In my last few posts, I’ve been working my way through the ideas set down by the late great Hubert Dreyfus. While I end up disagreeing with Dreyfus on a number of issues, particularly on the role of conceptuality in practical action, I still see him as largely setting the terms of the debate. As part of my effort to understand Dreyfus, I’ve been undertaking a parallel study of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who had a pronounced influence on Dreyfus. Below is a short summary of how I understand a few of Merleau-Ponty’s key insights. (Readers familiar with Merleau-Ponty won’t find too much ground-breaking interpretation in this post, but it does serve to ground the larger investigation I’ve been engaged in.)
His major work, Phenomenology of Perception, was first published in France in 1945. As the title indicates, the work deals with articulating a philosophy of perception. Drawing from his predecessors Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty in this effort gave primacy to the body’s practical comportment with the lifeworld (Lebenswelt), the historically situated and intersubjective horizon of experience from which all theoretical and scientific investigation begins, and to which it must always return. In emphasizing the body’s dynamic behavior as central to epistemological investigation—a move seen as early as his 1942 work The Structure of Behavior—Merleau-Ponty continued the work of his predecessors in returning to twentieth century philosophy the central role of embodiment in philosophy and psychology alike (the latter effort being greatly informed by gestalt theory and the neurological sciences of Merleau-Ponty’s day).
This is the third post in my exploration of the role of concepts in perception and action. The earlier posts dealt with the work of Hubert Dreyfus, John McDowell, and Barbara Gail Montero. In my last post, I ended on the question of how solicitations and motivations from the environment draw us to act in intuitively immediate (but nonconceptual) ways through a so-called space of motivations (as opposed to a Sellarsian space of reasons), suggesting that some degree of conceptual comportment is required even in unconscious action. To this end, I endorsed the views of McDowell and Montero against those of Dreyfus. In this post, I continue to explore how we ought to talk about concepts in this context.
In order to understand how a space of motivations might work, it seems likely that the conceptual must to some degree be ingredient in the structure of intuition, in the cultivated rationality or second nature of McDowell’s account. But what is a concept on this view? It certainly cannot be the kind of declarative, propositional, and detached representational item that Montero and Dreyfus both agree impede expert action, and even everyday practical comportment, for that matter. Concepts in this sense must be something else, they cannot be, as Dreyfus notes elsewhere, “context-free principles or rules that could be used to guide actions or at least make them intelligible,” simply because the objects and affordances we encounter are not context free either, they are rather singular, relational, and tied to uniquely complex ecologies of materials and processes. How, then, do we talk about concepts without falling back into the Myth of the Mental?
Over my last few posts, I’ve been working my way through Hubert Dreyfus’s and John McDowell’s accounts of concepts in perception and action. I tend to follow McDowell in seeing the conceptual as co-arising with perception, as opposed to Dreyfus, who sees practical action as largely nonconceptual and automatic. However, in seeing the conceptual as basic to perception, one need not assume a definition of concepts that requires explicit propositions, declarative speech, or conscious rule following, as Dreyfus suggests.
Barbara Gail Montero is persuasive on this issue in her view that language can and does mediate sensory attention, but that we as actors are quite capable of attending to details without articulating in words what, exactly, we are attending to. “For example,” writes Montero, “you are not or at least need not be thinking this sunset exhibits the most spectacular array of colors I have ever seen. Nonetheless, you may be attending to the scene before you.” Montero continues, “According to Dreyfus as well as a number of psychologists the expert performs best when she does not conceptualize her actions. I take conceptualization roughly to be a process of understanding one thing as falling in a certain category, a process which can be, though is not necessarily, verbalizable.”
In my last post on Hubert Dreyfus and the intentional arc, I ended with a question about the relationship between intuitive responses to environmental solicitations in expert action. In this post, I continue to explore the structure of intuitive response through the work of John McDowell.
It is precisely on the status of intuition in perception where I find Dreyfus’s account wanting, and where I think McDowell gets it right. It seems that Dreyfus takes everything traditionally attributed to concepts and conceptual ability and repositions these skills as available to an agent at the ground floor of perceptual experience through nonconceptual motor understanding. But what sense does it make, for instance, to speak, as Dreyfus does, not only of perceptualknowledge but also of nonconceptualbeliefs about perceptual objects and the solicitations, affordances, and constraints that issue from my engagement with them? The appeal to solicitations (or to what an object obliges of me), to affordances (or to what an object may aid me in doing), and to constraints (or to what an object may prevent me from doing), seems squarely in the domain of a cognitive and inferential space, in other words, a space shot through with a conceptual understanding that interleaves my every practical action. Indeed, this is precisely the stance that McDowell takes against Dreyfus.
Hubert Dreyfus is most well-known for offering an account of intelligent human coping without appealing to explicitly cognitive or rational sources of action. Following philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger, Dreyfus instead roots human intelligence—theoretical or otherwise—in our embodied everyday comportment with the world, in our practical actions and responses to the immediate environment. In Mark Wrathall’s words, “Rather than starting from cognition as the primary locus of intelligence, and building out to an account of action, Dreyfus starts with the premise that skillful activity itself is the consummate form and foundation of human intelligence, and derives an account of cognition from coping.” In placing practical engagement before theoretical cognition, Dreyfus builds a new picture of what it means to skillfully cope in the perceptual world that unfolds before us.