I’ve been moving towards a description of the role concepts and knowledge play in action and perception. To this end, I’ve worked my way through the contributions that philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus, John McDowell, Barbara Gail Montero, and Alva Noë have made in these areas. In my most recent post, I suggested that Noë’s descriptions of concepts as bodily skills offers a compelling way of mediating between Dreyfus’s nonconceptual account of action, where action is guided by environmental solicitation in an intentional arc that progressively gears the agent into its environment, with McDowell’s view of action as concept-mediated through and through. I concluded that post by suggesting the intentional arc requires for its success some amount of conceptual content in order for it to yield the increasingly rich surplus of detail that it generates in the agent. In other words, I argued that repetition in the intentional arc must be knowledge directed.
In this post, I continue to investigate the role of knowledge in action. To repeat the claim I expressed earlier, the role of judgment in intuition implicates knowledge in the structure of our responses to solicitations. Knowledge on this account must be more than mere trial-and-error repetition because it must also include a decision about what and how to practice and repeat. Knowing what to practice and how to practice correctly goes beyond mere repetition and invokes the knowledge needed to judge the what, when, and why of a situation, all knowledge-derived and goal-oriented decisions. This accumulation of intuitive ability gained through correct practice and judgment means that the iterative pattern of acquiring new intuitions should not be thought of as merely an aggregate of past scenarios (i.e., as contextual memories), but as repetitions that, when practiced correctly, involve judgment and meaningful discrimination exercised throughout the process of training and skill building.
This 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,” 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?
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.
James Gibson’s theory of affordances suggests that what animals perceive in their environment is not so much the properties of individual objects but rather the possibilities for action they enable. There’s a sense here that what things are and what things mean show up for the animal at the same time. On Gibson’s view, an ecological niche is thus best understood as a set of affordances made available by an animal’s capacities. For example, a niche may afford climbing, sheltering, swimming, running, standing, eating, and so on.
Gibson notes that there’s a tight link between animal and niche, where the abilities of the animal and the properties of the niche mutually act to constrain the set of available affordances. In the case of humans, Gibson observes, the situation is a bit different in that we actively engage in the planned construction of our own affordance landscapes. (Had Gibson been alive today he no doubt would have paid greater attention to the niche-constructing actions of all organisms.) We can see a gymnasium as affording fitness, a town square as affording meeting, a library as affording reading, for example. Continue reading
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.