Tuesday 28 November 2017

Dreyfus vs McDowell on skilled coping and the myth of the (pervasiveness of the) mental.

McDowell stresses the parallels between his account of intention in action and the account of perception in Mind and World. In both there is a central role to the idea of something – an experience or an action – being permeated with rationality and conceptual structure.
This view has, however, been subject to sustained criticism from a specifically phenomenological perspective in a number of papers, following his American Philosophical Association presidential address in 2005, by Hubert Dreyfus which collectively form a dialogue with McDowell’s various replies [Dreyfus 2005, 2007a, 2007b, 2013; McDowell 2007a, 2007b, 2013]. Dreyfus accuses McDowell of subscribing to a Myth of the Mental, or, later, refined to a Myth of the Pervasiveness of the Mental in his, McDowell’s, attempt to reject the Myth of the Given. McDowell replies in kind by accusing Dreyfus of falling prey to a Myth of the Mind as Detached.
Dreyfus’ initial criticism stems from a summary of McDowell that runs as follows.
To suggest how impingements received from nature can be conceptual through and through without the mind imposing meaning on a meaningless Given, McDowell introduces an account of Aristotle’s idea of second nature:
Human beings are...initiated into...the space of reasons by ethical upbringing, which instils the appropriate shape into their lives. The resulting habits of thought and action are second nature. [McDowell 1994: 84]
McDowell then generalizes Aristotle’s account of the production of second nature:
[i]mposing a specific shape on the practical intellect, is a particular case of a general phenomenon: initiation into conceptual capacities, which include responsiveness to other rational demands besides those of ethics. [ibid: 84]
The phenomenon McDowell has in mind is clearest in phronesis, usually translated ‘practical wisdom’. [Dreyfus 2005: 50]
Dreyfus agrees that phronesis is a paradigm case of human perception and action. But he suggests that, on a proper understanding of it, it cannot fit McDowell’s conceptualised account. In the exercise of phronesis or practical wisdom in making ethical judgements, for example, one simply sees what to do, without deliberation.
As Aristotle says: Phronesis… involves knowledge of the ultimate particular thing, which cannot be attained by systematic knowledge but only by ‘perception’… Aristotle’s account of phronesis does not assume, as McDowell does, that, ethical expertise can be conceptually articulated. On the contrary, phronesis shows that socialization can produce a kind of master whose actions do not rely on habits based on reasons to guide him. Indeed, thanks to socialization, a person’s perceptions and actions at their best would be so responsive to the specific situation that they could not be captured in general concepts. [Dreyfus 2005: 51]
Instead, Dreyfus suggests that phronesis is an instance of skilled, embodied coping which runs counter to what he takes to be McDowell’s commitment to detached, conceptually articulated rule following. Furthermore, he suggests that McDowell’s claim that perception is conceptual runs counter to the fact that we share perceptual capacities with prelinguistic infants and animals and that he cannot account for how the ‘ground floor of pure perception and receptive coping supports the conceptual upper stories of the edifice of knowledge’ [Dreyfus 2005: 61].
McDowell summarises the challenge that Dreyfus raises as centring on how the existence of apparently nonconceptual embodied coping can be reconciled with McDowell’s claims about there being nothing beyond the limits of the conceptual.
It would follow that if conceptual rationality is everywhere, there is no room anywhere for embodied coping skills. And our perceptual experience needs to be understood in the context of our embodied coping skills. But why should we accept that embodied coping skills are, just as such, nonconceptual? [McDowell 2007a: 339]
In his first reply to Dreyfus in the paper ‘What myth?’, McDowell offers three responses [McDowell 2007a].
·         reasons can be situation specific
·         one can acquire new conceptual capacities from particular situations
·         there can be continuity with animals
First, McDowell denies that his account of either Aristotle’s phronesis, or of ethical judgement more generally, can be couched in situation-independent terms.
I reject the idea that the content of practical wisdom, as Aristotle understands it, can be captured in general prescriptions for conduct, determinately expressible independently of the concrete situations in which the phronimos [the subject or agent possessing phronesis] is called on to act. [McDowell 2007a: 340]
McDowell concedes that, in a passage of his that Dreyfus quotes, he describes phronesis as involving ‘habits of thought and action’. And he concedes that ‘habit’ implies some sort of generality. But (as described in chapter 2, above) this does not imply that practical wisdom can be encoded in situation-independent, general terms.
