Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Experience and expertise

I see that I’m still on the email list that Harry Collins is using for discussion of SEE: Studies of Expertise and Experience and there has been some discussion of the relation between impressive mastery of chess and first language possession. Collins summarises his own conclusions thus:

The insight is that the deep nature of the expertise of the five-year-old language learner in respect of his/her natural language is the same as the deep nature of the expertise of the chess grand-master in respect of chess. I had always taken this to be pretty obvious but the discussion … has made me wonder if, rather, it is an insight! If the Dreyfuses say something different this would merely add a frisson.

Another tempting direction is to make a distinction (already made within SEE) between expertise and experience. Thus, I would be inclined to take the expertise of a reasonable human chess player (cf computer chess which is a different thing), and a grand master, to be pretty similar in a ‘deep’ way and to differ in that the grand master has much more experience. That means the grand master can draw on many more potentially analogous previously experienced positions during play. The expertise lies in the ability to spot what is a good or reasonable analogy and what is not -- that is the really hard part to understand; the experience lies in the number of analogies that can be drawn in.

I do wonder whether this is the right way to think of the role of experience. The problem is that it seems to confuse what might be constitutive of an ability and a hypothesis about how it might come about. That is, Collins here advances a claim about the dependence of expertise on experience which is plausible but is merely a hypothesis (then again as a social scientist, he’s in that business). Perhaps a developing master, lacking the experience of a plodding jobbing chess player, might not have had such experience but still be able to draw on many more potentially analogous positions during play? (Of course in speculating thus I am ignoring Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hour figure. But I assume we are still trying to get right the concept or concepts of tacit knowledge.)

So here’s a suggestion for a different way to think of tacit knowledge and experience. For tacit knowledge to count as knowledge it must have an appropriate kind of content (at the very least; that is not yet to distinguish it from a tacit analogue of mere belief). But for it to be tacit, it must resist some form of explicit codification. And perhaps now we can invoke experience – not as a causal hypothesis about expertise – but as partially constitutive of that expertise. To be very good at chess is to be able to see that a particular dynamic configuration will be aggressive, or defensive, or confusing or whatever. But the configurations may be articulated demonstratively – to those with eyes to see relevant similarity and difference – as ‘Like this!’ and ‘This!’ and ‘More like this!’ even when, although the exact configuration of each so gestured could be captured in a notation, what formed the kinds in question resist summary in any How to Play Chess book.

(Collins returns – a frequent figure in this Blog in truth – here but see also this discussion with him.)