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Dreyfus, Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of practical intelligence


Leader, Centre for Practical Knowledge

University of Nordland


James McGuirk (PhD, K.U. Leuven, 2004) is Professor of Philosophy and leader of the Centre for Practical Knowledge at the University of Nordland. He has published several articles and essays, inspired by thinkers in the phenomenological tradition (especially Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty) on themes such as the nature of philosophical reflection and the relation between philosophy and non-philosophical life. Current projects and research interests include the phenomenology of habit and practical knowledge, metaphilosophy and phenomenology and health.

  • Side: 289-301
  • Publisert på Idunn: 2013-12-09
  • Publisert: 2013-12-09

James McGuirk: Dreyfus, Merleau-Ponty, and the phenomenology of practical intelligence

Hubert Dreyfus’ various analyses of the nature of practical, intelligent action remain of central importance for anyone interested in this issue. Originally inspired by thinkers of the phenomenological tradition – especially Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty – Dreyfus brought their insights to bear in offering a devastating critique of the cognitivist prejudice in accounts of the nature of mind. However, while acknowledging the important contribution of Dreyfus to the philosophy of practical intelligence, the following article will argue that: (1) while initially following the phenomenologists in offering an ontology that goes beyond the dualism of the mental and the physical as separate, he falls back into this dualism in his characterization of expertise as ‘mindless, subjectless coping’ and his all too narrow use of the notion of reflection; and (2) that his examples of practical intelligence are too limited to provide the more comprehensive account of the phenomenon of practical knowledge that he is aiming for.

Keywords: Dreyfus, Merleau-Ponty, practical knowledge, knowing how, embodiment

The kind of dealing which is closest to us is as we have shown, not a bare perceptual cognition, but rather that kind of concern which manipulates things and puts them to use; and this has its own kind of ‘knowledge’.

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time


Hubert Dreyfus’ various analyses of the nature of practical, intelligent action remain of central importance for anyone interested in this issue. Originally inspired by thinkers of the phenomenological tradition – especially Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty – Dreyfus brought their insights into dialogue with problems in the nature of mind in a way that has had profound implications not only for philosophers of mind but for a range of different research areas from artificial intelligence1 to nursing.2

The essential thrust of Dreyfus’ work has been to challenge representationalist or intellectualist accounts of practical intelligence which claim that all knowledge is explicitly propositional or at least analyzable in its terms. Dreyfus challenges this claim by suggesting along with Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty (and later dynamical systems theorists) that there exists a more primordial form of knowing which is not based on propositional orientations but on the lived and embedded engagement between agents and their world.

This notion of non-propositional knowing or absorbed coping has received a great deal of support in recent years owing to the explosion of researches on the phenomenology of the body and the embodied, extended and enactive nature of mind. The work of thinkers such as Andy Clark3, Alva Noë4, Shaun Gallagher5 and others along with the renewal of interest in the works of figures such as Gregory Bateson6 and James J. Gibson7, has in various ways presented overwhelming evidence of the inadequacy of the cognitivist model of mind. While not all of these thinkers claim phenomenological inspiration for their contributions to the debate, they all offer arguments which, at the very least, are quite easily reconcilable with Merleau-Ponty’s insistence, not only on the centrality of the body for any account of the mind, but of the need to account for mind in terms of an irreducible relationality between subject and world which blocks any attempt to derive the subjective from the objective or vice versa.

Not all of these discussions intersect directly with Dreyfus’ texts inasmuch as Dreyfus is not only interested in the question of the nature of mind as embodied as such but also with more specific questions about the nature of expertise and practical intelligence. However, it can be said with some justice that these various researches taken as a whole have contributed to a certain Dreyfusian orthodoxy in which practical intelligence is understood as a non-reflective, spontaneous form of embodied coping that is disrupted if not destroyed by conscious thought.8 It is this last point that I wish to discuss here and while the various contributions to this orthodoxy could be explored one by one, I will be focusing predominantly on Dreyfus’ work, which I believe remains the centrepoint for researches on the nature of practical intelligence. My claims in what follows will be (1) that while initially following the phenomenologists in offering an ontology that goes beyond the dualism of the mental and the physical as separate, he falls back into this dualism in his characterization of expertise as ‘mindless, subjectless coping’ and his all too narrow use of the notion of reflection and, (2) that his examples of practical intelligence are too limited to provide the more comprehensive account of the phenomenon of practical knowledge that he is aiming for.9 Before offering this critique, however, I want to first give a brief account of Dreyfus’ position.

Dreyfus on practical intelligence

The original backdrop for Dreyfus’ researches in this area, as seen in his seminal text What Computers Can’t Do (1972), was his engagement with the A.I. projects of the 1950s and 60s, which in general took as given the idea that human intelligence, in all its forms, was if not identical with, then at least translatable into propositional algorithms. The idea was that intelligent human action from riding a bike to working out complex mathematical equations, could be cashed out in terms of heuristic rules for action which we follow, whether explicitly or not.

