Thought in Action

How are we to think of the relation between thought and action? One of the issues I’m taking up in my dissertation centers around the so-called John McDowell–Hubert Dreyfus Debate (for some background see here and here). Essentially, at stake in this debate is the role of conceptuality in acts of absorbed or skillful coping (what most people know as flow states). On my view, there’s no difficulty in reconciling flow with conceptuality, provided that we don’t view the exercise of conceptual capacities as issuing from a detached or uniquely isolated point from within the body. This puts me at odds with people like Dreyfus, for whom the conceptual interruption of thought can only impede the much more seamless agency of the person acting in flow. However, it seems to me that this debate centers not so much on phenomenological descriptions of flow states, but rather on how we conceive of conceptuality itself, as the below quotations indicate.

John McDowell:

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)

Komarine Romdenh-Romluc:

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)

Alva Noë:

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.


  1. Thanks for an interesting morning’s reading. I also agree with your 3 interlocutors above, and I agree with you. It seems to me there are two possible levels where you can see concepts operating, and one is more or less prior to action, and another might be a product of thinking about concepts or putting them to use in certain ways. I observe that my mother’s dementia does not seem to be about memory loss per se; it more concerns the falling apart of concepts that we are so used to we never normally think about them. For example she likes to listen to the radio, but when the radio broke down she had difficulty accepting another because she did not think it would get the same stations. An explanation of how radios work did not help. I had to prove the value of the new radio by adding together multiple pieces of evidence (“This is set to 89.7, do you see? and this is Prairie Home Companion.” “I see it’s 89.7, but it doesn’t sound like Prairie Home Companion.” “Well it is; don’t you recognize the music?” “No.” “Well, that is very typical music. Just wait a minute and you’ll hear Garrison Keillor.” “I wish I could believe that.” “There, listen, do you see?” “No, it doesn’t sound like… oh, wait, it IS Garrison Keillor!”) If I hadn’t been there she’d not have listened far enough in or attentively enough to disprove her own certainty (fear? foreboding?) that all radios get different stations. I think normally we’d not be thinking about radios, just go turn on a radio with the intention of listening to music, but the fact that we mostly seem to act without thinking does not mean there are not concepts in play. Perhaps the importance of all the a priori concepts we work with can’t strike you until you watch them fall apart. Cool stuff anyway.


    • I’m sorry to hear about your mother, Claire. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. Still, I think the point you make is apt. It also leads us in the direction of some criteria for distinguishing concepts from memories, which emerges as a problem in other contexts. And I think Dewey makes the same point about concepts coming to light when they stop working / are no longer effective. Sounds fairly Heideggerian, too.


  2. Why bother with the term? We know for a *fact* that neural bases of perception/cognition are ‘loopy’ in fantastically complex ways, so why should we commit to any of the traditional philosophical binaries? Why shouldn’t we think of ‘concepts’ as relics of theorizing cognition in an age where reflection upon the experiential consequences of cognition was all that we had to go on?


    • I agree with the fantastic complexity. Can you take me through an example of how you’d teach or learn a complex skill without this kind of language?


      • Pretty much all skills are taught without any concept talk, so I fear I don’t understand. If you mean intentional idioms more generally, they’re presently indispensable to the communication of skills, but then this has no relevance to the question here, which is whether the traditional theoretical posit, ‘concept,’ is required to understand the nature of human cognition.


    • One difference here might be that I’m interested in learning how to communicate some of these findings in terms of first-person language—”intentional idioms more generally”—while at the same time understanding the “nature of human cognition” in third-person terms. In a larger sense, though, I’d agree that a concept is a first-person phenomenological term designed for pragmatic means to reduce the third-person complexity in a way tractable for use in everyday life. I think you sometimes call these approaches “low dimensional,” which to me is just what bodies like ours require in day-to-day interactions. From there, there’s obviously discrepancies (i.e., variabilities in capacity) in terms of how different people are able to render their own first-personal experiences as manifest in action and perception qua their emergence in experience. The Romdenh-Romluc essay (quoted above), for example, describes the differences between expert and non-expert climbers in terms of what kind of affordances are perceivable at different skill levels. These affordances “show up” only on the side of first-personal perception, so it’s important to me to have a language that fits this level of activity, and that means using concept talk. Does that make sense?


