putting thoughts into words regarding the entangled state of mind which is my existence

Defending Anti-Intellectualism in Ryle’s Regress

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In “Knowing How and Knowing That,” Gilbert Ryle takes a stance against one of the prevailing ideologies of his time: Intellectualism. In this paper, I will work to explain Ryle’s regress argument and show why it initially seems to be a plausible attack against intellectualism. I will then focus on a strong counterargument in defense of the intellectualist position, given by Stanley and Williamson, reasoning that Ryle makes the mistake of equivocating between two distinct senses of action. Finally, I will object to this counterargument and defend Ryle (and anti-intellectualism) by pointing out how his regress model is mistakenly accused of this fallacy of equivocation and that the meaning of intentional action is actually fixed between the argument’s premises.


Let me first more clearly define the intellectualism which Ryle is concerned about before moving on to his regress argument. Intellectualism is a theory which states how practical knowledge, or knowledge-how, really just fits under the framework of knowledge-that – where this knowledge-that is nothing more than knowledge of propositional truths. This theory, in addressing knowledge-how, also answers the following question: “How does one act intelligently?” Here, we can think of acting intelligently as the expression of the sorts of propositions that constitute one’s knowledge-how in either a clever, skillful, humorous, etc. way. Furthermore, for the intellectualist, knowing-that these propositions necessarily and sufficiently satisfies the issue of F-ing intelligently, because they contain all of the information which would answer the implicit question of how to F intelligently. For example, a good marathon runner knows-how to pace herself to clock the best possible time in a race. She is aware ahead of time of the race’s milestones and a successful strategy to follow – to keep a certain distance from the pack to conserve energy and to speed past them at a later time. These are among some of the mere facts that the runner knows-that in terms of running a race, and properly knowing-that all of these propositions are true leads to a runner knowing-how to intelligently run a marathon.

Ryle, however, believes that the intellectualist faces a serious obstacle, because it would seem that acting on knowledge-that intelligently is something that requires one to employ more and more intelligence the more one thinks about how to act. In other words, Ryle thinks there is an infinite series of more and more complex propositions of knowing-that, all of which would need careful consideration to qualify an act as intelligent. I will put this regression into the form of the following argument:

(1)   If intellectualism is true, then in order to act intelligently, one must first have considered and applied the relevant knowledge-that; in the form of maxims (reasons for acting) or propositions.

(2)   However, any such consideration or application is itself an act, which can be performed more or less intelligently or stupidly.

(3)   Therefore, if intellectualism is true, then one acts intelligently iff one’s maxim or proposition for acting is also intelligently decided (acted on).

(4)   But if one’s maxim or proposition for acting is to be acted upon intelligently, then one must perform the act of considering and applying an even higher-order proposition, which itself must be acted upon intelligently, and from there, another which is intelligently acted upon, ad infinitum.

(5)   Therefore, if intellectualism is true, then one must have considered and applied an infinite number of high-order propositions to ensure that an action is intelligently executed.

(6)   The consequent of (5) cannot be logically carried out, so, by modus tollens, intellectualism is not true.


Ryle makes a strong argument for a number of reasons. First, it is consistent with the intellectualist view, since the steps are broken down in terms of propositional knowledge-that. Also, Ryle makes a good point by suggesting that any active selection for a particular maxim to motivate one’s action must itself also be motivated by a more complex maxim. This is because if first-order maxims were to act as the sole arbiters of intelligence, then there would be something left unconsidered; namely, an intelligently thought out maxim that goes into deciding this first-order maxim. If the intellectualist is to make a feasible objection against Ryle’s regress, he is thus precluded from arguing that a maxim can be both spontaneously and intelligently acted on. Intellectualism would demand a regulatory proposition to be behind any given maxim if it is to be considered intelligent.

Now I would like to consider Stanley and Williamson’s intellectualist response to Ryle. The issue that they present is that Ryle’s regress argument is equivocating between two distinct meanings of the word “action” integral to two of his premises. Let me briefly reconstruct their version of Ryle’s argument:

(1)   If one F’s, one employs knowledge-how to F.

