Practical wisdom without rationality

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For Dreyfus, absorbed coping is possible only when a skill is fully integrated into the subjects way of being-in-the-world. By contrast, less-than-absorbed, less-than-embodied, less-than-embedded action is not yet truly chosen in this way; it is not yet fully, autonomously purposive or intentional because it has not yet become part of you.

This thought may help us to see how Dreyfus could respond to the philosophical orthodoxy that the concept of acting for a reason deserves a central place in any philosophical account of what it is to act intentionally.This assumption accounts for the dominance of the Standard Story of intentional action as bodily movement that is caused by an intention: for how can one act for a reason without having this reason somewhere “in mind”? And what would it be to act for this reason—as opposed to another one that is also in mind—except for this reason to make an appropriate (presumably, causal) difference to what one does?’

Dreyfus’ account seems at first especially unable to account for these aspects of everyday action-explanation. If a person’s mental states are not involved in causing her intentional actions, then there does not seem to be anything there to ground an intention-revealing answer to the question “Why did you do that?” Compounding the problem, Dreyfus frequently presents his views in a way that suggests that he is denying a role to the agent in choosing, causing, or generating her own actions.6 For example in “A Merleau-Pontian Critique of Husserl’s and Searle’s Representationalist Accounts of Action,” he says:

Merleau-Ponty argues that what we might call absorbed coping does not require that the agent’s movements be governed by an intention in action that represents ... what the agent is trying to achieve. Rather, in absorbed coping the agent’s body is led to move so as to reduce a sense of deviation from a satisfactory gestalt without the agent knowing what that satisfactory gestalt will be like in advance of achieving it. Thus, in absorbed coping, rather than a sense of trying to achieve success, one has a sense of being drawn towards an equilibrium.

2000: 293

In passages like this one, experts start to seem like zombies, or like iron filings in the presence of so many magnets. And if so then the Anscombean question “Why did you do that?” might seem, as she put it, to be appropriately “refused application” (Anscombe 1963: 11) in any case of absorbed coping—in which case it is not at all clear that anything distinguishes the intentional from the non- or un-intentional on Dreyfus’ account.

Let us attempt to address this concern on Dreyfus’ behalf. The phenomena, he will insist, as opposed to any grammatical test, are the criteria that must distinguish intentional expert coping from other ways of being-in-the-world. And in many cases this is plausible. It is easy, for example, to think of ways in which the actions of an expert differ characteristically from the actions of a novice or an incompetent bungler. For Dreyfus, the real challenge is the automaton. How can we distinguish, on phenomenological grounds alone, between the absorbed, expert coper, and the absent-minded person who is operating on autopilot?

Let us consider the question in the context of a specific example. Suppose that on Monday you drive your manual transmission sedan to work along your usual route.You are relaxed and well-slept, and your cell phone is tucked away in your bag.You keep your eyes on the road, you don’t grind the gears, and you push it with the yellow lights just as much as you feel is wise, no more, no less. Now it is Tuesday. Overtired and engaged in a voice-texting argument with your spouse, you grind the gears several times getting into second, need to slam on the brakes at least once to avoid running a red, and pull in to your spot with the gas light on only to realize that on Tuesdays you have a standing appointment across town and you ought not to have been driving to work in the first place.

As with Dreyfus’ favorite comparison between the deft and sure activity of the expert and the hesitant and fumbling behavior of the novice, there are many familiar differences in the phenomenology of these two scenarios, from both the first- and the third-person perspectives. On Monday, you are coping in an absorbed, expert fashion under a number of descriptions: shifting gears, driving to work, being a defensive driver, etc. Similar to our earlier discussion of the expert philosopher, as you do these things your focus, your attention is on what you are doing under these descriptions. On this particular morning, the focus of your absorbed attention is on navigating the roads, shifting your gears, getting to work in a timely manner. There will be phenomena characteristic of being engaged in doing these things, and ways that another person who is engaged in observing you closely might be able to tell that you are doing them in an absorbed, expert way. Your passenger might notice, for example, that there is never a lurch in momentum when you shift from second to third gear. They may hear a small chuckle or see you lean forward slightly when you hit a yellow light at just the right moment to justify a small burst of speed. They may pick up on the fact that you are relaxed.

On Tuesday, what are you doing? You are certainly absorbed in something. But what? Not the same things you were absorbed in the morning before. Instead, your focus is on something else: the voice-texting argument, resentment about your lack of sleep, and the glowing gas light on the dashboard. These things command your attention and assume the place of proximal nodes in your net, embedding you in the world a quite different way as compared to the way you were embedded on Monday, when the gear shifter, the road, the overall drive were your proximal nodes. On Tuesday, distracted and distanced from the driving-related activities, you grind the gears.You fail to time the lights well.You do not drive where you set out to go. And the phenomenology' of these activities will be very different from the phenomenology of what were in some sense the same activities during Monday’s drive, both from a first-person perspective (the stress, the sweaty palms, the constant guilty peeking to proofread the latest voice-texted zinger before hitting send) and from a third-person perspective (the palpable tension, the vehicular lurches, the conspicuous absence of chuckles, the eyes on the dash and the phone more than the road, etc.).

