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Uniform Knowledge Attributions Essay

4190 words - 17 pages

There is a philosophical tradition going back at least to Gilbert Ryle’s 1948
The Concept of Mind of distinguishing “knowledge how”from “knowledge that”,
in which the latter is taken to be a kind of propositional attitude, while the
former is taken to be a kind of ability or capacity. Paradigm examples are,
respectively:
Sally knows how to ride a bike. (1)
Sally knows that she owns a bike. (2)
More recently, this distinction has come under renewed scrutiny, notably with
[Stanley and Williamson, 2001] arguing that there really is no such distinction,
and that “knowledge how”is really a species of propositional knowledge, though
the proposition is known under a different “mode of ...view middle of the document...

I will give evidence that three similar constructions are best treated
with a non-uniform syntactic analysis, and some prima facie evidence that this
construction should be as well. It is not clear what sort of data would conclusively
settle the syntactic question one way or the other. But if the linguistic
argument is not conclusively settled one way or the other, then they will need
to put forward positive philosophical arguments for their position, rather than
merely refuting philosophical arguments against their position.
1
Stanley and Williamson argue first that in a sentence like (1), “knows how”
should not be taken as a constituent, because the content of Sally’s knowledge
(whether propositional or not) can also be the object of attitudes like “learn”,
“recall”, “ask”, “wonder”, etc., as in (3).
Hannah asked how to ride a bike. (3)
Thus, “how to ride a bike” should be a constituent in both sentences. In each
case, the structure of the constituent must be something like the following:1
how (PRO [(to ride [a bike]) t]) (4)
But then the sentence (5), which is an example of “knowledge wh-”, contains a
corresponding constituent of nearly identical structure.
Sally knows [how (Bill [(rides [a bike]) t])]. (5)
Since (5) obviously expresses propositional knowledge, Stanley and Williamson
argue that there are no syntactic grounds to object to the claim that (1) does
as well. “The syntactic difference between sentences such as [(1)] and [(2)]
is just that the former contain embedded questions with untensed clauses.”
[Stanley and Williamson, 2001, p. 8]
Once they have established the syntactic parallel, they work to show that
there is no relevant semantic distinction either. They first point out that “PRO”
is traditionally either coreferential with an overt NP in the main clause2 (in this
case, “Sally” is the only possibility), or interpreted as a generic, like “one”.
Then they suggest that infinitives can either have deontic force (roughly, “the
screwdriver to use is a Phillips” means the screwdriver one ought to use is a
Phillips3) or modal force of possibility (roughly, “John asked where to board
the plane” means John asked where he could board the plane, not where he
ought to board). With the two possibilities of interpretation for “PRO” and
two possibilities for the infinitive, they then argue that on each of the four
accounts, the knowledge referred to must be propositional. Rougly speaking,
using slightly modified Karttunen semantics for questions, they suggest that
“how to ride a bike” denotes the set of completions of “X is a way for Sally to
ride a bike”, and that (1) is true iff Sally knows one of these completions to be
true.4
1“PRO” is a phonetically unrealized pronoun that occurs frequently in English, always
anaphoric upon some earlier noun in the sentence. “t” is a trace left by the adjunct “how” to
the VP “to ride a bike” when it moves to the front of the clause, as required in “wh-” clauses....

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