Now, the idea that intelligent human agents are information-processing machines was understood as a metaphor to be sure but as one that was close enough to the truth of the matter to act as a template in the attempt to produce an artificial intelligence.

This approach, however, produced nothing but failure. Dreyfus diagnoses this failure by arguing that the very basis of the A.I. project was doomed because its understanding of the nature of human intelligence was simply wrong-headed. His claim was that the three main assumptions of A.I. research regarding intelligence – (1) that the body is non-essential in intelligent action; (2) that intelligence can be made comprehensible in terms of propositional rules for acting and that (3) these rules can be reduced to a manageable number that are then simply applied in significantly similar situations – are all mistaken.

Of course, these assumptions were by no means peculiar to the A.I. research community but represent the main features of the Cartesian legacy of thought about the nature of mind.10 It is a legacy that Dreyfus has tackled and continues to tackle amongst contemporary philosophers also such as John McDowell11 and John Searle12 and which he also challenged inasmuch as it represented the dominant paradigm of skill acquisition amongst practitioners of various kinds.13 In this sense, Dreyfus’ critique has a much broader target than simply A.I. research.

Dreyfus also finds the Cartesian legacy to be adopted more or less uncritically by the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, while he maintains that both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty break significantly with this tradition. What these latter do most essentially is that they renounce the idea that intelligence is ‘in the head’ so to speak and insist rather that intelligence is always embedded and embodied in lived situations. This moves blocks the cogency of the cognitivist hypothesis straight away because of the fact that it locates intelligence in embodied and embedded action and since this location only makes sense in terms of a commitment to the idea of the human mind as transcending14 outward into the world, it is no longer legitimate to think of intelligence in terms of propositional mental states, beliefs or commitments that are only secondarily translated into action. In short, the phenomenologists and Dreyfus reject the idea that intelligent action succeeds the operation of the mind but insist rather that intelligent action is the operation of the mind.

More recently, Dreyfus has also found these ideas confirmed in researches in dynamical systems theory which are compatible with Heideggerian insights inasmuch as they locate intelligence in the interface between agent and world as opposed to thinking of it in terms of the causal determination of mind upon world or vice versa.15 It is interesting to note here, of course, that dynamical systems theory tends to «de-privilege» specifically human intelligence inasmuch as any interfacing system can be considered an example of intelligence. Take, for example, the apparently meandering path of the ant bringing food back to its colony which is neither caused by the terrain nor chosen by the ant in advance but is an example of intelligent coping in which the intelligence is precisely enacted at each step of the way. However, while this de-privileging will become important later, our point for now is simply to emphasize the denial of the claim that practical intelligence entails the application of theoretically articulable rules in worldly situations. The insights of Heidegger and dynamical systems theory entail rather that intelligence should be seen primarily as an interface rather than in terms of uni-directional causality (either in terms of mind to world or world to mind).

However, in terms of the sources that Dreyfus draws upon in developing his account of practical intelligence, it is noteworthy that while Dreyfus’ earlier texts were almost exclusively inspired by Heidegger, his later writings have witnessed a decided shift in favour of Merleau-Ponty as the principal phenomenological inspiration. The reason for this shift is, it seems, the fact that Merleau-Ponty makes the body explicitly pivotal in his account of intelligent action in a way that was never quite as clear with Heidegger.16

Merleau-Ponty, for example, anchors his account of mindful human action in its ordinary mode in the notion of the motor intentionality of the body, which he explicitly distinguishes from explicit propositional intentionality. Dreyfus quotes Merleau-Ponty as saying: «To move one’s body is to aim at things through it; it is to allow oneself to respond to their call, which is made upon it independent of any representation».17

The body, that is, is not the puppet of the thinking subject but the pivot in our interface with the world or the very site in which the gestalting of intelligence takes place. Even more concretely than the Heideggerian insistence of the primacy of the situation, Merleau-Ponty claims that it is the ‘living body in situation’ that is the most primitive enactment of intelligence and it is an enactment that does not need to be activated by a prior will to accomplish something explicitly. Or rather, even if the body’s intelligent acting is first engaged by an explicit intention, it is not to be understood in terms of such intentions once it is underway.18 It is here that the notion of absorbed coping, familiar to any reader of Dreyfus, becomes central. When we are fully engaged in an activity, it is not conscious thought that governs our actions but rather the felt sense of the need to achieve and maintain an equilibrium with the situation at hand. This ‘felt sense’, in its turn, makes greater sense when it is explicitly identified as the province of the body. Thus understood, the world is met as a system of solicitations for action that draw certain responses out of us. The world neither causes us to act nor is it the blank canvas for our intelligent action but is, to use Gibson’s terms, a field of affordances and solicitations in which the body is at home.

