledge that, and puts forth the alternative that, there exists no gap between theory and practice. To demonstrate this, he wonders why an agent would choose one maxim over all the other possibilities in order to do anything intelligently. This implies, for the hero to act intelligently, he must reflect on how best to act. This plunges the intellectualism concept deeper into the abyss of regression. In that effect, the intellectualists assumption is absurd for it proposes that an action of any sort is credited to intelligence derived from a mental process of planning to act (Bengson and Moffett 2011, p. 358).

Ryle (1949) also uses the dogma of the ghost in the machine to point out the mistake intellectualist legends make when they write off an overt muscular action as just a physical process. These overt muscular actions, the machine, cannot be equated to as skillful, cunning, or humorous in themselves, hence invoking the ghost in a machine. He argues for the complex dispositions, which are the modus operandi for such overt muscular actions. For instance, one graceful ballet dancers technique is distinct from clumsy ones during motion execution, hence, it is not internal intelligence. Hence, this affirms that intelligent actions work singularly and not in tandem. However, traditional intellectualists view the actions as mutually exclusive.

The underlying idea(s) in Ryles work are that the knowledge how should not be defined by the same context as knowledge that, and the knowledge how is logically prior to the knowledge that. In deconstructing the first argument, Ryle (1949) employs the analogy of an ordinary chess player. If the knowledge how was to be defined in the context of knowledge that, then a chess champion would instruct the ordinary player to play perfectly and win. However, this is impossible. The ordinary player cannot match the skill level of the chess champion by learning about the rules of the game. From an intellectualists perspective, this is because the ordinary player is not intelligent. Ryle (1946, p. 21225) counters that if the player lacked intelligence, then he would not be able to execute the game moves as instructed.

Fundamentally, it requires some level of intelligence to learn and apply maxims or propositions. Knowing how to apply them cannot be reduced to a species of knowledge that without regressing into an infinite circle. In summary, knowing a maxim, knowing-that, is learning how to put into practice such as how to act like a hero, speak a foreign language or play chess. However, this does not necessarily equate that you will act morally, speak fluently or play perfectly. According to Ryle (1949), this is where the intellectualism argument falls short because it reduces knowledge how to a lesser variant of knowledge that. Consequently, this creates a gap between theory and practice that can be solved if the intellectualists transcend beyond the premise and conclusion to provide details about the effects of the conclusion to the premise (Ryle 1949).

Ryles second observation is based on his first idea. Intrinsically then, if the knowledge of maxims and propositions, the knowledge that, does not guarantee we act in a certain manner, then it is no precursor to the knowledge how. Although considered an inferior species of knowledge that, knowledge how is the prior (Ryle 1946, p. 21225). Maxims or propositions become actions once they are performed. For instance, the knowledge that one can bake bread is actualized or put into action when we mix the necessary ingredients, shape the dough and put it the oven. It is likely that we can point out the reason(s) for baking bread, but this reason(s) must be derived from the results of the action, which is the baked bread. In other words, the knowledge of maxims and propositions is never the parent of intelligent actions, but a result of them.

Maxims and propositions are like a looking glass for looking through, but not looking at. Ryle (1949) argues that maxims and propositions can be applied intelligently without reflecting on them mentally. For example, when one is riding a bicycle, they do not refer to the laws of balance or motion, yet they are still able to pedal forward. Additionally, he demonstrates by showing that, although he warns himself of the hazardous effects of smoking in theory, it does not mean he will follow through with the action. This reinforces his observation that actions are not drawn from theory, hence disqualifying that knowledge that is prior to knowledge how.

For these reasons, one cannot be fully versed with a maxim or proposition, unless the action it denotes is acted upon and this action is in itself, an intelligent operation. Thus, knowledge can be viewed from two dimensions, as an archive where content is collected for display or like a library where content is collected for active use. The latter turns maxims and propositional content into sensible and intelligent action. To expound on this, to be instilled with knowledge about relativity theory does not make one an astrophysicist nor does knowledge in grammar make one a linguist, nor does knowledge in probability make one an actuary. This knowledge should be effectively applied since it is a method that can advance it and not the mere discovery of truths.

Regardless of its profundity and popularity, Ryles argument that knowledge how is simply not a benign species of knowledge that has proven to be quite obscure. Being the most vital objection to the intellectualism concept, it has raised some dissonance due to its construction, focus and position. The problem arises from its broad focus on the intellectualist legend against its narrow focus on how the knowledge how is a kind of the knowledge that. By focusing more on the nature of intelligent actions and less on knowledge how, Ryle assumes that his argument defends the conclusion that knowledge how is a species of knowledge that. A paradox even emerges when he makes it clear that there is a sound regress argument against intellectualism, but he never explicitly states it.


Bengson, J., and Moffett, M. (2011). Two Conceptions of Mind and Action: Knowing How and the Philosophical Theory of Intelligence, in J. Bengson and M. Moffett (eds) Knowing How: Essays on Knowledge, Mind, and Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 358.

Noe, A. (2005). Against Intellectualism, Analysis 65, pp. 27890.

Ryle, G. (1946). Knowing How and Knowing That, Reprinted in his (1972) Gilbert Ryle: Collected Papers Volume Two, New York: Barnes and Noble, pp. 21225.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind, Chicago: Chicago University Press.


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