Francisco Varela
Ethical Know-How
Action,Wisdom, and Cognition
Stanford University Press 1999

Know-How and Know-What
Setting out the Question

Keywords: moral philosophy - Ethics - ethics is closer to wisdom than to reason - critical morality - active and engaged ethics - ...a wise (or virtuous) person is one who knows what is good and spontaneously does it.  immediacy of perception and action - Piaget: "it is the moral judgement that we propose to investigate, not moral behavior" - pervasive mode of being ethical - performing deliberate, willed action - know-how and know-what: cognition can only be understood in terms of how significance arises out of the autonomous totality that is the organism - the world is not something that is given to us but something we engage in by moving, touching, breathing, and eating. This is what I call cognition as enaction since enaction connotes this bringing forth by concrete handling - "who we are" at any moment cannot be divorced from what other things and who other people are to us.

6 Ethics is closer to wisdom than to reason, closer to understanding what is good than to correctly adjudicating particular situations. I am not alone in thinking this, for it seems that nowadays the focus has moved away from meta-ethical issues to a much sharper debate between those who demand a detached, critical morality based on prescriptive principles and those who pursue an active and engaged ethics based on a tradition that identifies the good. This can be seen as a reenactment of the classical opposition between morality and situatedness. 

On the side of morality, we have such eminent representatives of the Kantian tradition of moral judgment as Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls. On the side of situatedness, we have the descendants of Hegel, whose position is ably represented by philosophers like Charles Taylor, who clearly explains the differences between the two camps in his recent "Sources of the Self":

Much contemporary moral philosophy, particularly but not only in the English-speaking world, has given such a narrow focus to morality that some of the crucial connections I want to draw here are incomprehensible in its terms. This moral philosophy has tended to focus on what is right to do rather than on what it is good to be, on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of good life; and it has no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object of our love or allegiance or as the privileged focus of attention or will.

Although I draw heavily on recent contributions to this debate in the literatures of phenomenology and pragmatism, I find equally interesting the enormous body of thought about what it is - good to be - that comes from the three wisdom traditions of the East: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
In what follows I highlight these non--Western contributions and thus take a comparative view of ethical experience. As a first approximation, let me say that 
a wise (or virtuous) person is one who knows what is good and spontaneously does it. It is this immediacy of perception and action which we want to examine critically. 

This approach stands in stark contrast to the usual way of investigating ethical behavior, which begins by analyzing the intentional content of an act and ends by evaluating the rationality of particular moral judgments. Philosophers are not only ones who have lost sight of the distinction pointed at by Taylor. For instance, none other than the psychologist Jean Piaget in "The Moral Judgement of the Child" opens his discussion by saying that "it is the moral judgement that we propose to investigate, not moral behavior," only to conclude that "logic is the morality of thought just as morality is the logic of action.... Pure reason is the arbiter both of theoretical reflection and daily practice". 

But we have to ask ourselves: why should one conflate ethical behavior with judgment? Most people answer this question by repeating the received (Western) opinion on this matter, not by describing what they do in everyday life. 

This is crucial. Consider a normal day in the street. You are walking down the sidewalk thinking about what you need to say in an upcoming meeting and you hear the noise of an accident. You immediately see if you can help. You are in your office. The conversation is lively and a topic comes up that embarrasses your secretary. You immediately perceive that embarrassment and turn the conversation away from the topic with a humorous remark.

Actions such as these do not spring from judgment and reasoning, but from an immediate coping with what is confronting us. We can only say we do such things because the situation brought forth the actions from us. And yet these are true ethical actions; in fact, in our daily, normal life they represent the most common kind of ethical behavior.

And yet the present tendency is to contrast this pervasive mode of being ethical with situations in which one experiences a central I performing deliberate, willed action. 

For example, I read a newspaper article about the devastating civil war in Yugoslavia and call a friend to join forces in a relief campaign for the victims. Or I learn that my child is having trouble in school and after pondering a course of action I solemnly decide to help him with his homework. In situations of this kind, we feel that the action is "ours." We can explain what we do in terms of the goal we expect to achieve.

It is quite clear that one aspect of our moral and ethical behavior is grounded in such judgments and justifications, but we cannot and should not pass quickly over the first, more pervasive mode of ethical behavior as being merely "reflexive."

Why not start with an investigation of this pervasive mode and see whether it leads us into an understanding of the difference between know-how and know-what, between spontaneous coping and rational judgment?

We have now in front of us two interdependent questions that are central to these lectures:
1. How can one best understand ethical know-how?
2. How does it develop and flourish in human beings?
pg 6-11
New Forms for Old Problems

In order to pursue the first question we need first to ascertain how this neglect of the study of immediate coping manifests within the very sciences dedicated to the study of mind and knowing: the cognitive sciences, to which we now turn.

"Rationalistic", "Cartesian", "objectivist": these are some terms used to characterize the dominant tradition of recent times. Yet when we reexamine our understanding of knowledge and cognition, I find that the best expression to use for our tradition is abstract: Nothing characterizes better the units of knowledge that have been deemed most "natural." 

It is this tendency to find our way toward the rarefied atmosphere of the general and the formal, the logical and the well defined, the represented and the foreseen, which characterizes our Western world.

However, there are strong indications that within the loose federation of sciences dealing with knowledge and cognition - the cognitive sciences - the conviction is slowly growing that this picture is upside down and that a radical paradigm shift is imminent

At the very center of this emerging view is the conviction that the proper units of knowledge are primarily concrete, embodied, incorporated, lived; that knowledge is about situatedness; and that the uniqueness of knowledge, its historicity and context, is not a "noise" concealing an abstract configuration in its true essence. The concrete is not a step toward something else: it is both where we are and how we get to where we will be.

