What does it mean to be able to do something? I spoke recently about the question of ablism and disablism and how it is that discussions of ability and assumptions about ability currently play off of different senses of ability . Yet in practicing Portuguese one of the more consistent aspects I have seen is that Portuguese assumes that to know to do something is to be able to do it. This is a persistent linguistic assumption, and I have to admit it is one that bothers me. Saber fazer is to know to do, literally translated, but it carries a lot more senses than that. It carries with it the sense not only of knowing how to do something but also being able to do it. Sometimes this can be said in advance, so that if I said of my own linguistic studies that Eu vou saber falar português, I would be saying that I will be able to speak Portuguese, which is speaking very confidently about such matters. Similarly, when one says that Ela vai poder falar, the literal translation of she will be able to speak in fact means that she will be allowed to speak, because it is assumed that she will be able to speak, and so the obvious way that someone would not be able to speak is to not be allowed to speak rather than to be, for whatever reason, incapable of it.
Yet this sort of assumption is not valid at all. To know what to do and to be able to do it are not the same thing. To be allowed to do something and to be able to do it in every circumstance are by no means the same thing either. Perhaps in ordinary life, one can assume that if one knows to swim that one will be able to swim, or if one is allowed to speak in most circumstances than one will be able to speak. For most people at most times it is true that knowledge about and ability to are closely related and again, for most people at most times the barrier to their speaking is not their lack of ability in speaking but rather their lack of permission in speaking in certain circumstances. But while this is generally the truth it is not always the truth. As someone who is interested in philosophy and moral questions, I frequently think of cases where someone is able to do something at least theoretically but is not able to do it behaviorally for one reason or another.
And more than most people I find myself confronting this sort of situation over and over again. For example, I am a court appointed special advocate for children, and one of the patterns I have seen over and over again is the way that drug problems for parents tend to bring the state (and me) into the lives of foster children. In listening to them talk and the various language that the state puts in their action plans and being a participant in family court hearings, one hears over and over again the acknowledgement that one has a problem and that one should live straight and not use drugs. But still people use drugs, or they drink too much, because life is stressful and because people do not always know how to cope with life when it seems as if their problems cannot be solved. And so we are again brought to the same question over and over again, where people know what to do but do not know how to do it, in ways that are tragic and that often have deep and serious consequences. This is why I tend to feel uncomfortable about assuming that with knowledge comes ability. The two, sadly, are not the same.