Barbara Gail Montero’s Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind is an important contribution to the philosophy of expertise and a rewarding read. The main purpose of the book is to undermine three commonplace assumptions about a subclass of skilled individuals that Montero refers to as ‘experts’. These assumptions are (i) that, when performing well, expert performers across a wide array of domains (from professional arts performers to sports elites to chess grandmasters) ‘just do it’, automatically and effortlessly, without deliberate thought; (ii) that if experts were to think while performing, it would interfere with their performance; (iii) so they should not, at least when all is going well. These assumptions form the ‘just do it’ principle, spelled out in Chapters 1 and 2, which Montero takes as the primary foil to her own view, ‘cognition in action’. The just-do-it principle: For experts, when all is going well, optimal or near-optimal performance proceeds without any of the following mental processes: self-reflective thinking, planning, predicting, deliberation, attention to or monitoring of their actions, conceptualizing their actions, conscious control, trying, effort, having a sense of the self, or acting for a reason. Moreover, when all is going well, such processes interfere with expert performance and should be avoided. (35) Cognition-in-action: For experts, when all is going well, optimal or near optimal performance frequently employs some of the following conscious mental processes: self-reflective thinking, planning, predicting, deliberation, attention to or monitoring of their actions, conceptualizing their actions, control, trying, effort, having a sense of the self, and acting for a reason. Moreover, such mental processes do not necessarily or even generally interfere with expert performance, and should not generally be avoided by experts. (38) The ‘just do it’ view, perhaps rather surprisingly, is incredibly widespread: throughout the book, Montero introduces the reader to an enormous range of supporting sources, from philosophical arguments to popular self-help books to ordinary ‘folk’ views.1 According to some philosophers, for example, expert cricket batsmen perform automatically and responsively.2 On this view, in the parlance of dual systems theory, expert cricket batting relies on System 1 cognition.3 It is true that when we master new skills, certain routines become automatic and we can perform fine while our attention is directed elsewhere, seemingly inattentively and operating by ‘muscle memory’ or via ‘the flow’. Ordinarily we do not need to actively guide our gait when climbing stairs, consciously ensuring that we step an appropriate height each time so as not to bump our feet nor expend too much extra energy; we just do it (213). Yet as Montero persuasively argues, although automaticity is involved to some extent in expert skilled performance, there is good reason to think that there is still much top-down executive control—System 2 cognition—going on. So the round-up and shoot down of ‘just do it’, as it applies to expert performance, is a welcome service to the literature and is bound to spark debate. A large number of interesting anecdotes, first-person reports, and case studies, while of course only providing defeasible support for Montero’s view, illustrate it nicely, and taken together provide strong motivation for calling ‘just do it’ into question. By ‘expert’, Montero is describing ‘individuals who have been engaged in around ten or more years of deliberate practice, which means close to daily, extended practice with the specific aim of improving, and are still intent on improving’ (64). Montero is well aware that this is an idiosyncratic definition and she does not intend it as a unitary analysis of the concept expert. Chapter 3, however, presents a persuasive case for taking seriously this stipulative definition, at least for Montero’s purposes. That said, it is probably needlessly narrow. Jason Holt has beaten me to it on this point: Montero’s definition looks to rule out, for instance, experts in mid to late career for whom daily, extended practice is required merely to maintain their expert level of skill, or mitigate the natural decline of their abilities that comes with age.4 Yet I think Montero would wish to include such experts, at least as far as her cognition in action thesis is concerned. Subsequent chapters aim to support Montero’s cognition in action thesis by demonstrating that ‘effort, thought, bodily awareness, and other such psychological factors are generally integral to the smooth, apparently effortless execution of expert-level skills’ (31). Chapters 4 and 5 deal with two objections to Montero’s cognition in action thesis—that thinking causes experts to ‘choke under pressure’ and that, at least in some contexts, experts must act too fast for conscious thinking to occur. Chapter 6 focuses on improvement, chapter 7 emphasizes effort, and chapter 8 shifts to a discussion of the concept of aesthetic effortlessness. Although Montero argues that expert performance typically involves effort, she claims that the appearance of effortlessness ‘in part makes watching expert action aesthetically pleasurable’ (166). Thus she considers the deliberate creation of effortlessness—‘the guise of ease’—an aesthetically valuable quality of a performance (175). This is, of course, compatible with Montero’s cognition in action thesis and her denial of ‘just do it’ since the guise of ease does not entail actually effortless action. However, not all of Montero’s discussion on this topic exemplifies the clarity and precision found elsewhere in the book. For example, in her discussion of the aesthetic value of effortlessness in art, Montero distinguishes effortlessness in a work’s medium, representation, and process. If it sounds as if a pianist is performing effortlessly, that’s because the process (i.e. the pianist’s performance—her action-sequence generating that performance-token) seems effortless. And sculptured marble might form a representation (say) of a figure engaged in an effortless action and thereby represent ‘effortlessness’. But how can the medium—that is, the means for the material manifestation of the product of the process—the paint blobs and brush strokes on canvas, the sounds themselves, the marble statue—be or appear effortless, at least when considering them as divorced from their representational or causal context? For instance, Montero says: ‘in classical music… we often attribute effortlessness to pieces that are technically challenging’ (172). I have no issue with attributing effortlessness to particular performances of pieces that are technically challenging. Yet Montero thinks we do attribute