In making this point, Merleau-Ponty often contrasts the body’s ‘knowledge’ of the world with the knowledge of the thinking subject when he says that: «In perception, we do not think the object and we do not think ourselves thinking it, we are given over to the object and we merge into this body which is better informed than «we» are about the world.19 This, in turn leads Dreyfus to conclude that,

According to Merleau-Ponty, at the most basic level of being in the world, what does the grasping is not the mind but the body with its non-conceptual coping skills, and what is grasped are not unified, propositional structures that one can observe and entertain in thought, but more or less indeterminate solicitations to act.20

To adapt a phrase of Pascal’s, it is almost as though the body has reasons that ‘reason does not know’ in orienting itself with regard to these solicitations. The body is drawn to a situation of equilibrium that will dispel any tension in the situation in which we find ourselves and this situation is one in which the mind has no governance. Following Merleau-Ponty, Dreyfus calls this sought equilibrium the ‘optimal grip’. In elaborating what this means, Merleau-Ponty offers the example of viewing a painting, where the painting demands in a sense to be viewed at a certain distance.21 This distance is experienced as a kind of goldilocks zone that establishes the appropriate relation between body and object. And Dreyfus asserts that while we often need to physically experiment in order to find the appropriate stance regarding paintings, we are, in ordinary living, simply drawn to the optimal coping point regarding other objects in our surrounding world.22 Thus, when riding a bike or putting up a kitchen shelf, we find ourselves drawn towards the gestalt that minimizes resistance and that allows the performance to proceed with the minimum use of energy,23 something which will in addition allow the performance itself to withdraw from explicit consciousness.

It is important to emphasize that the tension that is annulled in the optimal or maximum grip on the situation is not a tension felt at the reflective level nor is it reflection that annuls it. Since it is the body’s ‘gestalting’ that is at stake, the situation neither is nor can be made propositionally explicit. If we consider also examples such as walking through a crowded street without bumping into others24 or finding the correct distance to take when speaking with another person, it becomes clear that what is at stake are bodily gestalts that have never been explicit at the reflective level. And even when there is a tension felt regarding one’s stance in relation to the painting, it is not the case that reflection solves the issue of where we should stand in order to view the artwork optimally but rather that we begin to experiment with different distances and stances until the correct one is found. At the reflective level, this is the equivalent of guessing while here it is the body itself that conforms and takes over once the correct position is found.

Dreyfus insists that the achievement of the optimal grip leads to a disappearance of the reflecting subject inasmuch as the engaged body simply copes with its situation in a way that requires no input at the reflective level. As he somewhat strongly puts it: «When one is bodily absorbed in responding to solicitations there is no thinking subject and there are no features being thought».25

Now while there is much to be said for this analysis in terms of the abovementioned examples, it is interesting to note that this account of coping is used as a template for all activity that involves absorbed engagement. In his famous study of skill acquisition, for example, Dreyfus – along with his brother Stuart – identified between five and seven stages of involvement that made up the spectrum from new beginner to expert.26 For reasons of space, we will not go into any greater detail as to the details of these different ‘levels’ but it suffices to say that what is at stake is the gradual disappearance of propositional thinking in favour of a more immediate responsiveness to the call of one’s situation. As one becomes an expert, he claims, «the world’s solicitations to act take the place of representations».27 As such, his analysis is claimed as being as valid regarding what might be called post-representational acting (driving, dancing, playing chess etc.) as it is regarding the pre-representational (walking, sitting etc.).

He supports this view with a variety of concrete examples, from Chuck Knoblauch the baseball player28 to the chess Grandmaster who feels his arm move to make the appropriate move before there has been time to critically assess the situation on the board.29 What is key to these examples is that they involve practices which are unlike walking and taking the correct distance in that they must at first have been initiated by an explicit volition and must, furthermore, have remained self-conscious in their earliest execution. However, at some point there is a qualitatively significant transformation in which the reflective orientation simply disappears and a more direct, intuitive coping takes over such that there is «no thinking and no features being thought». The body has simply taken over. While initially different from the earlier examples, this difference is one that disappears at the level of expert performance.

Furthermore, this expertise is not only poorly characterized by reflective thinking but is actually destroyed by it. Dreyfus tells that «mindedness is the enemy of embodied coping»30 and offers as proof of this, the degeneration in performance suffered by Knoblauch when he began to take a reflective distance from what he was doing while playing. The intuitive truth of this warning is supported anecdotally by musicians and sportsmen and women the world over who often speak about being «in the zone», a phrase that seeks to capture an intense engagement that is not characterized by reflection or systematic thinking and which is actually disrupted by the latter.

Dreyfus goes so far as to call this kind of engagement «mindless coping» and maintains that both the subject as thinking and experiencing is absent when the expert body maintains its optimal grip on the situation. Even to speak of a subject of action involves a loose way of speaking that is not supported by the phenomenology of embodied coping, he says. As a result, the optimal grip on a situation entails that coping is not just non-representational but non-experiential31 such that experience like thought, only re-enters the picture on the basis breakdown situations.32 When the pilot, doctor, nurse or manager acts expertly, she achieves and maintains an optimal grip on her situation, which entails neither thinking nor experience properly speaking. This is not to be understood as a permanent state by any means and Dreyfus insists that breakdown experiences which call for the renewed engagement of thinking occur regularly. However, the fact remains that his account of practical intelligent action involves a commitment to the notion of absorbed coping, which itself is understood in terms of the achievement and maintenance of an optimal grip on the situation in which all minding and experiencing are absent. This is as true for navigating a busy street as it is for playing chess or teaching a class.

