Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dreyfus and McDowell, Concepts and Coping

I have finally gotten around to reading the Dreyfus-McDowell exchange in Inquiry. It’s fun and quite clear, and I recommend it to everyone. No doubt I will be scribbling more about it in the future, but at this point I want to raise a point about Dreyfus’s odd insistence that expertise is somehow non-conceptual. Not only does McDowell throw clear doubt on the need for such a view of expertise, but Dreyfus’s own examples seem to undermine his point. Sorry about the length of this; I had to write it out to get clearer on it. If I come back to it, I'll keep my points tighter.

McDowell repeatedly makes it clear that, in saying that our experience is permeated by rationality, he does not mean that reflection is constantly operative, nor does he mean that there are general principles in the background of everything we do. Conceptual action and perception are situational, and conceptualization need not be explicit. Thus, McDowell distinguishes between experience that “is embraced by conceptual capacities… that we already had before we enjoyed the experience,” other experience can be isolated and articulated by “annexing bits of language to” it, and “some of the content of a typically rich world-disclosing experience never makes its way into constituting part of the content of our repertoire of conceptual capacities” (347). So while obviously not all of our experience—not even most of it—is articulated in the perception itself, “all its content is present in a form in which… it is suitable to constitute contents of conceptual capacities” (idem).

Dreyfus finally seems to pick up on what McDowell means, and responds with a rather feeble call for proof: “This conclusion [that our coping is permeated with rationality] is supposed to follow from the fact that if one has a capacity—in this case the capacity to use situation-specific concepts—this capacity must be “operative”, as McDowell puts it, in all situations whether or not I am aware of exercising it.” And this, we discover, is a “category mistake”: “Capacities are exercised on occasion, but that does not allow one to conclude that, even when they are not exercised, they are, nonetheless, “operative” and thus pervade all our activities” (372). This is quite weak: Dreyfus is no longer insisting, as he did in earlier parts of the debate, that conceptual capacities cannot be operative in our coping. McDowell’s account has dealt with all the objections to that effect (i.e., the generality objection and the reflection objection I mention above). [There is a pretty amusing bit, where Dreyfus tries to use Aristotle, via Heidegger, against McDowell, pointing out that general principles are not guiding phronesis and thus it cannot be permeated by rationality. Someone whose knowledge of Aristotle seems to be on a par with mine shouldn’t be challenging McDowell on that point, and McDowell immediately points out that obviously neither Aristotle—nor Heidegger—ever suggests that phronesis acts outside the domain of logos.]

Now Dreyfus’s argument is weak in that it is no longer a positive claim about what role conceptual capacities can play in coping. Rather, he is making the point that McDowell’s claim is unproven. Of course he tries to strengthen this appeal to ignorance as refutation, as the above quote suggests: (1) The fact that human beings have a conceptual capacity does not mean that it is always operative. And (2) McDowell has no grounds for claiming that it is always operative, since we cannot find conceptual capacities within the phenomenology of our absorbed coping! Two points strike me as particularly odd. First off, McDowell is clearly not insisting that any capacity that we have must always be operative—that would, indeed, be a lousy ground for the conclusion that a capacity is always operative (I have the capacity to urinate but it is, thankfully, not always operational as such). Second, Dreyfus has apparently reverted to the flaccid, though currently popular, view of phenomenology as description of surface-level phenomena as they are experienced at the time they occur.

It strikes me that McDowell has already answered these objections in the passages cited above; and this exchange makes me wonder how much clearer he would need to be for Dreyfus to admit that he’s picked the wrong fight. Perhaps the problem is that McDowell hasn’t phrased his response in phenomenological terms. So here is a brief attempt: It is true that, when we are engaged in absorbed coping, we are not explicitly aware of any conceptualization occurring. But it makes no sense to take an experience out of context: something happens after my absorbed coping as well: I reflect on it. And something happens before: I am aware, generally, of what I will be doing (though of course I need not have it planned out) and, in the past, have performed similar tasks with explicit conceptual guidance in play. Dreyfus admits this point, but he thinks that after one has gone through the learning phase, where one is guided by concepts, one transcends that stage, becomes and expert, and no longer needs concepts at all. But this is quite odd: if I needed concepts to play chess in the past, is it not reasonable to think that, as I’ve gotten better, I have lost the need to rely on keeping those concepts explicit? But how can this be evidence that they are not present? Dreyfus’s model has the Grand Master playing chess with his body alone but, as McDowell notes, this only makes sense metaphorically.

