Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Do I know what I'm doing?

In my last post I wrote that "We know what we are doing not only better than others know but in a different way. In fact, we know with such certainty that it almost makes no sense to say that we know it. But the chalk example shows that we can be wrong, and so knowledge claims do make sense. There is something that could be true or false, something to know or fail to know." I'm not happy with this for various reasons. It sounds too much like a kind of Wittgensteinian theory to me, and I don't think it's all that true to how we use the word 'know.'

"I know what I'm doing" is usually a defensive remark made to counter a suggestion either that you are incompetent or that your goal is not a wise one. It might be said in answer to "Are you sure you want to climb that ladder in this high wind?" or "Isn't that too much salt?" It isn't something you would normally say unless challenged. So it isn't a simple statement of fact.

What is a fact is that we are normally perfectly able to say what we are doing and that what we say is authoritative. Am I playing a tune with the squeaky pump, or pumping water with it, or murdering the Nazis hiding inside the house? There is a sense in which only I know the answer to this or, rather, there can be circumstances in which only I know the answer. Sometimes the evidence will make it very clear what I was doing, but sometimes it won't.

Performing an action is like acting (in charades, say). Sometimes we need the actor to tell us what s/he (can we invent the word 'acter' so that we don't have to say actor/actress any more?) was doing. But then there is no possibility of a mistake on the actor's part.

If the meaning of, or reason for, your movements is obscure to others then you can remove this mystery by telling them what you are (or at least take yourself to be) doing. In that sense you know what you are doing. But you don't know in the sense of having found out. Nor do you know in the sense that your belief is by definition true. So it might be best not to say that people have knowledge in such cases. As long as we don't get too preachy in the face of perfectly functional cases of ordinary use.


  1. I had a long comment about chicken sexers (who do a kind of perceptual discrimination without being able to articulate how they do it), but then it struck me that it's not that they don't know what they're doing (in your sense above)--they just don't know how they're doing it...

  2. Yes, that's a different case. Still interesting though. I wonder how they learn to do it.

  3. Apprenticeship & demonstration, apparently. "Here's a male. Here's a female." Repeat a thousand times.

  4. does it seem right to say:

    we DO find out what we're doing when we realize we DON'T know what we're doing?

    (and what we find out is usually a very special 'thing we're doing' which we then know we're doing in your sense above: nothing exactly, or nothing to any clear point, or just standing around, or being lost in thought, or dazed, etc.)

  5. Hmm, not really, no. But it does sound right to say that in those circumstances we find out that we didn't know, after all, what we had been doing. There's something odd in general about failure, because then you don't do what you intend to do. If someone asks what you are doing and you reply, "I'm failing to..." then this would be a joke. Anscombe says something like: you know what you are doing, the failure is in the performance of the action, not in the judgment about it. What puzzles McDowell is how we can say that you know what you are doing when you are not, in fact, doing what you think you are doing. As Anscombe suggests, this sounds like a funny kind of knowledge. I want to say that we should not try to draw general conclusions from this one kind of odd case, and that the mystery disappears as long as we don't get too hung up on the particular words (and their usual implications) we use to describe the facts. That would be a nice, Wittgensteiny solution to the problem, and it seesm to be the best way to try to save Anscombe.