Lately, I have been studying the connections between the early work of Heidegger and the later work of Wittgenstein. One of the most fascinating issues involved is the ordinary way that we act when we are “in the flow”, conscious of an action but not self-conscious or critically thinking. How much must we conceptualize ourselves or our actions in order to act? This is the issue debated between Hubert L. Dreyfus, who taught me Heidegger at Berkeley, John McDowell and others in the book Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World (2013).
One example featured in the debate is Chuck Knoblauch, a famed second-baseman who began to have problems throwing to first to get runners out because he was over-thinking his throws. As Lee Braver points out, there seems to be an antagonistic relationship between conceptual thought and skillful action, such that thinking can interrupt action.
In his book Groundless Grounds (2012), Braver says that if we think about walking as we walk, we walk like Frankenstein. Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher and the second patriarch of Daoism, said that if the centipede stops to figure out how he coordinates all of its legs, it would fall all over itself. That said, how much is thought or conceptions involved when we are consciously acting but “in the flow”?
Dreyfus, following Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, argues that in absorbed action, we do not have a conception of ourselves or reasons for why we are acting. Sartre said that when he runs to catch the streetcar, there is no ego. We could also say that when Sartre is focused entirely on catching the streetcar, he also is not thinking of reasons as to why he is catching it, such as getting to Cafe de Flore to sip espresso and chain smoke. Merleau-Ponty, friend of Sartre, said that when we are absorbed we act in a “field of forces”, reacting to threats and opportunities without thought.
Against Dreyfus and very much in accord with Kant, McDowell argues that for an act to be intentional, it must be done consciously, and this requires that it be conceptual. McDowell would say that Sartre must conceptualize himself, the streetcar, and that his purpose is to catch it in order for his dashing towards it to be an intentional act, different from the way one’s leg jerks when we are struck in the knee by a doctor. The question is, if Sartre sees the streetcar as an opportunity, or Knoblauch sees the runner as a threat, how much must they conceive of things in addition to perceiving them? It is difficult, and hence the Dreyfus-McDowell debate, because our perceptions and conceptions are so intertwined in so many complex ways.
Lee Braver has offered what I think is a brilliant architectural metaphor that could reframe the debate, leading to new insights and solutions. In his later work, Wittgenstein presented philosophy and math as extensions of embodied physical action. Heidegger wants us to see that we do philosophy like we use a hammer, as we respond intuitively and immediately to words as we do to arguments. McDowell says that all is conceptual, which Dreyfus criticizes as upper floor abstract aristocrats all the way down. Dreyfus says there is a basement beneath the upper floors where absorbed servants toil, but the two are disconnected. Braver says that we can go with a third plan, that it is basement servants all the way up (as opposed to turtles all the way down). We get rid of the class distinction between the aristocrats on the upper floor and the servants in the basement. This gets rid of Dreyfus’ gap but reverses the direction of McDowell.
What do you think? In what ways are action and thought interrelated or opposed to each other?
January 16, 2015 at 2:07 am
You might be interested in exploring the discussions regarding naturalistic and deliberative decision-making from an psychological/behavioral economics perspective. Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” is a decent place to start.
January 16, 2015 at 3:04 am
I have heard great things about that book. I will be sure to pick it up. Thanks!
January 25, 2015 at 11:59 pm
Eric, Thanks for the post. Here are some thoughts.
When we speak of Knoblauch existing or not during a throw to first or, with Sartre, speak of there being no ego in absorbed acitivity, I understand these statements to be talk about appearance: no self shows up for us during absorbed performance. Or better, we don’t operate there with a concept of self, ascribing properties to ourselves (“You’re throwing to soon”), or addressing ourselves (“Throw more toward to the left side of the base”), for instance. This is an elementary point, but worth making, perhaps, since often I find Heidegger and Dreyfus sliding from this kind of phenomonological description into what sounds to more analytic ears like ontological claims, as though the question, for instance, were whether the person on the mound stopped existing when not self-conscious. To take another example of this slide, at other times they speak as though the lack of an awareness of a separation between self and world in everyday dealings were an awareness of there being no distinction between self and world–which can give the impression they embrace some sort of idealism, which on other occasions they appear to deny.
I think I read McDowell on self-knowledge a bit differently than you do, though he’s hard to pin down. In his piece in the Schear anthology, he mostly writes as though only tacit self-knowledge and knowledge of the aims of one’s activity were necessary for that activity to count as full blooded “action”, as an instance of rational agency. Though conceptuality pervades our actions from the start, in moments of absorbed coping it lies relatively unattended to, just as in much of our perceptual experience we do not bring into focus the conceptual content delivered when the world impinges on our senses and brings into play our conceptual capacities. So Knoblauch has a kind of knowledge of self and of his aims in throwing, but does not attend to this during peak performance. If asked about what’s he’s up to, he could bring that knowledge from dim awareness to greater focus, though at the cost of breaking flow.
Question arise immediately about what this dimmer knowledge would amount to, how it informs or does not inform an agent’s action, and so forth. The notion may not in fact be viable. But McDowell does say that explicit self-awareness is not necessary and, is in fact detrimental, to flow.
One last thing, this one involving Braver’s tweak of the architectural metaphor. Does it leave any room for the use of concepts? Does his “basement all the way up” mean it’s all non-conceptual, absorbed coping? Surely that doesn’t exhaust our dealings with the world. Heidegger, and Dreyfus, too, thinks that there are other modes of awareness of the world, one of which is thematized attention to objects issuing in propositional judgements. And Heidegger calls this another kind of “comportment”, if I’m not mistaken (though I can’t find the passage now). So one way of taking Braver’s metaphor is that whatever cognitive inhabitants there are in the building, they will all be modes of absorbed coping, and I think that’s an idea really worth pursing. It seems to me that even the most detached forms of theorizing about the world or deliberation about one’s actions will themselves be practices, practices performable to one degree or another of absorption, depending on one’s mastery.
That’s all for now.
January 27, 2015 at 11:26 pm
You are right. I was being hyperbolic with the title of the post. Knoblauch does still exist even when he is not self-conscious. The piece by McDowell was confusing to me for the reasons you say, on the one hand saying that an agent must conceive of an action in order for it to be intentional, but on the other saying that an agent merely must have the ability to conceive of what they are doing, which would allow for Dreyfus’ absorbed coping without self-conception.
As far as Braver’s metaphor, I think the idea is that thinking conceptually is itself a form of absorbed coping, a mode, as you say, but of a higher order. It is not clear how different modes are interrelated, however. That is what examples like Knoblauch will hopefully tease out.
January 28, 2015 at 4:43 am
Didn’t mean to hassle you for the hyberbole, just thought I’d call attention to Heidegger and Dreyfus’ (“Dreydegger’s”) sometimes confusing usage.
And about McDowell’s essay, yeah, it seems natural to think that the old saying may apply: There’s the part where you say it, and the part where you take it back.
January 28, 2015 at 5:56 am
No hassle felt. I simply felt that my title was unclear, which sometimes is good for a title. I like the old saying you say, which is all too true in much philosophy.