Concepts, Action, Perception

Building on yesterday’s theme, Barbara Gail Montero (CUNY) has much to add to the debate over concepts and their role in action and perception. Interestingly, Montero’s new book, Thought in Actionhas the same title as one of the papers I quoted yesterday; however, it’s a different work entirely, though it deals with similar themes. The other paper, by Komarine Romdenh-Romluc, appears in the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology. The below passages are excerpted from Montero’s recent interview at 3:AM Magazine.

Dreyfus’s attribution of nonmindedness to experts runs deep: it is not only that experts, when performing optimally, are neither consciously monitoring their movements nor pondering what to do next, but that the monitoring and decision making is not even occurring at an unconscious level. He likens the idea that an expert’s monitoring and decision making is unconscious to the idea that after learning to ride a bike, the training wheels, which we had previously relied on, become invisible. Riding a bike is not like that. Once you can ride a bike, the training wheels don’t become invisible; they are cast off entirely, and, for Dreyfus, once habits are ingrained, the mind is too. On his view, the environment (rather than an unconscious decision to move) elicits the expert action.

McDowell, in contrast, thinks that, as he puts it, all of our actions are “permeated with rationality.” We interact with the world, according to McDowell, always through concepts; even in our most basic perceptions, he thinks, we are seeing the world in a certain way; we are imposing a conceptual framework on the data of sense perception. Concepts are not just training wheels for McDowell, but are an inextricable part of perception.

For both McDowell and Dreyfus, however, when actions are going well—when the soccer player is making a goal without a glitch, when the daily commuter is driving to the office without interference, when a chess player is breezing through a game of lightning chess (which allows only one minute per player per game)—conscious deliberations, decisions, and plans do not enter the picture. For Dreyfus this is because deliberations, decisions and plans do not occur at all, while for McDowell they occur but not explicitly, or consciously. . . .

My concern is exclusively with what you might think of as professional level expertise: the professional athlete, performing artists, chess player, writer. McDowell and Dreyfus are concerned with a broader swath of skilled activities, which include our quotidian actions of opening doors, commuting to work, climbing stairs and so forth. In my research, I don’t address such activities, so I don’t dispute what McDowell and Dreyfus say about them. However, I do disagree with both of them regarding professional level actions. I think that the type of high level of expertise demonstrated by professional athletes, performing artists, grandmaster chess players and other individuals is (generally) infused with conscious concepts. This is not to say, of course, that every aspect of expert action is conscious—it’s not permeated with consciousness. When athletes consciously focus on one aspect of their movement, other aspects run offline. But I do think that the conscious mind in expert action is typically directed at some aspect or aspects of skill. This might be a high-level aspect, such as speed, or low-level, such as hip rotation.


    • It’s crossed my mind. Let’s see what this mere mortal can sell . . .


      • never hurts to ask, over the years i’ve been generally well received by academic folks when i have shown interest in (and understanding of) their work (when i wanted to learn dewey for my diss work on rorty , couldn’t trust his reading of the classics, i was able to pull together a rather remarkable email reading group with some of the leading living scholars) alva would be helpful for more mainstream ambitions and evan is closer to the scene of yer school.


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