My claim is that capacities that are conceptual, capacities that belong to their possessor’s rationality, are operative not only in reflective thought and action but also at the ground-floor level at which there is absorbed coping and acting in flow. I have been unable to get Dreyfus to engage with this claim. As he interprets me, it cannot be the ground-floor level that I am thinking about. He thinks I “pass over” the ground-floor level. Evidently he thinks the very meaning of terms like “conceptual” and “belonging to their possessor’s rationality” establishes that capacities that those terms apply to can be in play only in detached intellectual activity. But that is not how I use such terms. (“The Myth of the Mind as Detached,” 54)
The problem is further reinforced once it is recognised that by taking acting-in-flow cases as paradigmatic, Dreyfus misconstrues the phenomenology of human action. Thought plays a far greater role in our behaviour than he allows. His conception of thought as merely initiating phases of absorbed coping means that he cannot satisfactorily account for much of it. First, Dreyfus is wrong in thinking that all skills follow the pattern of acquisition he outlines, where—if all goes well—one progresses from a beginner who must think about what she is doing to an expert who can rely solely on perception to control her behaviour. There are some cases where even the master must routinely think about what she is doing to exercise her skill to the very best of her ability. Furthermore, the role of thought in these cases is not to initiate absorbed coping after the flow is disrupted. Instead, thought plays an ongoing role in guiding action, like it does in the case of the proficient climber. A skilled surgeon, e.g., must think about the surgery she is performing in order to carry it out properly. She will perceive more of what has to be done than the novice. But she can never rely solely on these perceived requirements to perform the surgery in the way implied by Dreyfus’s account. Conceptually represented requirements for action must continuously guide her behaviour. (“Thought in Action,” 14–15)
Some philosophers think of perception as nonintentional and nonconceptual. These philosophers are empiricists. Empiricism holds that perception is basic in our cognitive lives. Perceptual experience, for empiricists, is prior to and independent of our ability to think and talk about objects. First we perceive, then we frame concepts so that we can represent what we perceive in thought and refer to what we perceive in speech. For empiricism, perceptual consciousness (awareness, experience—I use these interchangeably) does not depend on possession of concepts or knowledge of the reference of terms; it is what first makes the latter possible . . . In this chapter, and in all my work, I advance an antiempiricism that denies that perceptual experience is prior to thought and talk. . . . Perceptual experience can enable us to be aware of things only given the coinvolvement of understanding. Perception and thought arrive at the party together. Thought is not prior to experience; experience is itself a kind of thought. But then thought, as we have seen, at least sometimes, is a kind of perceptual experience. (“On Overintellectualizing the Intellect,” 179–180)
Needless to say, I find compelling the views McDowell, Romdenh-Romluc, and Noë express above. And I think there’s something a bit romantic in the view that Dreyfus and others hold about purportedly nonconceptual flow states. That’s not to say I don’t take much of value from Dreyfus; his model of skill acquisition seems basically correct. I just see what Dreyfus sometimes calls tacit understanding (or intuitive grasp) as predicated upon certain conceptual capacities of meaningful discrimination in environments.