effortlessness to the medium, ‘the notes played’ (172), which strikes me as odd: unlike actions, media are not the sorts of things to which one attributes effort or its absence. Montero appreciates that she is searching for an elusive notion here, but her examples—the Golden Gate Bridge, a rock garden, the sounds produced by Glenn Gould performing the piano—do not help. Moreover, there is no mention of the work/display distinction, which would have tidied up some of her argumentation. Scruples aside, in this chapter Montero brings a potentially important concept to the fore—aesthetic effortlessness—reigniting discussion of a concept currently underexplored by aestheticians that is ripe for debate. She finds historical precedence in writings by Henri Bergson and Herbert Spencer, and develops her conjecture that ‘effortless movements are pleasurable because they are beautiful’ (177). Chapter 9 has two main goals: dispelling the idea that expert action necessitates a temporary loss of sense of self, and emphasizing proprioception, the internal awareness of bodily movements and spatial orientation (as detected by the body’s sensory receptors and inner ear canals and relayed to the brain). Montero argues that intentional proprioceptive awareness is typically present in expert action (consider a golfer’s swing, a dancer’s movements). In chapter 10, Montero further develops her thinking about proprioception and argues that it is an aesthetic sense—that it enables, for example, dancers to perceive aesthetic properties of their movements (‘in being immersed in bodily movement via proprioception expert dancers experience an array of aesthetic qualities of their own movements … an experience of their movements as beautiful, or graceful, or powerful, and so on’ (193). Moreover, Montero argues that proprioceptive sensitivity on the part of the audience members facilitates audience access to those aesthetic qualities too. The conception of proprioception as an aesthetic sense is controversial since, as Montero notes, many influential philosophers (e.g. Francis Hutcheson, G. W. F. Hegel) argue that only vision and audition are aesthetic senses. However, recently some philosophers have argued that olfaction, taste, or touch might be too, so Montero’s argument adds to this growing unrest about visual and auditory aesthetic exclusiveness.5 More problematic for Montero’s aesthetic conception of proprioception, though, is the idea that proprioception ‘does not allow for a distinction between the object on senses and the bodily sensation itself’ (197–198). The idea is that proprioception is ‘a mere sensation’, like pain and unlike vision, audition, and so on, which are directed not internally but to external objects in the outside world. The problem is that an influential line of thinking, following Kant, requires objects of aesthetic judgment to be intersubjective/shareable, which threatens the status of proprioception as an aesthetic sense. In response Montero argues that proprioception can sometimes misrepresent, allowing for a distinction between object (body) and sensation—‘between the positions and movements of one’s limbs and the sensations one has of these positions and movements’ (198). For example, Montero claims, ‘a dancer might proprioceptively experience his or her knee as perfectly straight, when it is in fact bent or a leg as directly behind, when it is off to the side … [yet] if a pain appears sharp, then it is sharp’ (198). Montero also suggests that via the mirror neuron system, onlookers can ‘proprioceive’ the movements of dancers. And she turns to the ways in which dance critics emphasize motor perception in their writings. All of this is supposed to indicate that proprioception, although internal, is ‘not private in the way that would preclude proprioception from being an aesthetic sense’ (205). Her strategy in general is negative: she concludes ‘there is no reason to think that proprioception must be excluded from the real of the aesthetic senses’ (209). As hinted already, there are extended discussions of dance throughout these chapters. Since Montero has a background in professional dance performance, these discussions are noteworthy for foregrounding the perspective of both a philosopher and a practitioner—a rare thing in philosophy, and welcome indeed. Chapter 11 is an intriguing case study of chess expertise. Chapter 12 wraps up by providing a useful summary and then considering expertise in such areas as rock music and sexual performance. The book as a whole is well researched, engagingly written, and accessible to students, professional philosophers, and interested lay folk alike. And it sets up the field for what I imagine is the next phase of this research project: hypothesis generation and testing. After all, Montero’s cognition in action thesis is an empirical thesis. She is to be commended for synthesizing a large and diverse collection of pieces of defeasible evidence that support her view, and providing sensible and well executed critical responses to her adversaries. To be sure, Montero is right to call the ecological validity of recent empirical studies that apparently support ‘just do it’ into question, for example. But one can do more. The next step of the project, as I see it, is to separate out empirically tractable hypotheses and suggest lines of enquiry that could be pursued and developed in order to test empirically whether ‘cognition in action’ is on the right track. Footnotes 1 Montero’s philosophical adversaries include Dreyfus, who has argued that expert action is ‘nonminded’ and that ‘the enemy of expertise is thought’; Herbert Dreyfus, ‘The Return of the Myth of the Mental’, Inquiry 50 (2007), 352–365. 2 According to Papineau, expert cricket batting is ‘automatic, not under conscious control’; David Papineau, ‘In the Zone’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 73 (2013), 175–196. 3 System 1 cognition is intuitive, automatic, reactive, affective; System 2 cognition is conscious, deliberate thought. For further detail, see Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (London: Allen Lane, 2011); Jonathan St. B. T. Evans, ‘In Two Minds: Dual-Process Accounts of Reasoning’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7 (2003), 454–459. 4 Jason Holt, ‘Review – Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind’, Metapsychology 21 (2017). <http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=book&id=7829&cn=394> accessed 8 November 2017. 5 For example, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); Dominic McIver Lopes, ‘Vision, Touch and the Value of Pictures’, BJA 42 (2002), 87–97. © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 31, 2018
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