But conceiving phronesis as a habit, or a set of habits, is consistent with holding that the only way one can register the generality of phronesis is by a description on these lines: ‘the habit of responding to situations as phronesis requires’. And that leaves what response a particular situation calls for from the phronimos still needing to be determined by situation-specific discernment. [McDowell 2007a: 341
In other words, he denies the forced choice between either situation-independent, general and conceptual judgement or situation-dependent and nonconceptual coping. As a paradigm of human perception and action, phronesis can be both situation-dependent and nevertheless a conceptually structured ability. For rational subjects such as mature human beings, ‘embodied coping is permeated with mindedness’ [McDowell 2007a: 339].
Second, in line with this, and with the idea mentioned above that perceptual experience needs to be understood in the context of embodied coping skills, McDowell offers the following thumbnail sketch of the perceptual experience of a rational subject:
[I]f an experience is world-disclosing, which implies that it is categorially unified, all its content is present in a form in which, as I put it before, it is suitable to constitute contents of conceptual capacities. All that would be needed for a bit of it to come to constitute the content of a conceptual capacity, if it is not already the content of a conceptual capacity, is for it to be focused on and made to be the meaning of a linguistic expression. [McDowell 2007a: 346]
This reflects the account in Mind and World of demonstrative concepts (described in chapter 5, above). It disarms the objection that perceptual content cannot be conceptually structured because it is too fine grained. Instead, concepts can be as fine grained as perceptual discriminations allow.
Third, he attempts to disarm Dreyfus’ objection that because perceptual capacities are shared with prelinguistic infants and non-linguistic animals they cannot be conceptually structured.
The claim that the capacities and skills are shared comes to no more than this: there are descriptions of things we can do that apply also to things other animals can do. For instance: any animal—rational or not— with suitable sensory equipment, engaged in getting from one place to another, can be expected, other things being equal, to respond to the affordance constituted by a sufficiently large opening, in a wall that otherwise blocks its path, by going through the opening. But the truth about a human being’s exercise of competence in making her way around, in a performance that can be described like that, need not be exhausted by the match with what can be said about, say, a cat’s correspondingly describable response to a corresponding affordance. The human being’s response is, if you like, indistinguishable from the cat’s response qua response to an affordance describable in those terms. But it does not follow that the human being’s response cannot be unlike the cat’s response in being the human being’s rationality at work. [McDowell 2007a: 343]
This, again, fits an idea in Mind and World but also in the paper ‘One strand in the private language argument’ (discussed in chapter 1) that there can be conceptual and non-conceptual species variants of the same genus.
In his reply to McDowell’s paper ‘What myth?’, Dreyfus concedes that he had wrongly assumed that McDowell understood rationality and conceptuality to be general in the sense of situation-independent and hence assumed that McDowell could not think of phronesis as situation-specific skilful coping. Nevertheless, he argues that:
McDowell’s view that ‘in mature human beings, embodied coping is permeated with mindedness’, suggests a new version of the mentalist myth which, like the others, is untrue to the phenomenon…. Where I differ from McDowell is that I hold that situation-specific mindedness, far from being a pervasive and essential feature of human being, is the result of a specific transformation of our pervasive mindless absorbed coping. [Dreyfus 2007a: 355]
According to Dreyfus, mindedness – whether tied to specific situations or not – is based on a form of skilled, absorbed coping which is itself mindless. Further, mindedness is a mark of mere competence. Mastery, by contrast, requires the retreat of explicit guidelines, rules and even reasons to leave a form of coping that is nonconceptual and nonminded.