Problems with Dreyfus’ account

In what remains of this paper, I want to draw out certain problems with this account which, while useful, is, I maintain, (1) ultimately too one-dimensional to provide a robust account of practical intelligence to the point that it (2) tends to betray the phenomenological insights upon which it is originally based. I will say something about the second of these points first since it provides the backdrop for the first point.

Dreyfus is entirely correct when he emphasizes the importance, for Merleau-Ponty, of challenging representationalist prejudices in favour of an account of ordinary coping or comportment in terms of motor intentionality. This insight was crucial to Dreyfus’ critique of A.I. because it blocks the cogency of the claim that intelligence can be recreated algorithmically. Instead, practical intelligence is inconceivable when divorced from the intimate being-at-home-in-the-world that characterizes the human being. This being at home, in its turn, is always embedded and embodied in the sense that practical intelligence is only possible as a complex dialectic of agent and world in which our whole being is implicated.

Hence Merleau-Ponty’s often cited insistence that the body be understood as a third thing, neither spirit nor matter but the co-belonging of the two and his insistence that what is required in making sense of human intelligence is a new ontology that eschews the old dualism of Cartesianism. Dreyfus puts the point elegantly when he says that,

Motor intentionality has…a kind of being that is not a combination of the physical and the mental, but rather a direct way of responding appropriately to the solicitations of the environment in which the agent is inextricably embedded.33

And yet in spite of this admirable commitment, Dreyfus tends consistently to conflate the intellectualism that Merleau-Ponty opposes with the notion of the mental in general. That is, Dreyfus tends to consign any and all reference to the mental in accounts of action to the intellectualist camp.34 Merleau-Ponty, that is, opposes the idea that intelligent action can only be intelligent if it is guided by conscious representational thinking but he does so in order to offer a different account of the mental which makes space for the mindedness of motor intentionality.35 It is clear, for example, that when Merleau-Ponty contrasts the body’s knowledge of the world with the reflecting I’s knowledge, he means this not as a contrast between the body and the subject but as a formulation of the meaning of the body-subject.

Mind, for Merleau-Ponty, is not to be understood as the production of evolution or as the internal processes of a disembodied subject but as stretching out as bodied into the world36 such that the body’s embeddedness is the zero-point of orientation for the constitution of meaning. This is why Merleau-Ponty interprets afflictions such as Gelb and Goldstein’s patient Schneider’s inability to perform abstract movements not as a mechanistic problem but explicitly as an impairment of mind.37 Bodily coping, like perception is not a mere mechanical access to the raw materials that either determine or is determined by mind but the way in which mind and world are connected in the constitution of meaning. This is the crucial aspect of Merleau-Ponty’s insight into the nature of mind. His point was to re-appropriate what mind means in light of phenomenological insights dealing with the fundamental role of the body in constitution.

This means that mind is understood as operative ‘all the way down’ so to speak in the sense that Merleau-Ponty rejects the dualism of a body given over to the laws of nature which is only rational to the extent that it is governed by reason and equally the idea that mind can only be spoken of in relation to such explicit interventions.38 Dreyfus is exactly right when he says that absorbed coping «presupposes the body’s background skill of maintaining and improving its optimal grip on the world»39 but for Merleau-Ponty, this is a statement of the all embracing presence of the mental in life and gives expression to his commitment to the deep intertwining of mind and nature.40 One of the central insights of the phenomenological tradition is that our engagement with the world is intelligent before we come to reflect upon it so that we do not need to be in reflective mode in order to engage intelligently. And even when we do reflect, we never suspend the operative background intentionality that is decisive for our meaningful existence. As such, any attempt to ground intelligent action on the basis of decision alone will be the philosophical equivalent of a dog chasing its own tail with the result that this attempt will prevent the kind of engagement it seeks to vouchsafe.

This explains the deleterious effect of the attempt to bring every dimension of our engagement with the world to a certain kind of explicit reflective clarity while we are acting. This was perhaps the problem for Knoblauch41 just as it is true that when we become conscious of how we are standing in relation to others, or what we are doing while driving etc. that we are likely to err. In such contexts acting becomes awkward to be sure. However, the problem is not that it is thoughtful, as Dreyfus claims in a somewhat unnuanced way, but that it is inappropriately thoughtful. He is right to suggest that reflecting explicitly or propositionally on what one is doing while one is doing it is not optimal for peak performance but surely this is only one way – and a rather unusual one at that – of being thoughtful or reflective? The kind of reflection that Dreyfus’ uses universally is closer to what might be called a hyper-reflective42 kind of mindfulness and the reason that it is problematic is that involves the attempt to transform one form of minded engagement into another one which is not appropriate to the action in question.

