Rethinking the Conceptual: Noë on Skills of Understanding

41mixlCjI8LThis 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,”[1] 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?

An appealing option here is to re-read the conceptual as a skill of the understanding, and to in turn read the understanding as implicated in perception. This is the path Alva Noë takes, and in so doing he offers a few key resources for resolving the tension between nonconceptual solicitation and immediate intuitive response, on the one hand, and the inferential and semantic qualities of the concept, on the other. In appealing to “the continuity of thought and experience,”[2] Noë reads the conceptual and the sensory as one entangled continuum of perception, as McDowell and Montero also do, but he reads the conceptual along the lines of a nonrepresentational set of skills for achieving access to things, much as Dreyfus says is the case with intuitive responses to solicitations.

Noë writes, “A concept is a technique for grasping something. It is a tool or a technique of access,” and further, “[Concepts] are rather skills for taking holding of what there is. To say that perceptual experience is conceptual, from this standpoint, is to say that perceptual experience is a skillful grappling with what there is.”[3] Finally, accommodating Dreyfus’s criticism of the traditional view of concepts, Noë adds, “Don’t think of a concept as a label you can slap on a thing; think of it as a pair of calipers with which you can pick the thing up.”[4]

In viewing the conceptual as a component of skilled understanding, Noë is able to support his primary claim that perceptual presence is always an achievement of the effort, skill, and knowledge of the person. In other words, for Noë, thinking and perceiving occur simultaneously, and these abilities together lead to the world “showing up” for the observer in a way that matches his or her skills of access, to the modes of available skillful grappling with what is.[5] This approach leaves in play the reality of the conceptual’s influence on embodied action, but it also reads the conceptual as thoroughly constellated within a background of practice and effort, as a set of abilities that tightly couple the person with the environment, not unlike the perceptual enrichment afforded in Dreyfus’s and Merleau-Ponty’s intentional arc.

The concept re-emerges then as an activity, as a way of acting upon one’s actions; it reorganizes the content and meaning of perception, affording new sites of engagement. As Noë and Dreyfus would no doubt agree, a concept on this view cannot be thought of as a singular item or as an invariable and context-free set of rules to follow. Rather, the concept ought to be viewed in the light of the ecology of practices and concepts within which it is a member. I use the term ecology in this way both as a metaphor, in the sense that knowledge and concepts often form complex webs of reference and meaning, but also in the more literal sense that knowledge and concepts enact a transformation in the person’s perceptual field, through a micro-evolution in the increasingly elaborate intentional arc of engagement with the environment.

Thus when thinking about the concept with McDowell and Montero, it becomes clear, contra Dreyfus’s picture of the intentional arc,[6] that thinking of knowledge and concepts on a basic model of repetition or trial and error is insufficient. Again, the issue hinges precisely on the internal structure of intuition, on how it is we come to learn what to do and how to repeat. If the structure of intuitive response demands an inferential or meaning-communicating component, then it is also true that intuitive development requires a further series of judgments, sedimented over time through instances of correct repetition. This fact in mind, it becomes clear that the intentional arc requires for its success some amount of semantic content in order for it to yield the increasingly rich surplus of detail that it generates in the agent. In other words, repetition in the intentional arc must be knowledge directed.

[1] Ibid., 117.

[2] Noë, Varieties of Presence, 25.

[3] Ibid., 35.

[4] Ibid., 36.

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6] Dreyfus, Skillful Coping, 111.


  1. very good, but here is where I get lost “Again, the issue hinges precisely on the internal structure of intuition, on how it is we come to learn what to do and how to repeat.” these sound like scientific terms to me, what literally is a structure of this kind and how would we test whether or not we have rightly represented it’s characteristics/functions or not? and why is semantic necessary why not something more bayesian as Andy and others suggest?


    • It might just be that we need to track the differences in terms across disciplines. In this case, I’m trying to follow and use the terms Dreyfus set into play (and of course intuition is a technical term in Kantian/post-Kantian philosophy). I may end up disagreeing with Dreyfus, but I see him in this context as largely setting the terms of the debate. As I said before, too, I’m a strong advocate for a mixed methods approach, so the scientific overlap I think must be encouraged.


      • very good, I’m just trying to keep track of what we are talking about and how do we test if we are right or not, ever onward!


    • I should say not because it resolves anything but that it reminds me of our impasses.


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