The Knowledge Ecology

tumblr_mguzssszB41r87i11o1_500[Image: Henrique Oliveira]

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.