But if the problem is not with mindfulness or even reflection as such but only with certain forms of these, then we might well wonder why Dreyfus insists on calling this kind of absorbed coping ‘mindless’? The implication is that absorbed coping is not a mindful form of world engagement but something pre-mindful, into which mind is only introduced if something goes wrong. That Dreyfus does this can only be explained by assuming that while he follows Merleau-Ponty’s rejection of intellectualism, he simultaneously and paradoxically gives tacit approval to what the notion of mind means in the intellectualist or cognitivist tradition. In a short text by Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenologist summarizes the point of his work by stating that,

I have tried, first of all, to re-establish the roots of mind in its body and in its world, going against doctrines that treat perception as a simple result of the action of external things on our body as well as those which insist on the autonomy of consciousness.43

His work was intended, in other words, to show that rational agency or mind is operative even at the level of the motor intentional such that there is a continuity between motor intentional action and higher forms of rational world engagement. This insight is paradoxically reversed in the Dreyfusian account of coping as mindless where motor intentionality comes to stand for an almost self-enclosed system that is the other of rational agency. This is the precise opposite of what Merleau-Ponty intended because instead of seeing in the most basic of motoric operations the presence of mind, Dreyfus seems to argue for the removal of mind in even the highest of human pursuits. That is, he rightly insists that intelligent action cannot be reduced to representations or propositional thinking but then seems to suggest that since is all that could possibly be meant by the notion of mind that the latter notion (mind) itself must be inappropriate to the discussion of practical intelligence. This is deeply problematic because while Merleau-Ponty’s own analysis was meant to show that mind manifests itself as and through the body, Dreyfus seems to conclude that the body is itself a knowing thing that is unminded.44 It is difficult to understand what this could mean. Furthermore, it suggests a return to the dualistic split between mind and body that the discussion was originally intending to avoid. What I mean by this can be seen if we think of an example such as the patient Schneider that Merleau-Ponty refers to or to Aleksandr Luria’s patient Zasetsky.45 Both of these struggles to accomplish the most basic of coping tasks because they find themselves needing to think through their relationship to space and even their own bodies following brain injury.46 The point illuminated by such cases is that theoretical or explicit minding cannot be substituted without further ado for embodied minding because they engage the world in different ways. However, for Merleau-Ponty, and for Luria too, what is at stake is two deployments of mind rather than a conflict between mind and body.47

I, for one, am not convinced of the phenomenological legitimacy of the claim that unless I am reflecting propositionally on what I am doing, that my action cannot be considered minded. It seems to me, then, that Dreyfus goes too far when he says that,

Coping can be interrupted at any moment by a transformation that results in an experience of stepping back from the current flow of current coping. I then retroactively attach an «I think» to the coping and take responsibility for my actions. But in the experience itself no «I» was present nor was there an experience of my body as separate from the network of solicitations drawing actions out of it.48

On Dreyfus’ account, absorbed coping comes to amount to a kind of blackout experience in which the subject simply disappears in acting. And while it is certainly true that absorbed coping is not explicitly reflective, it is not blackout either.

As such, I would suggest that Dreyfus betrays the impetus of Merleau-Ponty’s work on motor intentionality by amputating the context in which the original discussion inheres. That is to say that while Merleau-Ponty is interested in reworking the meaning of the notions of subjectivity and mind against cognitivist/intellectualist prejudices, Dreyfus ultimately loses sight of this context and simultaneously accepts that the minded subject can only mean what the cognitivist takes her to mean with the result that the minded subject is somehow removed from the account of absorbed coping.49

Of course, Dreyfus never claims to accept the cognitivist definition of mind and it is unlikely that he would recognise his own work in this way but how else can his insistence on mindlessness and subjectlessness be interpreted? Instead of allowing cases like the Knoblauch and other examples to further the Merleau-Pontyian argument as to the extension of mind, Dreyfus seems to favour understanding embodied coping on the model of a mindless autonomic system. Embodied coping comes increasingly to resemble the body’s regulation of heart rate, temperature and breathing as actions that are vaguely mine but over which I have no real control. This understanding of coping as mindless and non-conscious seems to me to constitute ignoring the entire orientation of Merleau-Ponty’s studies of motoricity while claiming them as inspiration.

This leads us to our second objection which has to do with a certain thinness in Dreyfus’ choice of example. After all, one could counter the previous objection by stating that this is merely matter of terminology and that the unfortunate language of mindlessness and subjectlessness could be removed to leave an account that is practically indistinguishable from Merleau-Ponty’s own and much truer to the phenomena. This retort would suggest that practical intelligence is mindless and subjectless only in a certain limited sense (i.e. the intellectualist sense) such that it need not to be taken to imply the kind of blackout experience I suggested.

I do not find this retort convincing since it can only be purchased at the expense of admitting that Dreyfus is using the terms mind, subject and experience in imprecise and unphenomeological ways and the result of this imprecision is that the bathwater of general mindfulness is thrown out with the baby of propositional reflection. But even if we were to entertain this suggestion, there remains a deeper problem which has to do with the fact that Dreyfus uses examples such as the gestalting required of the body in order to sit in a chair or taking the appropriate distance from interlocutors as template examples to understand practical intelligent action more generally.