(2)   If one employs knowledge-that p, one contemplates the proposition that p.

These premises mirror the implication of the regress, because the act of contemplating propositions is something which needs to be continually repeated intelligently in order to employ knowledge-how; since, for intellectualism, knowing-how is just knowing-that. The objection here, however, is that when we dig deeper into what it means to employ knowledge-how in premise one, Stanley and Williamson say that we must restrict our focus to intentional acts. Their example of digestion supports this claim, in that one’s body can digest food, but one doesn’t know-how to digest food – there is no active thought process of considering propositions. So in order to save this notion and for premise one to be true, Stanley and Williamson argue that one can only act intelligently if one intentionally acts; the latter is a necessary condition for knowing-how on this premise.


Stanley and Williamson then show that, with premise two, one cannot be so quick to just ascribe intentionality to the act of contemplating propositions, because there are cases where one does not reflect on a proposition and yet still knows-that it is true in regards to an action. For example, when a factory worker repeatedly operates on a machine, he may begin to no longer contemplate what he should be doing after a period of time. Nonetheless, he still has the knowledge-that that what he’s doing is a true way to operate the machine. Stanley and Williamson are trying to demonstrate here that premise two of Ryle’s argument is false if it is understood on the same reading of intentional actions which made premise one seem plausible. They believe his argument now simultaneously holds two very different senses of acting between premise one and two: necessarily intentional on the first, but not necessarily intentional on the second. They cannot converge into either one of these because a uniform substitution instance of unintentional action would render premise one false, while substituting in intentional action for both would make premise two false in some cases. For these reasons, Stanley and Williamson think that Ryle’s regress argument is unsound and they remain unconvinced of its force against intellectualism.

Here is where I would like to offer my own argument for why I believe Stanley and Williamson to be giving intellectualism a weak defense against Ryle’s regress. In showing this, I will provide an original argument as to why Stanley and Williamson were incorrect in part of their equivocation objection. I will note from the beginning that I will be using the words “deliberate” and “contemplate” and all of their grammatical tenses synonymously.

Stanley and Williamson had claimed that premise two of their version of Ryle’s argument could be false if the act of contemplating the proposition was interpreted as intentional. But I would argue that it is not false, but rather always (necessarily) true that employing knowledge-that entails intentionally contemplating a proposition. Let me draw this out by giving the following argument:

(1)   If knowledge-that is employed, then the proposition in question is being deliberately acted on.

(2)   If a proposition is deliberately acted on, then this proposition must also be intentionally contemplated.

(3)   Therefore, by hypothetical syllogism, if knowledge-that is employed, then the proposition is also intentionally contemplated.

This is a valid argument which is written under the intellectualist view. Recall that they had claimed that one could be employing knowledge-that while, at the same time, not intentionally deliberating on the relevant proposition. My conclusion, however, has employing knowledge-that entailing intentionally contemplating a proposition. The consequence of all of this is that, if my argument is sound, Stanley and Williamson’s objection fails, and Ryle’s argument can no longer be charged with equivocating between senses of intentional action in premises one and two. This is because, leaving premise one of Stanley and Williamson’s argument to be read as they had originally presented it, premise two now can be read on the same meaning of intentionally contemplating a proposition as premise one.


In order to support premise one, let’s return to my example of the factory worker. Earlier I said that the factory worker’s actions may stop being deliberately executed but that he still has the relevant knowledge-that; that is, he still has access to it and could reiterate to himself the proposition of how to operate the machine if he so desired. However, the premise reads that “if one employs knowledge-that…” This notion of employing knowledge-that plausibly demands more than simply having access to a proposition, since there is the idea at work here with the instantiation of the subject’s propositional knowledge-that into his acting. The factory worker, however, surely isn’t employing his knowledge-that, because his habitual response is the kind of act which doesn’t engage, in any clear sense, with his propositional knowledge-that. And it would be incorrect to judge, as Stanley and Williamson might, the worker to be employing his knowledge-that through the manifestation of operating the machine because this would give no explanation of the origin of the worker’s intelligence; which is the key issue of Ryle’s regress argument. Rather, it presupposes it within this manifestation.