When we are following the advice of a coach, for example, our behavior regresses to mere competence. It is only after much practice, and after abandoning monitoring and letting ourselves be drawn back into full involvement in our activity, that we can regain our expertise. The resulting expert coping returns to being direct and unreflective, which I take to be the same as being nonconceptual and nonminded. [Dreyfus 2007a: 355]
Thus, phenomenology suggests that, although many forms of expertise pass through a stage in which one needs reasons to guide action, after much involved experience, the learner develops a way of coping in which reasons play no role. [Dreyfus 2005: 53]
To highlight the incompatibility he sees between the expertise and the exercise of conceptual rationality, he gives the example of the baseball player Chuck Knoblauch who turned from being a masterful player when relying on absorbed skilled coping to being a bad player when he tried to follow explicit procedures for catching and throwing the ball.
As second baseman for the New York Yankees, Knoblauch was so successful he was voted best infielder of the year, but one day, rather than simply fielding a hit and throwing the ball to first base, it seems he stepped back and took up a ‘free, distanced orientation’ towards the ball and how he was throwing it — to the mechanics of it, as he put it. After that, he couldn’t recover his former absorption and often—though not always — threw the ball to first base erratically — once into the face of a spectator. [Dreyfus 2007a: 354]
The point of the example is supposed to be that Knoblauch turned from being a Dreyfusian agent to a McDowellian agent, from someone who can engage in masterful nonconceptual mindless activity to conceptually structured acting for reasons but now hopelessly distanced from the game and his prior skill. Since Knoblauch is obviously exceptional and since skilled performance is possible, then McDowell’s account cannot be generally true or so runs Dreyfus’ implication. But such an example relies on an assumption that McDowell rejects: that a mindful or conceptually articulated response must be a reflective exercise of disengaged ratiocination.
McDowell accepts the transcendental argument that the conditions of the possibility of the mind relating its content to the world requires conceptual capacities, and these capacities must always be everywhere operative in human experience. Phenomenologists, on the contrary, contend that this argument is based on the phenomenologically unjustified assumption that we are basically minds distanced from the world, so that the mind has to be related to the world by mental activity, whereas, when one is fully absorbed in coping the mind/world dichotomy disappears. The assumption that there is an essential distance between mind and world that must be bridged by concepts, thoughts, and reasons is what I have been calling the Myth of the Pervasiveness of the Mental. [Dreyfus 2013: 36]
In this passage, Dreyfus connects together the idea of conceptual activity with distance from the world and hence a need to bridge the gap between mind and world with concepts, thoughts, and reasons. But whether or not McDowell’s account of perceptual experience and action is, in the end, plausible, Dreyfus seems simply to ignore, rather than argue against, a key element of McDowell’s picture. Specifically, whilst action is sometimes the result of the formation of a prior intention, or intention for the future, through a reflective and deliberative exercise of practical reasoning, it need not be. It can be a spontaneous response to the situation.
Further, extending O’Shaughnessy’s dual aspect account of willing discussed in the first part of this chapter, McDowell stresses the idea that the action itself just is the intention in action when construed mentally. The action is not distinct from the exercise of conceptual capacities. Intentions do not merely instigate actions from outside the ‘precincts of action’ (in O’Shaughnessy’s phrase) in the way that an intention to topple a tree may take the form of sawing through the trunk with the expectation that that will lead, causally to the tree’s toppling. Intention can be present in the action of crossing the road, for example. So Dreyfus’ assumption that when McDowell claims that actions and perceptual experiences must be conceptual then that introduces an essential gap between mind and world should sound alarm bells. McDowell’s explicit aim is precisely the opposite. The claim that experiences are conceptually structured is supposed to show how it can be the case that experience is a form of direct openness to the world. Actions are supposed to be directly expressive of conceptual ability, not its action at a distance. If a gap is introduced by either of these claims about conceptual structure then Dreyfus needs to show why that is the case rather than simply assume it.
McDowell considers the case of a woman who, whilst walking across a park, spontaneously catches a Frisbee as it flies towards her.
