The Conscious Thought of Expertise, The Distribution of Ideas, and the Truth about Chicken Sexers


In an entertaining and interesting interview, Barbara Gail Montero, associate professor of philosophy at CUNY and former professional ballet dancer, discusses, among other things, the role of conscious thought in the activities of experts. On one view (notably advanced by Hubert Dreyfuss and John McDowell [see update below] ), experts get into the “flow” and act in a “nonminded” way: “in such situations experts perform their actions neither deliberately nor intentionally; their minds are not guiding their movements.”

Montero disagrees:

My concern is exclusively with what you might think of as professional level expertise: the professional athlete, performing artists, chess player, writer. McDowell and Dreyfus are concerned with a broader swath of skilled activities, which include our quotidian actions of opening doors, commuting to work, climbing stairs and so forth. In my research, I don’t address such activities, so I don’t dispute what McDowell and Dreyfus say about them. However, I do disagree with both of them regarding professional level actions. I think that the type of high level of expertise demonstrated by professional athletes, performing artists, grandmaster chess players and other individuals is (generally) infused with conscious concepts. This is not to say, of course, that every aspect of expert action is conscious—it’s not permeated with consciousness. When athletes consciously focus on one aspect of their movement, other aspects run offline. But I do think that the conscious mind in expert action is typically directed at some aspect or aspects of skill. This might be a high-level aspect, such as speed, or low-level, such as hip rotation.

The actions involved with philosophical expertise don’t come up in the interview, unfortunately.

Interviewer Richard Marshall, who conducts an impressive number of high quality interviews across a wide range of philosophical topics at 3:AM Magazine, asks why this idea of “flow” is so popular. “It can’t be because philosophers have told us its so, can it?” Montero says it can be, at least in part, gradually over time and sometimes even by mistake:

Why has it been so persuasive? You say it can’t be because philosophers have told us it is so. Now, come on Richard, give us a little credit! It can’t be entirely because of this, but philosophical views do seep into the broader public consciousness. Dreyfus’s work, for example, has been very influential, and I have seen citations to it in popular psychology books about skill. I’ve even been told that long distance truck drivers listen to his podcasts! So I think philosophical ideas can sometimes have a somewhat large impact. So part of the popularity of the idea that expert action is effortless and automatic might very well be due to the fact that “philosophers have told us that it is so.”

Of course, the seeping of philosophical ideas into public consciousness sometimes works like a game of telephone. For example, ancient Zen ideas about skill seeped into public discourse in part through Eugen Herrigel’s interpretation of Zen in Zen in the Art of Archery. Do you know the book? In it, Herrigel describes the best actions of the archer as not even being done by the archer himself: it shoots, not the archer. Herrigel presented the book as an illustration of ancient Zen philosophical ideas about skill. Yet according to the Japanese religious studies scholar Yamada Shoji, these views have been misinterpreted. In a book entitled The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery, Shoji points out that Herrigel did not speak Japanese himself, and the highly influential and crucial idea that it is not the archer who shoots the arrow but rather, “it shoots,”—a phrase which does not appear in the first draft of the book—was supposedly conveyed to Herrigel when his translator was out sick. Why did he come up with this idea? One possibility Shoji broaches is it simply might have been a mistranslation of “that’s it.”

One last excerpt, on a popular philosophical example:

[P]hilosophers are fond of citing the example of chicken sexers who are able to identify the sex of a chick without having any understanding of how they do this. How could this be if, as I claim, expertise typically involves conscious thought? Finding a chicken sexer to talk to about this was much more difficult than I had thought it might be. They are deathly afraid of being exposed for animal rights abuses. However, I did get a chance to speak with a retired poultry sexer, and he was shocked to hear about the philosopher’s take on this issue. And as for the idea that one also hears philosophers mention that the only way for someone to learn the skill is, not by instructions, but by watching an expert, I found detailed articles explaining in painstaking detail the intricate methods chicken sexers learn. In this way, I am thrown out of the armchair and into the world, which is both useful and unsettling. A deductive philosophical argument gives you a sense of completion whereas the search for evidence is never ending.

At first I thought we might all owe Montero a big thank you for helping reduce the number of times we will have to read or think about chicken sexing, but then I realized, of course, that it will surely become the go-to example of the pernicious philosophical habit of armchairing the empirical.

Anyway, lots to think and talk about in this interview, right? And I didn’t even get to the part where she discusses sexual performance (in humans; not chickens). The whole thing is here.

UPDATE:  In the first paragraph of this post I erred in attributing the mentioned view to McDowell. Professor Montero wrote to me: “What I say in the quote refers only to Dreyfus’s view, not to McDowell’s: ‘What Dreyfus means by this is that in such situations experts. . . ‘ Also, it is only Dreyfus that sees experts as acting in a nonminded way.  Where they agree, however, is that experts (in certain endeavors such as lightning chess) do not deliberate consciously or explicitly.  There is a lot of mind in there for McDowell, it’s just that it’s implicit.” My apologies for the inaccuracy.

Chicken surprised

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