Over my last few posts, I’ve been working my way through Hubert Dreyfus’s and John McDowell’s accounts of concepts in perception and action. I tend to follow McDowell in seeing the conceptual as co-arising with perception, as opposed to Dreyfus, who sees practical action as largely nonconceptual and automatic. However, in seeing the conceptual as basic to perception, one need not assume a definition of concepts that requires explicit propositions, declarative speech, or conscious rule following, as Dreyfus suggests.
Barbara Gail Montero is persuasive on this issue in her view that language can and does mediate sensory attention, but that we as actors are quite capable of attending to details without articulating in words what, exactly, we are attending to. “For example,” writes Montero, “you are not or at least need not be thinking this sunset exhibits the most spectacular array of colors I have ever seen. Nonetheless, you may be attending to the scene before you.” Montero continues, “According to Dreyfus as well as a number of psychologists the expert performs best when she does not conceptualize her actions. I take conceptualization roughly to be a process of understanding one thing as falling in a certain category, a process which can be, though is not necessarily, verbalizable.”
In my last post on Hubert Dreyfus and the intentional arc, I ended with a question about the relationship between intuitive responses to environmental solicitations in expert action. In this post, I continue to explore the structure of intuitive response through the work of John McDowell.
It is precisely on the status of intuition in perception where I find Dreyfus’s account wanting, and where I think McDowell gets it right. It seems that Dreyfus takes everything traditionally attributed to concepts and conceptual ability and repositions these skills as available to an agent at the ground floor of perceptual experience through nonconceptual motor understanding. But what sense does it make, for instance, to speak, as Dreyfus does, not only of perceptualknowledge but also of nonconceptualbeliefs about perceptual objects and the solicitations, affordances, and constraints that issue from my engagement with them? The appeal to solicitations (or to what an object obliges of me), to affordances (or to what an object may aid me in doing), and to constraints (or to what an object may prevent me from doing), seems squarely in the domain of a cognitive and inferential space, in other words, a space shot through with a conceptual understanding that interleaves my every practical action. Indeed, this is precisely the stance that McDowell takes against Dreyfus.
Hubert 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.” 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.
I just received confirmation that I’ll be speaking at the ninth annual conference of the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT). The conference will take place in San Francisco at USF over September 28–30. My abstract is below. Feel free to get in touch in the comments or drop me a line on Twitter (@KnowledgEcology) if you’re interested in reading a draft of the paper, which is more or less ready to go.
Title: The Ecology of the Concept: Montero, Dreyfus, and McDowell
Abstract: In their recent debates, Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell have advanced the stakes in the dispute over the role of concepts in embodied action. For Dreyfus, to allege that embodied action is conceptual in nature is to overintellectualize the body, to illegitimately read into more primary processes a set of rational faculties that participate in action only in rare moments of detached reflection. In contrast, McDowell, following Wilfrid Sellars, alleges that even basic embodied comportment requires for its success a conceptual structure. In this paper, I will argue with McDowell and Barbara Gail Montero and against Dreyfus, that the way to think about embodied action is not to see it as nonconceptual but to re-read the conceptual as a nondistanced act or skill of the body. The concept on this view is a technique for drawing together the objects of the perceptual field; it is a skill of the understanding, to us Alva Noë’s language. Insofar as such objects afford meaningful discernment and possibilities for action, the concept becomes an act of transformation in the experience of the individual, allowing him or her new capacities unavailable to the uninitiated. In other words, I will show that the concept is an activity, a way of acting upon one’s actions; it reorganizes the content and meaning of perception, affording new sites of engagement. To articulate this ecology of the concept, I will re-situate the body as the site of the conceptual and suggest that the body’s engagement with the environment is already conceptually structured, though not necessarily in an intellectually distanced way.
Periodically, I come across an essay reporting that experts are not especially good when compared to lay people at overcoming the cognitive biases they should be adept at perceiving and transforming—for example, psychologists aren’t better at identifying their own complexes, ethicists don’t make more ethical choices, philosophers of mind don’t better understand their own habits, behavior, and intentions, and so on. The latest in this series of essays comes from Scientific American here. It’s just one example of the type of reporting I’m talking about (though if you take a quick trip down this rabbit hole you’ll find many more essays and studies just like it).
The Scientific American article asks the question, is self-knowledge overrated? The point being that the so-called Socratic principle of questioning and examining oneself—through philosophy, meditation, psychology, etc.—doesn’t seem, at least in the context of the academics being studied, to have the outcomes that it advertises as having (think for instance of the amount of identity-driven in-group signalling and bias we see within certain academic groups). Hence the question, is self-knowledge, in the end, overrated? A good question, but let’s hold off on giving an answer for a moment.Continue reading
As of late, I’ve been working my way through a number of German idealist thinkers, producing a series of small posts as I investigate the tradition (see on Kant and Fichte here, on Fichte and Schelling here, and on Goethe here). In this post, I move back to Kant himself, sketching an outline of the critical philosophy, as expressed in The Critique of Pure Reason, including an account of his rejection of rationalism and empiricism, his account of intuitions, concepts, and ideas, and his notions of judgment, imagination, and apperception. Understanding Kant’s critical philosophy is essential to understanding the evolution of German idealism as a whole. As Frederick Beiser notes, those involved in this tradition strove to find a middle path between a number of competing binaries, including that between skeptical subjectivism and naive realism, foundationalism and relativism, materialism and idealism, and Platonism and historicism, binaries which, as Beiser rightly suggests, are still the concern of much contemporary epistemology.Continue reading