Gilbert Ryle’s adverbialism

British Journal for the History of Philosophy 28 (2):318-335 (2020)
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Gilbert Ryle famously wrote that practical knowledge (knowing how) is distinct from propositional knowledge (knowing that). This claim continues to have broad philosophical appeal, and yet there are many unsettled questions surrounding Ryle’s basic proposal. In this article, I return to his original work in order to perform some intellectual archeology. I offer an interpretation of Ryle’s concept of action that I call ‘adverbialism’. Actions are constituted by bodily behaviours performed in a certain mode, style or manner. I present various challenges to adverbialism – scenarios in which it seems we publicly behave one way, but privately feel another. And I offer a response – Ryle’s stated practice of re-describing those situations in ways that pose no threat to his adverbialism. I also present an interpretation of practical knowledge in Ryle’s work. Knowing how is a special kind of action, undertaken only when we progressively self-modify our behaviours in the presence of new challenges or opportunities.

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Gabrielle Jackson
State University of New York, Stony Brook


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