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Joshua Shepherd and J. Adam Carter – “Knowledge, Practical Knowledge, and Intentional Action”

picture of a catch in baseball
“Safe!” (ca. 1937) Jared French © National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

In this post, Joshua Shepherd and J. Adam Carter discuss the article they recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of their article can be found here.

A popular family of views, often inspired by Anscombe, maintain that knowledge of what I am doing (under some description) is necessary for that doing to qualify as an intentional action. We argue that these views are wrong, that intentional action does not require knowledge of this sort, and that the reason is that intentional action and knowledge have different levels of permissiveness regarding modally close failures.

Our argument revolves around a type of case that is similar in some (but not all) ways to Davidson’s famous carbon copier case. Here is one version of the type:

The greatest hitter of all time (call him Pujols) approaches the plate and forms an intention to hit a home run – that is, to hit the ball some 340 feet or more in the air, such that it flies out of the field of play. Pujols believes he will hit a home run, and he has the practical belief, as he is swinging, that he is hitting a home run. As it happens, Pujols’s behavior, from setting his stance and eyeing the pitcher, to locating the pitch, to swinging the bat and making contact with the ball, is an exquisite exercise of control. Pujols hits a home run, and so his belief that he is doing just that is true.

Given the skill and control Pujols has with respect to hitting baseballs, Pujols intentionally hits a home run. (If one thinks hitting a home run is too unlikely, we consider more likely events, like Pujols getting a base hit. If one doesn’t like baseball, we consider other examples.)

But Pujols does not know that he is doing so. For in many very similar circumstances, Pujols does not succeed in hitting a home run. Pujols’s belief that he is hitting a home run is unsafe.

When intentional action is at issue, it is commonly the case that explanations that advert to control sit comfortably alongside the admission that in nearby cases, the agent fails. Fallibility is a hallmark of human agency, and our attributions of intentional action reflect our tacit sense that some amount of risk, luck, and the cooperation of circumstance is often required to some degree – even for simple actions.

The same thing is not true of knowledge. When it comes to attributing knowledge, we simply have much less tolerance for luck and for failure in similar circumstances.

One interesting objection to our argument appeals to an Anscombe-inspired take on the kind of knowledge involved in intentional action.

Anscombe famously distinguished between contemplative and non-contemplative forms of knowledge. A central case of non-contemplative knowledge, for Anscombe, is the case of practical knowledge – a special kind of self-knowledge of what the agent is doing that does not simply mirror what the agent is doing, but is somehow involved in its unfolding. The important objection to our argument is that the argument makes most sense if applied to contemplative knowledge, but fails to take seriously the unique nature of non-contemplative, practical knowledge.

We discuss a few different ways of understanding practical knowledge, due to Michael Thompson, Kim Frost, and Will Small. The notion of practical knowledge is fascinating, and there are important insights in these authors. But we think it is not too difficult to apply our argument to a claim that practical knowledge is necessary for intentional action.

Human agents sometimes know exactly how to behave, they make no specific mistake, and yet they fail. Sometimes they behave in indistinguishable ways, and they succeed. Most of the time, human agents behave imperfectly, but there is room for error, and they succeed. The chance involved in intentional action is incompatible with both contemplative and non-contemplative knowledge.

We also discuss a probabilistic notion of knowledge due to Sara Moss (and an extension of it to action by Carlotta Pavese), and whether it might be of assistance. It won’t.

Consider Ticha, the pessimistic basketball player.

Ticha significantly underrates herself and her chances, even though she is quite a good shooter. She systematically forms beliefs about her chances that are false, believing that success is unlikely when it is likely. When Ticha lines up a shot that has, say, a 50% chance of success, she believes that the chances are closer to 25%. Ticha makes the shot. 

Was Ticha intentionally making the shot, and did she intentionally make it? Plausibly, yes.

Did Ticha have probabilistic knowledge along the way? Plausibly, no, since her probabilistic belief was false.

The moral of our paper, then, has implications for how we understand the essence of intentional action. We contrast two perspectives on this.

The first is an angelic perspective that sees knowledge of what one is doing as of the essence of what one is intentionally doing, that limns agency by emphasizing powers of rationality and the importance of self-consciousness, and that views the typical case of intentional action as one in which the agent’s success is very close to guaranteed, resulting from the perfect exercise of agentive capacities.

The second is an animal perspective that emphasizes the limits of our powers of execution, planning, and perception, and thus emphasizes the need for agency to involve special kinds of mental structure, as well as a range of tricks, techniques, plans, and back-up plans.

We think the natural world provides more insight into the nature of agency, and of intentional action, than the sources that motivate the angelic perspective. We also think there is room within the animal perspective for a proper philosophical treatment of knowledge-in-action. But that’s a separate conversation.

Want more?

Read the full article at

About the authors

Joshua Shepherd is ICREA Research Professor at Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, and PI of Rethinking Conscious Agency, funded by the European Research Council. He works on issues in the philosophy of action, psychology, and neuroethics. His last book, The Shape of Agency, is available open access from Oxford University Press.

J. Adam Carter is Professor in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. His research is mainly in epistemology, with special focus on virtue epistemology, know-how, cognitive ability, intentional action, relativism, social epistemology, epistemic luck, epistemic value, group knowledge, understanding, and epistemic defeat.