So in order, on the intellectualist view, to further explain how one can intelligently employ knowledge-that, I take it is a necessary condition to at least deliberate on one’s relevant proposition in acting. Here, at least I am doing more philosophical work by offering a mechanism of intelligently employing propositional knowledge rather than evading the regress by presupposing it. More will be said about this soon. At any rate, the worker doesn’t deliberate – he simply goes through the motions, and in so doing he is not actively aware of his knowledge-that. Furthermore, he does act, but his act is not intelligent. In short, what it means for the factory worker to actually employ his knowledge-that is just this – to deliberately choose to act based on his knowledge-that x is a true way to F.

I don’t think Stanley and Williamson would have an easy time objecting to my second premise, because it seems that the act of deliberating a proposition always involves some sort of intention which is integral in this very act of deliberation. In other words, any time that one sorts through her options on how to act, she implicitly also is thinking about what it is she would like to do (her intention). It doesn’t seem plausible that someone can knowingly be motivated to act based on something that one would have no interest in doing; that is, unless we were speaking about cases of compulsion. But this compulsion doesn’t fit in with what we have been focusing on, since it cannot be understood in terms of acting intelligently. This is because considering and applying propositions becomes irrelevant here – one will inevitably just be moved by her basic desires, no matter which maxim she would intend to act on.


However, Stanley and Williamson may perhaps object to my claim that it is necessary to deliberate on one’s propositional knowledge-that when employing it. They could point out, for example, a case of a professional artist who knows-that the best way to give his painting texture is to start by painting with faint colors and gradually build to more vibrant colors. While he is painting, however, he is in a sort of “zone,” wherein he no longer is conscious of this true proposition. Here, Stanley and Williamson could argue that the artist employs his knowledge-that reflexively. But I would respond that this is not a potential solution to the problem since it does not add any extra insight into the relevant question to the regress – acting intelligently. Employing a proposition of knowledge-that unintelligently would not properly object to the challenge posed by Ryle’s argument. But Stanley and Williamson seem to be making exactly this mistake by making the suggestion that one can employ knowledge-that while bypassing conscious awareness of a proposition by mere reflex, because this is insufficient in intelligently employing an action, since the act of considering and applying a certain proposition is altogether lacking. Again, intellectualism is committed to the view that one acts intelligently iff one has considered and applied a relevant proposition of knowledge-that. As I mentioned earlier, though, reflex would need to have an additional proposition backing it saying that “Acting on reflex is an intelligent means to painting.” So this objection is simply getting away from the question which is at stake; namely, how intellectualism can account for acting intelligently without the consequence of the regress. Deliberation can theoretically account for employing knowledge-that – though not in a way that necessarily gets around the regress – since, in deliberating, a proposition is continually being considered and/or applied. However, reflex, under intellectualism, cannot account for this. In short, my necessary condition of deliberating should be salvaged while the objection should be dismissed.

In conclusion, I have given a defense of Ryle’s anti-intellectualist position by supplying an original argument and raising a number of objections to Stanley and Williamson’s intellectualist counterargument to Ryle’s regress argument. I have shown that their objection does not do what they claim that it does; namely, there is no fallacy of equivocation. Furthermore my evaluation gives us further reason to believe that Ryle has successfully undermined the intellectualist position with his regress argument and given us all the more evidence that knowledge-how is not something that can be absolutely understood in terms of knowledge-that.


Author: theendlessknot3d

I'm Mark. I recently graduated college with a Bachelor's Degree in philosophy, and I started this blog to continue engaging myself and my mind through my passion for written argumentation. I have also used this as an opportunity to explore my other creative outlets, such as writing French poems or photography. In this blog you will find a wide range of written material, including philosophy articles, musings, paradoxes, poems, photos and more. You'll find that I usually write about serious themes, such as everyday life struggles, in a way in which I always try to keep my posts upbeat and interesting. With anything that I write, I encourage you to make your own criticisms, insights, recommendations or anything else which you feel would help me improve my content.

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