The two organizing questions of this book are: what are skills, and how can we account for their intelligence?
Skill plays an important explanatory role in a number of philosophical theories, from virtue ethics to enactive perception. Presumably, understanding the nature of skill is required for determining whether skills can play the role assigned to them by these theories. However, a substantive theory of skill has never fully been articulated. The goal of this book is to do just that, to produce a theory of skill in action.
The philosophical theory I provide is empirically informed, drawing on evidence from neuroscience, sports psychology, comparative psychology, developmental psychology, and anthropology. The aim of the theory is to provide a metaphysics of skill by identifying and accounting for the bodily but intelligent aspects of skilled action. This is important because skills, when employed by various philosophical accounts, fulfill not merely a causal role but a function that is controlled, flexible, and appropriate. In most cases, however, skills differ from familiar intentional and epistemic states in that their intelligence is displayed primarily in action. The interesting question for any philosophical account of skill, then, is how to account for the dual embodied and cognitive character of skilled actions. The first five chapters of the book attempt to give such an account.
I begin with a definition of skill. The definition is not meant primarily to capture our folk notion of skill (though, of course, it should not run totally counter to it) but, rather, to circumscribe an explanatorily significant scientific and philosophical category. So, if the definition includes phenomena that do not usually count as skills or excludes others that usually do, my approach will be to bite the bullet. The definition is justified by its ability to draw theoretically significant distinctions and by the explanatory power it holds when applied to neighboring fields.
I define skills as functions from intentions to action, that are implemented by control structures that have been developed through practice. Practice requires at least temporarily treating the means, technique, or way in which a skill is performed as an end in itself to be refined, rehearsed, and improved. After defending the connection between skill and practice and also justifying the particular description of practice that I endorse, I move on to investigate the products of practice. That is, to account for what is learned when we learn a skill. I claim that the result of practice is control and I go on to identify three kinds of control that are key to skilled action: strategic control, attentional control, and motor control.
The next three chapters each focus on one of these three kinds of control. For each kind of control, I give a general description of the phenomenon, explain its role in skillful action, give evidence of its development through practice, and its connection to the other kinds of control. Though, in each case, I take care to articulate how the control at issue is intelligent, I am especially concerned to identify both the diachronic and synchronic intelligence of motor control. I take it that thinking of automatic motor routines as intelligent is likely the most controversial claim in these chapters. To end the first part of the book, I give a solution to the interface problem, that is, the problem of how intentional states, which seem to have a format or code that differs from motor representations, interface or integrate substantively and smoothly with the motor representations that implement them. Taken together, these chapters form the heart of my account of skilled action.
One important implication of the theory of skill that I present is that it forces us to rethink our conception of automaticity. This has broad repercussions not only for a theory of skill but for our conception of the mind, generally. After all, philosophers and psychologists often tacitly embrace a dichotomy regarding mental phenomena. On one side are processes they regard as unconscious, implicit, automatic, unintentional, involuntary, procedural, subpersonal, associative, and therefore “unintelligent.” However, what the account of skill that I offer shows is that, with practice, the processes constitutive of skilled actions become both more controlled and more automatic. In becoming more controlled they are also more precise, nuanced, flexible, manipulable and appropriately responsive to the agent’s goals and relevant contextual features. That is, they seem to become more intelligent as they become more automatic. This indicates that our default way of carving up the mind is somehow flawed.
The book concludes by assessing the implications of the theory of skill offered for an account of know how. I’ll maintain that once we have appreciated the different kinds of control constitutive of skilled action, the most reasonable position to hold is a hybrid view of skills where propositions account for strategic control but non-propositional yet intelligent processes comprise attentional and motor control. If a theory of skill has any implications for an account of know how, as I think it should, we should conclude that an intellectualist view of know how holds less explanatory power than a hybrid view.
In all, this book will be the first comprehensive philosophical account of skill in the literature. The book draws heavily on several of my previously published papers and brings them together to form a coherent account of skill.