On the phenomenological account that we have just sketched, it is not as if absorbed, attentive defensive driving is reason-involving in a way that driving distractedly is not. For each of these activities is in its own way embodied and embedded in the world, and thus absorbed in its own set of practical problems. And this similarity is what gave rise to the concern that there is no room within Dreyfus’ account for answering Anscombe’s “special sense of the question ‘Why?’.” But the subject in this example is absorbed in very different things on Monday and Tuesday, and the phenomenology of their activities manifests this difference. We can say: the drive on Monday is an example of expert Dreyfusian intentional action; it is expert absorbed coping. The drive on Tuesday is not an example of expert Dreyfusian intentional action, though the voice-texting argument might be. We suspect that anybody who thinks that the phenomenology of these two cases will be first- or third-personally indistinguishable has no direct experience of the relevant sort.

We also acknowledge that some reservations about Dreyfus’ views will persist to whatever extent his interlocutors remain in the grip of the Platonic picture of humankind (and we include ourselves in this). For if our conception of intentionality is that it is essentially conceptual, representational, and self-aware, then naturally any view to the contrary will seem to lose the phenomenon of intentionality itself. And the same goes for agency, for agents and their purposive activity. But if Dreyfus had meant simply to reject or refute the Platonic picture of human mentality, he would have had no need to recruit the vocabulary and conceptual frames of phenomenology' to do so. He could have simply adopted the stance of skeptic, so to speak from inside the Platonic tradition, arguing that rationality, individuality, and agency are not characteristics of human beings. Instead, Dreyfus sought to save the practical phenomena, and to focus attention on a very different way of understanding ourselves: as embedded, absorbed, and embodied beings. And this implies that he believed the phenomena of purposive human practical life are there to be saved. The embedded subject still interacts with her world; she is not merely acted upon.The absorbed coper still strives purposively, and can succeed (or fail) to achieve what she aims to achieve. The embodied coper still attends to her world and comports herself in a way that is informed by intelligent appreciation of that world. For Dreyfus, practical intelligence is not an illusion. It is, as we put it earlier, sovereign over all other forms of intelligence, and that is why the former cannot be satisfyingly explained in terms of the latter. It remains for us to work with the materials he offered to see whether we can make sense of absorbed intentionality in terms that he would have found acceptable.


  • * This chapter is dedicated, with deep gratitude, to the memory of Hubert L. Dreyfus. We are grateful to an audience at the 2017 Southeastern Epistemology Conference, held at Florida State University, for helpful feedback on an earlier draft.
  • 1 See also Dreyfus (1991), (2000), and (2014; especially Chapters 1 and 9). Dreyfus’ interpretation of Heidegger is controversial and often idiosyncratic; for more on this see Braver (2011: 145fF.),Wrathall (2014), and W rathall and Malpas (2000a, 2000b). On the self as a node in a net, compare Arne Naess (1973), who was also influenced by Heidegger.
  • 2 Notably, in her seminal work Intention G. E. M. Anscombe flatly rejects each of (A) through (D).The language of knowledge without observation, in contrast, is due to her (1963(1957]: 13).
  • 3 However, for some critical discussion of this sort of argument see Schwenkler (2019: 22—4,44—5).
  • 4 As Sean Kelly puts it.

just as the child assumes that the refrigerator light must always be on, since it is on every time he looks, so too our proposed analyst has claimed that since the intention to type an / is explicit when the subject is paying attention to his activity, so too it must have been among the conditions that characterized the content of the activity even when he was not paying attention to it. This is a bad principle in the case of absorbed activity, just as in the case of refrigerator lights.

  • 2005: 20
  • 5 As Davidson famously put it, unless we treat reason-giving explanations as causal “we are without an analysis of the ‘because’ in ‘He did it because ...’, where we go on to name a reason” (1980: 11).
  • 6 See Braver (2011), Noe (2013), and Gehrman (2016).


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Aristotle (2001) Nicomachean Ethics, trans. C. Rowe, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Braver, L. (2011) “Never Mind: Thinking of Subjectivity in the Dreyfus-McDowell Debate,” in J. Schear (ed.), Mind, Reason and Being-in-the-World: The McDoivell-Dreyfus Debate, London: Routledge, pp. 143—62.

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----(2016) “Practical Wisdom and Absorbed Coping,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 50: 593—612.

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Noe, A. (2013) Action in Perception, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Searle, J. (1983) Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. VellemanJ. D. (1992) “What Happens When Someone Acts?” Mind 101(403): 461-81.

Wrathall, M. (2014) “Introduction: Hubert Dreyful and the Phenomenology of Human Intelligence”, in M. Wrathall (ed.), Skillful Coping: Essays on the Phenomenology of Everyday Perception and Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-22.

Wrathall, M., and Malpas, J. (2000a) Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity: Essays in Honor of Hubert. L. Dreyfus,Volume 1, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

----- (2000b) Heidegger, Coping, and Cognitive Science: Essays in Honor of Hubert. L. Dreyfus, Volume 2, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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