  3. I like the idea of taking a deflationary approach to one’s posits. What you want is what we all want: a naturalistically responsible way of understanding the first person. A part of that understanding involves understanding the limits of intentional cognition. As you yourself acknowledge, intentional cognition turns on neglecting what’s going on with cognition, and therefore, seems unlikely to tell us what’s going on with cognition. So in a sense, deflationary or not, it strands you with all the problems psychology already possesses, only now played out on an ecological canvas (an advantage to be sure!). Perpetually disputed explanations of perpetually disputed formulations of explananda… Why not move on altogether? Why not lock all the old preconceptions in a box (labelled low-information artifacts) and ponder ways to rethink the whole outside the intentional tradition?


    • Sure, let’s give it a try. I don’t currently have the skills to “rethink the whole outside of the intentional tradition,” but maybe you can. Barbara Gail Mentero, who I mention in the post just after this one, is interesting in this regard. She posits the same basic argument, and in similar vocabulary, as the thinkers I quote above. Here’s her basic position:

      “For experts, when all is going well, optimal or near optimal performance frequently employs some of the following conscious mental processes: self-reflective thinking, planning, predicting, deliberation, attention to or monitoring of their actions, conceptualizing their actions, control, trying, effort, having a sense of the self, and acting for a reason. Moreover, such mental processes do not necessarily or even generally interfere with expert performance, and should not generally be avoided by experts.”

      (I’m pulling this quote from the recent NDPR review of her book:

      Can you reframe her position—she calls it “the cognition-in-action-principle”—in a way that would help direct the kinds of activities she’s describing (e.g., in her case, professional ballet, but we could substitute any kind of expert action, I suspect). On my end, I’m hoping not only to describe a “naturalistically responsible way of understanding the first person” but also to achieve an understanding of the situation in such a way that improves the lives and actions of individuals. In this case, I’m wondering about a non-intentionally-based description that would lead to better protocols for training ballerinas (though we can of course insert “skill-x”—be it other sports or other practices, such as maybe mindfulness practices).

      The criteria for me are thus (1) naturalistic responsibility, (2) improvements in vocabulary and communication in-the-moment, and (3) improved outcomes regarding the task being described vis-a-vis achieving goals (1) and (2). Any thoughts on that?

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      • The list she provides illustrates how we have our back to the wall of ignorance whenever we attempt to explain what seems to be going on in our heads. Almost every posit she mentions constitutes a field of disputation. But its a perfect example of how deeply the ‘psychology of mental processes’ has backed itself in a corner. All its research turns on various operationalizations of those terms in various, local, empirical contexts (and the hope that they will generalize to the context of ongoing investigation, whatever it might be). The only way to move forward, in such a research context, is agree to take the same collective lockstep backward.

        So in a sense, there’s no translating her position given this kind of path dependency. This just means there’s more work involved, that we need to back up the truck for real–that, or bite the bullet.

        I’ll check out the book and give this some thought. But since your desideratum is improved performance rather than theoretical accuracy, this puts you in a curious bind. Gerrymandering existing vocabularies is going to be the cheapest way to move forward in the short term, but long term, it will give you the least satisfying results, local fixes at best.

        Which are you after?


      • I wouldn’t want to say that I’m after improved performance and not theoretical accuracy. Things start to go off the rails if you don’t pursue both in tandem. (And just for my own edification, I also wouldn’t say, as far as the practical side goes, that I’m uniformly interested in improving performance; it just so happens to be the subject at issue in the examples of professional athletes. The goals and concerns of course change context to context, encounter to encounter.)

        The real question for me here is what to make of this tired old dialectic between theory and practice, where theory can only emerge out of practical contexts, interests, and engagements, while, at the same time, having the role of reorganizing our own understanding of those practical encounters, as is often the case when we start to dig into the whole background of interactions that go into our deliverances of experience moment to moment in the first place, perhaps leaving us stranded on some unfamiliar and alien shore.

