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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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.

Kant and Fichte

Below are a few thoughts on Fichte’s advance over Kant’s critical philosophy. I’m finding that there’s much in Fichte’s work that forms something of a historical starting point for my own work on concepts as capacities. There are substantial differences, too. For example, Fichte’s strong separation of the causal order of nature and the normative order of human freedom strikes me as implausible, and it would be hard to imagine a philosopher arguing the point with as much force today (though the exact way to think of this partition—or to not think it at all—continues to give everyone a headache).

That said, as I read them, the primary difference between Kant’s and Fichte’s philosophies lies in their differing starting points, in what a grounding for transcendental philosophy requires. If Kant was correct to say that experience has an a priori structure that conditions all possibilities of experience, he was wrong to suggest that this a priori structure—including the forms of intuition, the categories of the understanding, the ideas of reason, and the transcendental ego itself—could be taken as simply given. That is, in much the same way that Kant’s critical philosophy leads one to reject the mere givenness of empirical experience, this same rejection should be applied to the mere givenness of the a priori concepts and categories of the transcendental itself. Continue reading

Spaces of Freedom

It’s been just over a year since I posted anything new here, but that’s not for lack of study or engagement on my part. Work—both intellectual and vocational—continues apace. Readers may be interested to know that I’ve started pursuit of a PhD here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Below I’m sharing a short description of my plans for the dissertation. Things may change a bit here and there as I complete various sections of the dissertation, but I expect to follow pretty closely the below summary. I’m not sure what will become of Knowledge Ecology at this point. I may start afresh with a new blog. I may continue blogging here. I might abandon the Internet all together. Who knows.

The thing about blogging—both positive and negative—is that it puts on offer a continuous stream of output, an ongoing account of one’s thinking and development. This has the double effect of providing greater context for one’s writing but also makes it difficult, at least psychologically for me, to separate oneself from earlier work in the way that writing books or articles naturally provides. The Internet tends toward a pathological amount of continuity and interconnectivity that I think many of us writing in this medium would be wise to rail against. In any case, enjoy the PhD ruminations.

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