Moreover, a phenomenological account should recognize that, after my absorbed coping, I know what happened during that time. If asked why I made a certain move, I can give a reason, although I may have to think about it in order to make it explicit. No doubt I cannot explain every feature of my actions, but so what? The fact that I cannot describe every feature of a blade of grass I saw does not mean that I did not see something that fits under the concept “grass.” A correct description of coping experience is going to be misleading, precisely because it involves an attempt to describe an experience that, by definition, was not explicitly thematized at the time it occurred. But a retrospective look can bring out the conceptual features. Why, then, should we focus on the unthematized experience as authoritative, rather than the thematized reappropriation of that experience?

In fact, for someone who supposedly puts a great deal of faith in phenomenology, Dreyfus regularly makes arguments that are underdetermined by the phenomenology. He brings up the example of Chuck Knoblauch who, after thinking too much about what he was doing, lost the ability to throw the ball effortlessly. Dreyfus insists that this supports his view: that conceptualization cannot be behind the throwing, and if it is, then it can only interfere with the absorbed coping. But of course it doesn’t mean that at all. Knoblauch’s inability to throw the ball does not show that the ability relies on a lack of conceptualization, but only that it depends on a lack of explicit conceptualization. As McDowell points out: Knoblauch is now thinking about how to perform a basic action instead of simply performing it. But that does not show that performing the action correctly involves no conceptualization. Dreyfus argues that Knoblauch cannot be using the same conceptual capacities when pitching expertly and when screwing it up, because the content of his intentional states must change: “if it was the same sort of content as before reflection, there would be no way to explain why Knoblauch performs so well under one condition and so poorly in the other” (360). But isn’t it obvious that Knoblauch’s problem is not with the content, but with how he makes use of that content? The entire line of though appears misguided.

Here is the basic issue, then. Dreyfus keeps missing McDowell’s insistence that our experience must have a form that makes it suitable for conceptualization. It is in this sense that experience is permeated by rationality. And—as McDowell keeps stressing here and in Mind and World—without this suitability, it is unclear how we could articulate our experience at all, or how we could explain what we were doing when we were absorbed.

What drives the point home for me, however, is Dreyfus’s list of absorbed coping activities. Aside from Grand Master chess playing, “something similar happens to each of us when any activity from taking a walk, to being absorbed in a conversation, to giving a lecture is going really well” (373). And this looks bizarre from the start: perhaps I can take a walk without conceptual guidance (at least, this is plausible on its face), but giving a non-conceptual lecture is something only a true Master—like Avital Ronell—can pull off. (Yes, I just saw “The Examined Life”… No, I can’t get over her claim that “meaning is fascist” or whatever.)

Here is the clearest example Dreyfus gives to explain how he thinks we monitor our absorbed coping without being guided by concepts: An airport radio beacon signals a pilot if his plane is off course; but if everything is going well, if the plane is on course, the beacon is silent. But the beacon is doing something, since “the silence that accompanies being on course doesn’t mean the beacon isn’t continuing to guide the plane. Likewise, in the case of perception, the absence of tension doesn’t mean the body isn’t being constantly guided by the solicitations” (358). In other words: the body guides itself, based on past experience. Conceptualization is needed only in case something goes wrong. But this cannot be right. Consider: When I am lecturing, no matter how absorbed, I never swear, although I swear habitually over beer with friends. I do not swear during a lecture and suddenly, realizing something is wrong, snap out of my absorption. So at the very least my lecturing is conceptually guided: I am speaking in lecture mode, not in arguing with friends over beer mode. And while I need not be explicitly aware that I am lecturing in order to lecture well—while that awareness would obviously detract from my absorption, since it would involve one thought too many—it must be guiding my activity. Perhaps my body knows how to tell lecturing apart from heatedly defending a point to a friend, but if my body is so smart, what does it need me for? Our concepts become explicit during a breakdown, when things go wrong. But—and this is the key question McDowell must pose to Dreyfus—those concepts could not become explicit in a breakdown unless our experience was of the form to be conceptualized in the first place.


  1. I think both Dreyfus and McDowell are missing the larger Heideggerian point, which is that "absorbed coping" is at heart a perceptual, externalist enterprise and in this respect is infused with language due to our general capacity to exercise our tacit knowledge *that* things are, ontologically, and *what* they are, on a conceptual/object recognition/affordance level. When looking at a water bottle, that perceptual act is inherently conceptual for humans because we instantly see *that* the water bottle *is* a water bottle. This is Heideggerian being at its purest: that which defines entities *as* entities. I take this to be the Sellarsian thesis of perception as being conceptual. Taylor Carman gives a great interpretation of Heidegger along these lines in his "Heidegger's Analytic."