I have argued that even such cases are, on the Merleau-Pontyian model, examples of the mindedness of all human meaningful engagement with the world. However, it is clear that such actions are minded in a somewhat minimal way in the sense that they proceed without perhaps ever becoming reflectively explicit for us. The fact is, simply, that they do not need to be. We have seen, though, that Dreyfus considers such examples to be paradigmatic in his discussion of intelligent action such that the Grandmaster’s intuitive gestalt of the chess game etc. is understood as similar in all important respects to the business of sitting successfully on chairs. While the Grandmaster must have originally viewed the game of chess as something outside of herself which was only accessible through rules and explicit strategies, it gradually began to become situated within the network of solicitations with which her body was merged leading to the disappearance of mind from the equation. Once again, coping is understood along the lines of an autonomic system.

The question which we must consider is whether this assimilation is really all that helpful. Otherwise put, we can ask whether all cases of absorbed coping are sufficiently similar to justify using one kind of example as representative of the entire class. It is difficult for the present writer to comment with any credibility on the experience of the chess Grandmaster but there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the kind of spontaneous gestalting of the situation to which Dreyfus refers happens only in certain kinds of situations, namely, when playing mid-level opponents who are familiar with various strategies but apply them in a somewhat programmatic way. When the Grandmaster comes up against an opponent with sufficient skill to beat her, her attentive orientation towards the game changes accordingly and it is, in fact, only in these latter kinds of situations that she can be said to perform at the expert level. The transformation is not a reversion back to thinking explicitly about the rules of chess but it is not blind spontaneity either. It involves, instead, a deep, focused attention on the situation at hand.50 In fact, the reason that the Grandmaster can play with so little reflective engagement in the case that Dreyfus cites is because her opponent is applying pre-ordained strategies in a programmatic and predictable way. In other words, the opponent is playing like a basic computer programme.

But take an even more mundane example, namely the business of teaching. Teaching situations can at times be characterized by self-conscious self-presence, which may be owing to inexperience, poor preparation, or lack of acquaintance with the material or the audience. In such situations, one thinks very carefully and clearly about what one is saying and the extent to which one is following the lecture plan etc.

But at other times, teaching has the character of absorbed coping in which the Merleau-Pontyian notion of the optimal grip is eminently appropriate. But what is the nature of the situation or context in which one finds oneself and what kind of character does the absorbed coping have? I would suggest that the context here comprises the intersection of a variety of contexts in which the absorbed coping inheres. We are not performing an action like sitting or walking but teaching material with which we are familiar to 2nd year undergraduates who have previously expressed difficulty with the course work, at a University which is considering shutting down its Humanities section and so on.

Now the nature of absorbed coping here still involves a sense of simply being in the situation and responding quickly and fluidly to its demands. However, in such situations, this means explaining ideas or concepts as well as reading the faces of the students for clues as to whether the class is moving too quickly, too slowly, whether they are bored or engaged etc. There is little or no explicit reflection upon what one is doing, one simply acts. But at the same time, this is a form of expertise which is explicitly reflective in kind in the sense that it is a reflective relationship to the situation that characterizes the expertise in this case.51 We can maintain a distinction, of course, between reflection in action and reflection upon the acting (the latter of which is indeed disruptive) but it seems clear that we are dealing with a situation that is significantly different in kind to the paradigmatic cases used by Dreyfus.52

In our teaching example, the gestalt is made up of reading the faces of the students, finding the right words and using texts and examples optimally, as well as balancing the need to make the material accessible with the need to do justice to the ideas in question. In other words, there is a variety of different subcontexts which together make up the import of the situation, which include the motor intentional, linguistic, the social, the ethical and so on. But as such, this kind of situation is surely significantly different from coping at the level of motor intentionality. There is without doubt a feel for what the situation affords and solicits and it is a feeling or a coping that will indeed be destroyed by the intervention of explicitly reflective thinking and which can also be destroyed by a felt sense of a tension in the situation – ‘the students don’t understand’, ‘I expressed my point poorly’, and so on. However, far from being mindless, such coping seems to involve a heightened sense of oneself as minded inasmuch as the situation calls for an intensely minded attention to what is going on. In other words, absorbed coping in situations such as this should better be understood as a sense of mindful self-presence that transcends programmatic reflective thinking by better integrating the agent as a unitary whole in action. The reason that this is so, I would suggest, is that such situations involve a complex and multi-faceted navigation of levels and spheres of meaning that testify to a uniquely human sense of the embeddedness of mind.

