Knowing (How) "to Live" [Well]: or, Building Stories

  • Warning: this post is academic to a stupid degree. I'll be using this blog -- from time to time -- to work out ideas-in-progress that I have for my dissertation. (More than anything, I just need a platform with a tagging feature to organize random thoughts...) That said: you're welcome to read, comment, and ask questions. I'll be trying to make this same point pretty much every day for the next two years...

Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson argue that knowledge-how is a form of propositional knowledge: to know how to Φ is just to know (of some way W) that W is a way to Φ under the practical mode of presentation. If you understand what that means (even after reading everything they've ever written on the subject), congratulations. You've reached enlightenment in the area of academic epistemology to a degree I don't even strive after anymore...

Let's suppose for a moment that this position is false (ironically, it's called "intellectualism" -- so I may have to rename the blog...)

Let's suppose (with well over a generation of philosophers) there's a distinctive type of knowledge that agents acquire when they learn how to do something (like ride a bike, run a marathon, write a book, etc). Now suppose that living is a doing of the relevant kind (that is to say: leading a human life is an action). It follows from this that learning to live well (acquiring knowledge-how...to live) is not the sort of thing we can learn propositionally (whatever exactly that means).

There's something about this conclusion that resonates deeply with me (and, I think, others). We do not learn how to live by academic philosophy. We cannot learn how to live simply be assenting to propositions that experts testify to. We need to discover for ourselves in some important way how to live. (Which -- as Korsgaard incessantly points out -- is the same thing as learning how to "live well" since "Φing" and "Φing well" are not separable actions, but the same action described in some evaluative way.)

Okay, so then how do we (or how can we) acquire knowledge how to live (and live well)?

The answer, I think, is deceptively simple. From stories.

Action, in general, requires us to (a) describe our behavior in a particular, temporally ordered way, (b) structured by reasons for so behaving, and (c) unified by our intention for that description of our behavior to be the authoritative interpretation of what we are doing and why. (And I was giving Stanley a hard time earlier for jargony philosophical conditions...)

The capacity to so describe our behavior is identical (in my thinking) to our capacity for what Anscombe calls "practical knowledge." It is a capacity that allows us to authoritatively apply a certain type of description (I call it "actional description") to our behavior. It's what transforms such behavior into action. It's what -- if it is missing -- makes some movement unintentional.

How do stories fit into this mess?

Well, narratives are sustained descriptions of complex actions (or -- if Aristotle is right -- one, extremely complex action). They are unified by the intentions of an author to offer a comprehensive and authoritative description of those actions (or that action). Successful narratives describe or illustrate (rather than report on) the way in which intentions to act interact with the world (sometimes in frustrating ways). They illustrate, thus, actional descriptions (at a very high level of complexity) that have successfully been applied by agents to their behavior. They also illustrate instances in which attempts to bring behavior under actional description fail. (Consider the case of Walter White, a man who professes to be acting in the interest of his family by cooking and selling meth, when -- all along -- his behavior is ultimately explained by more egoist motives, and more self-centered reasons.)

So narrative plays several roles in this picture: (1) acting requires the ability to tell stories to ourselves, (2) making the action of others intelligible (or making our action intelligible to others) requires the ability to locate the agent (ourselves or others) within a narrative (or perhaps set of narratives), and (3) evaluations of actions will require us to ask whether -- and to what extent -- the narrative at issue is coherent, comprehensive, and -- ultimately -- a good one.

So, to recap: learning to live well requires us to acquire knowledge-how to live. Living is an action (or perhaps a complex set of actions, structured in some way). "To live" [well], then, will require us to know (how) to tell "the story of a good life," and to bring our behavior under the actional description of one such story.