  2. I'm definitely sympathetic to this view, and am interested in seeing it drawn out into at least the rudiments of a philosophy of action, in the direction in which someone like McDowell or, more Heidegger-appropriately, Steven Crowell, might take it. But I am curious what you think McDowell has wrong, aside from the fact that his picture is not as developed as far as the details go.

  3. I don't really think McDowell is actually wrong per se, I just think his content externalism is rather vague and his account of how perception is conceptual seems vague as well, unable to point cognitive science in a clearer direction. McDowell talks about how perceptual experience must be conceptual because of this and that reason, but never really articulates what this experience is like in any satisfactory way. It is just a giant open ended question for him, really. I like Gibson because he offers a more plausible account of content externalism and frames it in less metaphorical terms.

  4. Agreed, McDowell is very vague. In a way, that's what the Dreyfus/McDowell dialogue comes to. McDowell has, I think, very solid grounds for insisting that we speak of perception as conceptual all the way down, and Dreyfus really doesn't have a decent response, other than the dubious claim that we are not aware of concepts operating within engaged coping. But that's neither here nor there: there are obviously all sorts of background mechanisms that enable engaged coping yet of which we cannot be explicitly aware while engaged in the coping itself--the coping wouldn't be engaged if it were dispersed among all sorts of explicit self-awareness. McDowell helps establish, on the theoretical grounds, that the conceptual mechanisms really must be there--otherwise engaged coping would become extremely mysterious. But on the other hand, McDowell's own account is just as mysterious; concepts and content somehow just come together, and that's that. And this is what Dreyfus is pressing at: without a good account of how perceptual content might be always already conceptual, it might make more sense to look at how concepts might arise out of perceptual capacities. I don't think this argument works, but McDowell's vagueness certainly encourages it.

  5. I haven't read the debate in its entirety, but what I do think Dreyfus is getting at is that there are pre-predicative 'givens' that are non-conceptual, via the body. Beyond Heidegger, the obvious main figures here would be Merleau-Ponty and more recently (yet belatedly) Samuel Todes.

    From the standpoint of these phenomenologists, they would be asking (only rhetorically), what sort of rationality 'permeates' the fact that my field of vision is up-down focused, or that my body is forward-oriented in its motions while altogether vulnerable (neglible) in its back/rearward stance?

    Rather than locate where the conceptual content is, it makes more sense, as the above post admits, "to look at how concepts might arise out of perceptual capacities."

    A general example can be seen in simple linguistic usage. (I admit this being highly schematic/simplistic) "Forward" connotes "progress". "Backward" as "regress". "Hindsight", "Overreaching", etc. etc.--> The point being that are concepts are shot-through with bodily- orientational predicates that (may be) derived from our bodily, non-conceptual, absorbed coping.

  6. Thanks for this post, very thoughtful.
    I suspect there is some talking past each other from McDowell and Dreyfus here. I think what Dreyfus calls 'non-conceptual' is perhaps a misnomer, I think he rather means the bottom level of conceptuality, the 'what-can-be-inferred' from OTHER concepts but that can't infer anything of its own.
    Searle's action theory can help us here if we take inferring of concepts to be in a 'by means of' of or (in the other direction) 'way of' relationship: the accordion effect tells us the same action can be pulling a trigger, firing a gun, killing and assassinating. We see here the concept of assassination infers the killing (i.e. that this specific killing is a 'way of' assassinating), which infers firing a gun, and which infers pulling a trigger. We can cash this conceptuality in terms of rationality too: assassination, killing and firing a gun are the REASONS the trigger was pulled.
    Searle would say the pulling of the trigger was a basic action though. Why? There is no Intentionality lower on the accordion: muscle fibres contracting is not Intentional- it is not 'doing anything' and in the sense of not in a 'way of' relationship with pulling the trigger, rather it is simply a 'part of' pulling the trigger.
    This is what Anscombean questions hope to uncover too, we can't answer WHY our muscle fibres contracted because there IS no reason (inferred concept) for this bodily movement in the same way there are reasons for pulling triggers.
    Anyway it is action that happens on a 'pulling of the trigger' or basic action level that is coping. Then we can take 'absorbed' coping to be when that bodily movement is the object of consciousness which it seems to be when attempting to build expertise.
    That's all Dreyfus appears to mean by non-conceptual i.e. at the level of basic actions, which is the level we seem to concentrate on when building skill. That's all absorbed coping is. Is it 'non-conceptual'? Well kinda, in the sense that pulling a trigger doesn't infer anything in a 'by means of' relationship in the way killing infers pulling a trigger.