What is taking place, then, is not mindless coping as an intelligent coping occurring beneath the threshold of conscious attention but rather an intense form of conscious situational attention that is reducible to neither a rationality purified of bodily or other affectivity, nor to an absorbed automatism but which involves a form of acting that is absorbed, self-present and thoughtful. So while there is an important sense in which coping at the motor level provides an important clue to understanding coping generally, it must be understood as a metaphor with significant limitations. In too many of Dreyfus’ analyses of absorbed coping, there is a tendency towards a flattening of the meaning of absorption in which the metaphor of the motoric almost forgets itself as such. Interestingly enough, Dreyfus acknowledges this point in a footnote in one of his texts where he states that

Thinking of all absorbed coping as moving to reduce a tension and so reach equilibrium is obviously an oversimplification. Some absorbed coping, like carrying on a conversation, does not seem to be governed by a tendency to reduce tension. The Freeman/Merleau-Ponty model applies best to the basic skills we have for getting around in the world.53

This is quite a telling admission but it is not a problem that Dreyfus does enough to tackle. The fact of the matter is that he continues to present all cases of practical intelligence as similar in all relevant senses to the kinds of motor skills required in finding our way around the world. This is problematic, I have argued, because it is highly reductive in terms of the way in which human absorbed coping occurs. Not only does Dreyfus’ analysis designate such coping as mindless, leading to a radical split between the mindful and the mindless but, as a consequence of this, cannot offer a sufficiently nuanced analysis of the various ways in which coping can be mindful. Even the relation to the propositional becomes problematic on this model because it tends to think of the propositional as entirely opposed to coping. While it is of course legitimate to refuse the reduction of coping to propositional attitudes, it is possible to suggest that embedded and embodied practical intelligence can, at its height, involve the integration of the propositional in a higher context of meaning that is the context for the sense which the propositional orientation has in the first place.

This kind of example is, I suggest, crucially important to any account of practical knowledge or intelligence since it involves the enactment of intelligence in concrete situations in a way that is responsive, embedded, embodied and thoughtful. But it is precisely these kinds of examples that are so short-changed in Dreyfus’ account of coping because of the fact that his enmity to the language of thought or the mental leads him into a kind of fetishism of the body where he favours examples of practical coping that fail to distinguish between animal coping generally and the specifically human and then goes on to make these examples paradigmatic for the discussion of practical intelligence generally. The optimal grip experienced in teaching a class is importantly different from that of sitting upright in a chair since it involves the engagement of capacities that are more uniquely human such that it involves the greater experience of ourselves as human. Even our sense of ourselves as bodied is to be understood as a uniquely human sense of embodiment in such cases in the sense that the bodily features of the situation are felt as imbued with meaning. This last claim is by no means intended to belittle the embodiment of animals or the animality of human embodiment but only to claim that there is in human embodiment something that transcends this.

Of course, more needs to be said to develop this last point about the specific nature of human embodiment and its importance for an account of the experience of intelligent coping but it is hoped that we have at least made a convincing case for the need for further research in this area.

