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Social Theory and Practice

Volume 43, Issue 4, October 2017

William Hasselberger
Pages 775-803
DOI: 10.5840/soctheorpract2017103122

Knowing More than We Can Tell
Virtue, Perception, and Practical Skill

‘Skill models’ of ethical virtues offer a promising way of explaining the distinctive kind of ethical knowledge or understanding had by a virtuous person: virtues are akin to practical skills (in carpentry, sailing, musicianship, etc.) in that both are experience-based capacities of agency that yield non-codifiable knowledge of how-to-act-well in particular circumstances. This paper poses a puzzle for skill models of virtue concerning the non-deliberative character of much skillful and virtuous activity, and critiques two opposing ways of responding to the puzzle, reflecting two different skill models—Julia Annas’s intellectualist account and Hubert Dreyfus’s anti-intellectualism. The paper then offers an alternative skill model of virtue that draws on Wittgenstein’s remarks on pre-reflective perceptual discernment, and on a distinction between propositional (discursive) knowledge and a broader form conceptual understanding operative in the phenomenology of skillful agency. This view aims to respect what is true in Annas’s and Dreyfus’s views while avoiding the problems they encounter with non-deliberative action. It also reveals continuities between practical understanding and evaluative appreciation in ethical life and in other skillful activities, as well as important limits to discursive articulacy about these domains.