Concepts and the Ground Floor of Perception

51ru1jHcNyL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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,[1] not only of perceptual knowledge but also of nonconceptual beliefs 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.

However, in arguing for a conceptual dimension to perception and action, McDowell is not promoting the kind of detached and deliberate monitoring that Dreyfus rightly notes often interferes with everyday practical performance. In McDowell’s own words, “We should not pretend to find a detached self in all our experiencing and acting.”[2] This view, alleges McDowell, falls prey to its own myth, the Myth of the Mind as Detached. In this sense, to take a minded view of action and perception does not suggest that conceptuality is equivalent to detached monitoring or to an explicitly contemplative orientation to everyday behaviors.[3] Instead, what McDowell suggests in saying that perception is conceptual through and through is that mindedness is itself an absorbed and pervasive feature of the body’s intelligent engagement with the world. It is not, as Dreyfus construes it, a verbalized and propositional reconstruction of a prior experience of engagement that was itself nonconceptual, where its perceived propositional features arose only post hoc in descriptive reconstruction. As McDowell notes, “We should not suppose conceptual capacities come into play, in connection with empirical knowledge, only downstream from experience.”[4]

In other words, on McDowell’s view, conceptual capacities are not actualized by taking a step back from and evaluating things from a distance; concepts are in fact ingredient in the bringing to presence of the objects in our perceptual cognition in the first place. However, it is important to note here that saying perception is shot through with conceptuality is not the same as saying that things have been perceived or understood correctly, or even optimally. The point is more humbly that action is guided—consciously or not, correctly or not—by reasons for doing things, reasons that are grounded in our nonreflexive understanding that a situation is a certain way, and that we should respond—again, consciously or not, correctly or not—in a manner appropriate to our abilities, coupled with our understanding of a situation.

Nevertheless, Dreyfus is surely right that the Myth of the Mental, which incorrectly sees action as the execution from a distance of rational and deliberate reasons for behavior, needs to be replaced with an alternative account of perception, action, and cognition. At the same time, this account must be explicit about how it is that the intuitive responses to environmental solicitations that Dreyfus sees as key to practical action come to be what they are. In other words, how is that “external forces” show up for something that is not self-conscious awareness but is still capable of semantic recognition and skilled response to meaningful solicitation?[5] One answer is to follow McDowell in seeing the conceptual as co-arising with perception. 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.

[1] Ibid., 97

[2] McDowell, “The Myth of the Mind as Detached,” 41.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Do nonreflexive phenomena show up for a “someone,” at this basic level? This is not clear.

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.

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Next Up: Speaking at PACT

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.

Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos

That’s the title of the paper of I’ll be presenting at the 18th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association, to be held June 22–25 at Saint Mary’s College of California.

It’s Part 2 of the paper I recently published in Cosmos and History. The abstract is below.

Title: Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos: Philosophy as Extended Skillful Action

Abstract: In this paper, I discuss the media ecology of philosophy. Specifically, I explore the media environments that enable philosophical activity and the media practices that express and transform philosophical understanding. To these ends, I draw on the work of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and the ideas of James Gibson to suggest that philosophical ability (techné) is tied deeply to specific exercises of self-transformation (askēsis), best executed within certain affordance spaces, and to specific media practices, in this case those of reading and writing. In short, these media ecologies are immersive technologies for the installation of new philosophical visions in the eyes of the practicing. The activity of philosophy in this way takes as its condition of possibility an intricate ecology of affordance spaces—academies, libraries, monasteries, and more—whose aesthetics complement and enable the individual’s capacity to perform certain maneuvers in thought, maneuvers that make apparent the material conditions of possibility required for the bios theoretikos (the life of contemplation). To use Sloterdijk’s terms, these practice zones afford the architectural equivalent of the philosophical epoché. In other words, they are atmospheres suited for the suspension of the mundane and that support the growth of new capacities in the perceptual arena. The exercises of the philosopher are in this context not adequately described in individual or introspective terms. Instead, acts of philosophical practice, I argue, are better understood as intersubjective modes of skillful action extended amidst larger media environments.