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?
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.
In an earlier post, I connected typography and bookmaking to James Gibson’s theory of affordances, the idea that perception is layered less with the properties of individual objects and more with the possibilities for action they enable or afford. The basic idea of this application is that books provide a detailed and intentional set of affordances for a certain kind of understanding, and that typography and bookmaking are from this perspective intricate material practices for the installment of conversions in apprehension, for the reshaping of awareness through the mode of discursive engagement.
As I noted in the original post, on this view books are things we think with and through rather than storehouses we download from. The art of writing and bookmaking, then, is the intentional creation of affordances that make such transformations of experience possible. The book is the environment in which such affordances can endure. It’s in the context of designed affordance environments—settings created with the expressed purpose of enabling certain experiences—that I find interesting Peter Sloterdijk’s reflections on architecture and epoché.