Dreyfus and the Intentional Arc

51ckNtCwYrL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_-1Hubert 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.”[1] 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.

Dreyfus in his emphasis on practical action explicitly calls into question what he calls “the Myth of the Mental.” Stated plainly, the Myth of the Mental, here attributed to John McDowell, suggests that perception is conceptual through and through.[2] On Dreyfus’s account, the Myth of the Mental misreads a set of exclusively verbal, propositional, and rational abilities as ingredient in more basic and immediate engagements with the world. The world, alleges Dreyfus, does not require the mediation of mental or psychological states in order for it to guide the actions of the person who engages it. Indeed, Dreyfus is correct to point out that a good deal of human activity takes place without conscious effort or deliberation. For example, people typically do not rationally plot out in advance the steps they need to take to their cars every morning. Nor is it necessary to evaluate in a discursive way how to drink a cup of coffee. In fact, as Dreyfus is fond of noting, it is often a disadvantage to take such a distanced and theoretical approach to everyday actions.

But this account raises several questions. If cognition and concepts have historically been construed as supplying mental content to our perceptions and actions—Kant’s famous statement comes to mind, “Thoughts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”[3]—then what, in Dreyfus’s account, gives sense to our actions so that our comportments with the world are successful? In other words, how do we know that we are responding adequately to a situation if our engagement with the world is primarily nonminded and nonconceptual? How do we know in the moment how to give the right responses?

Instead of concepts and cognition, Dreyfus sees our action in the world as guided by the grain and contour of the world itself. Along these lines, he appeals to a mode of nonconceptual knowledge rooted in our motor intentionality, where the body is led directly to move by the external forces in play in an environment. In Dreyfus’s words, this is “a world organized in terms of [people’s] needs, interests, and bodily capacities without their minds needing to impose a meaning on a meaningless Given.”[4]

The intentional arc situates these skills in recursive loops of action, built up over time. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty, Dreyfus defines the intentional arc simply as “the way our successful coping continually enriches the way things in the world show up.”[5] Stated again, the intentional arc is a “feedback loop in which our actions and projections are drawn out of us by the meaningful features of the world and, in turn, alter the way the world shows up as soliciting us.”[6] In short, the intentional arc marks a relationship between meaningful appearances and their disclosure as achieved through practice and repetition. This nonrepresentational view of solicitation does not require for its success the exercise of concepts or the following of explicit rules for action. Instead, we achieve expert-level responses to a scenario, or what Dreyfus calls “maximal grip,” through a mode of nonpropositional motor intentionality, whereby the person becomes increasingly skilled at completing a task by, in Wrathall’s words, “intuitively picking up and responding to the meanings the situation offers.”[7]

On this view of action, rational cognition is for Dreyfus an exclusively reflective, linguistic, and propositional activity—the traditional markers of conceptual ability—and therefore it should not be read as participant in the flow states of absorbed action. The fact that these abilities are not present in young children nor many nonhuman animals further suggests to Dreyfus that whatever else skilled comportment ends up being, it cannot be construed as conceptual, since otherwise neither animals nor young people would be able to relate to their environments in a meaningful way when plainly they do.[8] A fair insight, but this is not the image of the conceptual that John McDowell has in mind. As I show in my next post, the relationship between intuitive response, meaningful disclosure, and intentional arc is where I think Dreyfus gets it wrong, even if his account of what it feels like to perform may be correct.

[1] Wrathall, “Hubert Dreyfus and the Phenomenology of Intelligence,” 3.

[2] Dreyfus, Skillful Coping, 105.

[3] Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, B75.

[4] Dreyfus, Skillful Coping, 107.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wrathall, “Hubert Dreyfus and the Phenomenology of Intelligence,” 22.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] See Dreyfus, Skillful Coping 105, 117.


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