When a rational agent catches a frisbee, she is realizing a concept of a thing to do. In the case of a skilled agent, she does not do that by realizing other concepts of things to do. She does not realize concepts of contributory things to do, in play for her as concepts of what she is to do by virtue of her means-end rationality in a context in which her overarching project is to catch the frisbee. But she does realize a concept of, say, catching this… The point of saying that the rational agent, unlike the dog, is realizing a concept in doing what she does is that her doing, under a specification that captures the content of the practical concept that she is realizing, comes within the scope of her practical rationality — even if only in that, if asked why she caught the frisbee, she would answer ‘No particular reason; I just felt like it’. [McDowell 2007b: 369]
Elsewhere, he calls the prospective answer a ‘limiting case of practical rationality at work’ and a ‘null response’ [McDowell 2013: 49]. This because whilst such a response does not reject the ‘why?’ question that Anscombe claims marks out the intentional realm it does report that there is no informative or interesting answer as to why catching a frisbee was thought to be a good idea, no further, distinct purpose behind it, no broader further structure of means-end rationality [Anscombe 2000: 84-5]. But it does accept the attribution of intentionality. It accepts ‘catching the frisbee’ as a correct description of the intentional action and hence as a reason for what she did in, for example, stretching out her arm. The details of her motor-intentionality are, as described earlier, the shape taken by her intention in action as it becomes determined.
Dreyfus offers his example of someone acting without deliberation and in flow. In lightning chess, the whole game has to be played in less than two minutes. Hence grandmasters must make moves as fast as they can move their arms and yet are still able to play with great expertise.
Fortunately, the expert usually does not need to calculate. If he has had enough experience and stays involved, he will find himself responding in a masterful way before he has time to think. Just as Aristotle, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty saw, such mastery requires a rich perceptual repertoire — the ability to respond to subtle differences in the appearance of perhaps hundreds of thousands of situations — but it requires no conceptual repertoire at all. This holds true for such refined skills as chess, jazz improvisation, sports, martial arts, etc., but also for everyday skills such as cooking dinner, crossing a busy street, carrying on a conversation, or just getting around in the world. [Dreyfus 2005: 58]
Returning to this example more recently, he runs the case of lightning chess and the Frisbee catcher together:
The woman’s inability to provide a rational motivation and the master’s inability to provide a rational explanation of why a certain move worked are examples of the limitation of rationality. In both cases rationality is not pervasive. [Dreyfus 2013: 35]
He goes on to distinguish them in that frisbee catcher is a ‘genuine null case’ because she cannot give an account of her account even though, he suggests, she should. By contrast in the lightnight chess player’s case there is a ‘positive absence of a reason’ where the lack of a reason is not disturbing but a sign of a more direct response to the possibilities of moves suggested by the configuration of the chess board.
This first account seems to distort the phenomenology. Not every act needs to be embedded in a hierarchy of further reasons. And not being so embedded does not mean that, as a deliberate if spontaneous act, it is not an expression of the agent’s rationality. On McDowell’s picture, the fisbee catcher is realising a concept practically which she could, given time, put into the words that describe both action and intention in action: “I am catching this”. There is no need for embarrassment that there is no further reason than that she wished to.
The chess master, by contrast, expresses a non-limiting and non-null form of rationality. Given time, though not when in flow, he can answer a question as to why he did what he did. Dreyfus argues, to the contrary, that he is merely mindlessly and non-conceptually responding to the forces of the pieces on the chess board. But as McDowell points out, even if all he can say is, somewhat abstractly, that he is responding to them, then that is sufficient to show his is not a limiting or null case. The exercise of conceptual rationality that would be expressed in a reconstruction, after the fact, of his thinking is also expressed practically when acting, rapidly and in flow, in response to the different configurations of pieces. And as McDowell argues:
[I]f he really is a master, it must be within his powers to be more specific. We can expect him to be able to say such things as this: ‘It’s a good move because, it threatens my opponent’s queen’… [W]e cannot compel him to talk about his move without breaking the flow. But… that does not matter. He will be saying things he already knew whilst acting in flow. [McDowell 2013: 47]
Both the chess master and the frisbee catcher are able to do something that Chuck Knoblauch could not do. This suggests an aspect of the phenomenology of absorbed coping: that it is incompatible with simultaneously taking a more distanced and reflective view. But on McDowell’s view, the same conceptual understanding is in play in these two different ways. Dreyfus offers no compelling argument against the claim that conceptual abilities are manifested in both experience and action, even if the mark of this is not an occurrent phenomenon at the time but a standing ability or power to take part in the game of giving and asking for reasons.
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