        At first blush, the presence of this dialectic—and I’m partially of the mind that the dialectic is itself only apparent, an ad hoc product of our attempts at rational engagement with the world—indicates to me that perhaps gerrymandering is all that’s possible. Though I think even here we need to introduce a spectrum of craft and skill in the very making-available of perceptual experience, in the incorporation of new modes of interpretation into the construction of our understanding.

        What I don’t understand yet about your approach is that, if you’re right, then it doesn’t seem to matter too much—as far as guiding action in the first person—if we use my vocabulary or yours since the neglect you describe is structural and non-negotiable; it’s not any less there if we start writing different kinds of sentences, right? I wouldn’t call this a performative contradiction on your part so much as a kind of speed limit that your view requires that we cross but never can.

        I’d be interested to hear from you sometime about, say, what a BBT theory of learning looks like.


  4. I look at learning in Bayesian terms, since these provide such an elegant solution to the bootstrap dilemma, while remaining mechanical–to the point where different forms of learning can be engineered. I also think neural nets imply heuristic neglect.

    Technically speaking, there is no first person on my account, just different kinds of shallow information ecologies, some we traditionally refer to as ‘out there,’ and others as ‘in here.’ As a result, the language matters very much. The basic sociocognitive and metacognitive capacities we possess are products of ancestral requirements, possessing an ecological specificity that cannot be intuited in any way. Idioms turning on those capacities are tuned to the delivery of solutions absent the information those capacities neglect. Short the posthuman we will always suffer basic forms of cognitive neglect, but the power of science derives from its ability to illuminate black boxes. A post-intentional account of cognition is an account that turns on all the information available, so we should expect the story told to be every bit as strange and alienating to our shallow information preconceptions as any other natural scientific story. My upcoming JCS piece actually orbits about this strangeness.

    The difference between theory and praxis simply redounds on the fact that theoretical cognition is itself a form of praxis–one perforce neglected in the course of theorizing. On my view, there is no dichotomy, just a distinction in kind. Just another advantage of chasing out all the ghosts!


    • Well, we at least agree that theoretical cognition is itself a form of praxis. Quite an old idea, of course. I’ll just pull out one more thing here. You wrote, “The basic sociocognitive and metacognitive capacities we possess are products of ancestral requirements, possessing an ecological specificity that cannot be intuited in any way.” I think most people—including folks like Evan Thompson—agree that we’re not the type of beings that can intuit the neurocognitive architecture of thought using introspective, philosophical, or contemplative methods. We have to get experimental, empirical, and technological to get that kind of insight. And yet, here I feel like when we do try to understand ourselves, we always do so *along with* the available empirical evidence and technological techniques that we have. (Now, we are often wrong or misinformed or biased of course, but we’re nevertheless not thinking in a vacuum.) So, I use both philosophical and empirical means to investigate just what kind of being a human is. Doesn’t your view run the risk of insisting that philosophers—or humanistic psychologists or whoever—use exclusively introspective or phenomenological methods and that it’s really those methods, when used exclusively, that run afoul of the issues you charge as manifest in the whole tradition? I keep thinking about Kant in your account of neglect, for example, and on other days I feel like I’m debating in you some kind of modern-day version of David Hume. In other words, the philosophical tradition for me seems to keep much of its traction in these debates while for you it seems to be something to be discarded as soon as humanly possible. Is that right?


    • Oh man, just revisited your debate with Thompson from The Brains Blog, where you guys went over just these points. Speaking of theoretical cognition as a practice . . .


  5. I’m Humean in terms of my skepticism, Kantian in terms of my metacognitive emphasis. (It’s a little dated, but check out, Basically what I try to show is how meaning (as traditionally construed) can be construed as a consequence of applying heuristic systems to the solution of heuristic systems. The difference between Evan and myself is that I can actually explain why he finds his transcendental commitments so compelling! All he can do is continually resort to them… 😉

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