1Wrathall, M. A., & Malpas, J.: Heidegger, coping and cognitive science. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.
2Benner, P.: From novice to expert. Menlo Park, Calif.: Addison-Wesley, 1984.
3Clark, A.: Supersizing the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
4Noë, A.: Action in perception. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.
5Gallagher, S.: How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.
6Bateson, G.: Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000
7Gibson, J. J.: The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
8Montero, B.: «Does bodily awareness interfere with highly skilled movement?» in Inquiry, 2010, 53(2), 105-122.
9Throughout this text, I will be using the phrase ‘practical knowledge’ as the topic under discussion. While this is not a designation that Dreyfus himself uses, he does intend his account of absorbed coping to provide a model for all practical, intelligent action and since such action is also what I mean by practical knowledge, I claim that the designation is justified.
10It might be better to follow David Morris in calling such features crypto-Cartesian instead of simply Cartesian, inasmuch as it is possible and even likely that such characterizations do an injustice to the historical Descartes. See Morris, D.: «Empirical and Phenomenological Studies of Embodied Cognition» in Gallagher, S. & D. Schmicking (Eds.), Handbook of phenomenology and cognitive science. Dordrecht, Springer, 2010. p. 236. However, for reasons of economy, I will continue to refer to the dualistic account of mind as Cartesian.
11See, Dreyfus, H. L.: «The return of the myth of the mental», in Inquiry, 2007, 50(4), 352-365 (henceforth Dreyfus 2007a), and also Dreyfus, H. L. «Response to McDowell» in the same number:. 371-377 (henceforth Dreyfus 2007b).
12Dreyfus, H. L.: «A Merleau-Pontyian critique of Husserl's and Searle's representationalist accounts of action», in Proceedings of the Aristotelean Society, 2000, 100(1), 287-302.
13Dreyfus, H. L., & Dreyfus, S. E.: Mind over machine: the power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. New York: Free Press, 1986.
14This terminology is explicitly Heideggerian. When Heidegger speaks of the human being or Dasein as transcending, he means only that consciousness is always inextricably bound up in its engagements in and with the world. In other words, the point is to deny the legitimacy of the Cartesian doubt about whether or not the mind can know the world. It is senseless to speak of a world that is not for consciousness nor of a consciousness that is not worlded such that he insists that the greatest scandal of modern philosophy is not that it has failed to solve the Cartesian mind/body problem but that it has continued to take it seriously. See Heidegger, M.: Being and time. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962. p. 249.
15See Dreyfus 2000. Also Dreyfus, H. L.: «Merleau-Ponty and Recent Cognitive Science», in Carman, T. & M. B. N. Hansen (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Merleau-Ponty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 129-50; see also Haugeland, J.: «Mind Embodied and Embedded», in Haugeland, J. (Ed.), Having thought: essays in the metaphysics of mind. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
16In fact, Dreyfus is highly critical of Heidegger’s attempt to derive spatiality from temporality in §70 of Sein und Zeit. See Dreyfus, H. L.: «Heidegger's History of the Being of Equipment», in Dreyfus, H.L. & H. Hall (Eds.), Heidegger: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. p. 182; See also Heidegger, 1962, pp. 418-421.
17Merleau-Ponty, M.: Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge, 2012.Cited in Dreyfus, 2000, p. 293.
18That is to say that while I may consciously decide to ride my bike to the shop to buy milk, the riding itself will not be characterized by a series of decisions concerning where to place my feet, how to move them, what to attend to on the road etc. See Dreyfus, 2000, p. 294
19Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 248.
20Dreyfus, 2007a, p. 359
21Merleau-Ponty, 2012, p. 316
22Dreyfus, 2005, p. 137
23Dreyfus, 2000, p. 206
24Dreyfus, H. L.: On the internet. London: Routledge, 2009. p. 19-20.
25Dreyfus, 2007b, p. 358
26Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986
27Dreyfus, 2005, pp. 131-132
28Dreyfus, 2007a, p. 354
29Dreyfus, 2007b, p. 374
30Dreyfus, 2007a, p. 353
31Ibid. p. 358
32See Dreyfus, H. L.: «Response to Romdenh-Romluc», in Baldwin, T. (Ed.), Reading Merleau-Ponty: on Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge, 2007. Henceforth Dreyfus 2007c.
33Dreyfus, 2000, p. 302
34See for example his debate with John McDowell in which he warns explicitly against assigning any role to ‘the mental’ in accounts of practical coping (Dreyfus, 2007a, 2007b).
35Incidentally, the difference between my Merleau-Pontyian challenge to Dreyfus and the challenge of McDowell can be seen on directly this point. While there is much to admire in McDowell’s critique of Dreyfus, he remains committed to the idea that it is only language using animals that can be said to know the world. See McDowell, J.: «What Myth?», in Inquiry, 2007, 50(4), 338-351, p. 348. Henceforth McDowell 2007a. Merleau-Ponty, to be sure, draws important parallels between embodiment and language but he would most likely not subscribe to McDowell’s identification of the rational with the conceptual. On Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the relationship between language and embodiment, see Merleau-Ponty, M.: The prose of the world. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1981.
36Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 132.
37Ibid. p. 127.
38I am thinking here of something like Plato’s image of the chariot driver that must tame the wild energies of the physical. Cf. Phaedrus.
39Dreyfus, 2007a, p. 362
40Merleau-Ponty, M.: The structure of behavior. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1983. p. 2.
41Although this has been disputed. See Montero, 2010, p. 112.
42This phrase is borrowed from Louis Sass’ characterization of the nature of schizophrenic suffering. See Sass, L. A.: Madness and modernism. New York: BasicBooks, 1992. p. 8.
43Merleau-Ponty, M.: The primacy of perception and other essays on phenomenological psychology, the philosophy of art, history and politics. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964. p. 3-4.
44In relation to this point McDowell’s accusation that Dreyfus violates the principle of parsimony is not without force. See McDowell, J.: «Response to Dreyfus», in Inquiry, 2007, 50(4), 366-370, p. 369. Henceforth McDowell 2007b.
45See Lurija’s fascinating account of the lived significance of brain injury in Lurija, A. R.: The man with a shattered world : a history of a brain wound. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975.
46Ibid., p. 46; See also Merleau-Ponty, 2012, p. 106
47See for example, Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of habit which, he says, demands that we «rework our notion of understanding and of the body». Merleau-Ponty, 2012, p. 146.
48Dreyfus, 2007a, p. 356
49Dreyfus, 2007b, p. 373
50On this see Csikszentmihalyi, M.: Flow : the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008; and also Montero 2010.
51A similar point is made by Rodrigo Ribeiro when he questions the tendency to identify expertise with manual skill. His example is that of an architect observationally assessing the placement of tiles on a building. Ribeiro, R.: «Levels of immersion, tacit knowledge and expertise», in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, (2013 forthcoming).
52This is possibly a little unfair to Dreyfus inasmuch as he is not the only one to focus on such «basic» motoric examples. This point has been taken up recently by Harry Collins when he questions whether examples such as bike-riding should really be used as exhaustive in these contexts. Collins, H. M.: Tacit and explicit knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. p. 11.
53See Dreyfus, 2000, p. 296n. The Freeman referred to here is Walter J. Freeman, a neuroscientist colleague of Dreyfus who used dynamical systems theory to counter representationalist claims in neuroscience.

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