Ryle and Oakeshott on the knowing-how/knowing-that distinction

ryle.jpg Ryle   timelife.gif Oakeshott

I presented this paper at the third international Michael Oakeshott Association conference.



Politics make a call upon knowledge. Consequently, it is not irrelevant to inquire into the kind of knowledge which is involved . . . (Rationalism in politics, p. 45)

Gilbert Ryle’s ‘Knowing How/Knowing That’ distinction gave crisp articulation to a long-standing epistemological concern that Michael Oakeshott had: that is, what is the epistemic status of the area that comprises our waking lives or “our most constant mood,” the domain of practical reasoning, of which political practice is but one aspect. This concern is set against a much broader purview: that of the nature of rationality, or more accurately the social nature of rationality. Though Ryle’s KH/KT distinction has been taken to be primarily an epistemological distinction, it is as much a claim about the operations of the mind.


A Note:

According to Robert Grant, Oakeshott only ever communicated with two “official” philosophers, one of which was Ryle (Oakeshott, London: Claridge Press, 1990, 14; The Politics of Sex and Other Essays, Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2000, 26; The Intellectual Legacy of Michael Oakeshott, eds. Corey Abel and Timothy Fuller, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2005, 298-299). On record, Oakeshott very favorably reviewed Ryle’s Concept of Mind, entitled “Body and Mind” in the Spectator, 184, (1950), pp. 20, 22. Years later he warmly introduced Ryle (LSE Oakeshott Archives, box 1/3, undated) who delivered the annual LSE August Comte Memorial Lecture on 26 April, 1962 entitled “A Rational Animal”. J.D. Mabbott who read the proofs for On Human Conduct (Oxford, 1975) happened to be a member of Ryle’s “Wee Teas” philosophical tea parties (Ryle: A Collection of Critical Essays, eds. Oscar P. Wood and George Pitcher, New York: Anchor Books, 1970, 6), was the first to recognize Oakeshott’s KH/KT connection with Ryle in his review of Rationalism in politics (Indianapollis, 1962) in Mind 72 (1963), pp. 609-11.

Prima facie, Ryle and Oakeshott are unlikely philosophical bedfellows. The former was the ultimate (‘analytical’) philosophical insider (Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford and editor of Mind); the latter an historian, never holding a position in a philosophy department. Yet despite these differences, they are kindred spirits. Stylistically they both wrote with an accessible and elegant non-technical style, laced with wit and erudition, with minimal references and addressing current issues obliquely. Philosophically, both were positively anti-systematic and deflationist in that they sought to dissolve what they saw as metaphysical portentousness. Both had an appreciation of Heidegger; unlikely as it sounds, Ryle’s critical notice warmly welcomed Sein und Zeit in Mind XXXVIII (1929), pp. 355-370. Perhaps their greatest bond was that they shared that most belligerent of critics – Ernest Gellner. Ryle in passing over reviewing Gellner’s Words and Things in Mind sparked a cause célèbre, beautifully documented in Ved Mehta’s Fly and the Fly-Bottle (Pelican, 1963). Gellner characterized so-called ‘ordinary language’ philosophy as being inherently socially conservative, and given his predilection for ideas with practical application, he was profoundly at odds with Oakeshott’s unworldly “neo-Burkean romanticism.”