Perhaps nothing illustrates better this tendency than the gradual transformation of ideas in the very pragrnatic field of artificial intelligence. 

In its first three decades (1950--1980) research in artificial intelligence (and cognitive science in general) was based entirely on the computationalist paradigm, according to which knowledge is a manipulation of symbols by logic-like rules, an idea that finds its fullest expression in modern digital computers. 

Initially, researchers in artificial intelligence concentrated on solving the most general problems, such as natural language translation or devising a "general problem solver." These attempts, which tried to match the intelligence of a highly trained expert, were seen as tackling the interesting, hard issues of cognition. After years of consistent and persistent failure, researchers began to seek out more modest challenges. 

Soon it became clear that even the most ordinary tasks, even tasks performed by tiny insects, lie beyond the grasp of a computational strategy. Early optimism has given way to the recent and growing conviction that artificial intelligence worthy of the name will not be achieved without first understanding the situated embodiments of simple acts. The fact is that some researchers have always believed that cognition can only be understood in terms of how significance arises out of the autonomous totality that is the organism

Paradoxically, a good example is Jean Piaget, who has transformed this intuition into good research. By studying how children shape their world through sensori-motor actions, he has done nothing less than study how the constitution of a perceptual object is grounded in ontogeny.  Piaget successfully introduced the notion that cognition - even at what seems to be its highest level - is grounded in the concrete activity of the whole organism, that is, in sensorimotor coupling. 

In short: the world is not something that is given to us but something we engage in by moving, touching, breathing, and eating. This is what I call cognition as enaction since enaction connotes this bringing forth by concrete handling.

Microworlds and Microidentities
Picture yourself walking down the street, perhaps going to meet somebody. It is the end of the day and there is nothing very special in your mind. You stop at a kiosk and buy a pack of cigarettes, then continue on your way. You are in a relaxed mood. You put your hand into your pocket and suddenly you discover that your wallet is missing. Your mood is shattered. Your thoughts are muddled. And before you know it, a new world has emerged. You see clearly that you left your wallet at the kiosk. Your mood shifts again to one of concern about losing your documents and your money. The only thing on your mind now is getting back to the store as quickly as possible. You ignore the surround-ing trees and passers-by; all your attention is directed at avoiding further delays.

Situations like this are the very stuff of our lives, and they involve the most ordinary situations as well as the more interesting ethical stances.We almays operate in some kind of immediacy of a given situation. 

Our lived world is so ready-at-hand that we have no deliberateness about what it is and how we inhabit it. When we sit at the table to eat with a relative or friend, the entire complex know-how of how to handle our utensils, how to sit, how to converse, is present without deliberation.We could say that our having -lunch-self is transparent. You finish lunch, return to the office, and enter into a readiness that has its own mode of speaking, moving, and making assessments. We have a readiness-for-action proper to every specific lived situation. Moreover, we are constantly moving from one readiness-for-action to another. Often these transitions or punctuations are slight and virtually imperceptible. Sometimes they are overwhelming, as when we experience a sudden shock or come face-to-face with unexpected danger.

I call any such readiness-for-action a micro-identity and its corresponding lived situation a micro-world. Thus,"who we are" at any moment cannot be divorced from what other things and who other people are to us. We could engage at this point in a bit of phenomenology and identify some typical microworlds within which we move during a normal day. The point, though, is not to catalog these microworlds but to notice their recurrence: the ability to take appropriate action is, in some important sense, how we embody a stream of recurrent microworld transitions

I am not saying that recurrence always applies. For example, when we arrive in a foreign country for the first time, we face it virtually "empty-handed." Many simple social interactions have to be done deliberately or learned outright. In other words, microworlds and microidentities are historically constituted. But in general,"who we are" - the pervasive mode of living - consists of already constituted microworlds.

When we leave the realm of human experience and shift to that of animals, the same kind of analysis applies as an external account. The extreme case is illustrative: biologists have known for some time that invertebrates have a rather small repertoire of behavior patterns. For example, a cockroach has only four fundamental modes of locomotion: standing, slow walking, fast walking, and running. Nevertheless, this basic repertoire makes it possible for these animals to navigate appropriately in any possible environment known on the planet, be it natural or artificial. A key question for the biologist is then: how does the animal decide which motor action to take in a given circumstance? How does it select the appropriate behavior? How does it assess a given situation as requiring, say, running as opposed to slow walking?

In the two extreme cases - human experience during breakdowns, and simple animal behavior at moments of transition - we are confronted, in vastly different manners to be sure, with a common issue. At each such breakdown point, the manner in which the cognitive agent will next be constituted is neither simply determined nor simply planned. 
Instead, its constitution is a matter of the commonsensical emergence of an appropriate stance from the entire history of the agent's life. Once a behavioral stance is se-lected or a microworld is brought forth, we can more clearly analyze its mode of operation and its optimal strategy. In fact, the key to autonomy is that a living system finds its way into the next moment by acting appropriately out of its own resources. And it is the breakdowns, the hinges that articulate microworlds, that are the source of the autonomous and creative side of living cognition. Such common sense, then, needs to be examined on a microscale, for it is during breakdowns that the concrete is born.
Francisco Varela : Ethical Knowhow 23 -
The Ethical Expert