The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Setting the stage with the example of driving

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Setting the stage with the example of driving

On Dreyfus’s view, we perform best when we neither think, nor even do, but rather merely let ourselves be drawn into action. This happens, as he sees it, when we adeptly perform our everyday activities, such as opening familiar doors or climbing the stairs, as well as when professionals who are considered experts in their fields perform activities in their domain of expertise. For both the layperson climbing a flight of stairs and the expert musician, chess player, and nurse at work, years of practice have hewn their actions into smooth, seamless wholes that can be performed – and indeed are best performed – without the actor reflecting on or deliberating over what is to be done, and, as we have seen, in a sense, without the individual doing anything at all.

Besides chess, he illustrates his view by discussing an activity with which many might be more familiar, namely, driving.133 In work with his brother, Stuart Dreyfus, he describes the actions of the expert driving as follows:
The expert driver, generally without any attention, not only knows by feel and familiarity when an action such as slowing down is required; he knows how to perform the action without calculating and comparing alternatives. He shifts gears when appropriate with no awareness of his acts. On the off ramp his foot simply lifts off the accelerator. What must be done, simply is done. (2004, p. 253)
Beginners, according to Dreyfus and Dreyfus, “make judgments using strict rules and features, but with talent and a great deal of involved experience, the beginner develops into an expert who sees intuitively what to do without applying rules and making judgments at all” (ibid.). In accord with the just-do-it maxim, the expert doesn’t think, but just does what needs to be done.

Elsewhere, Dreyfus claims that “mindedness is the enemy of expert coping,” where by “mindedness,” he means the gamut of mental processes (thought, reflection, deliberation, attention, and so forth), and by “expert coping,” he means not being an expert at coping, in the sense of being an expert at doing merely OK (as in “I’m coping”), but rather, being able to perform in a smooth, efficient, effortless and highly accurate manner. He also refers to this as “involved” or “absorbed coping”. Expert coping is exemplified, according to Dreyfus, in our everyday actions, such tying our shoes or (for experienced drivers) driving in normal conditions, as well as in the kinds of actions performed by experts, such as world-class athletes and chess players in their moments of glory (2007a: p. 355). It is not that he sees an expert’s actions as always “nonminded.” He does not deny, for example, that world-class chess players deliberate over their moves in situations when their expert intuition – which he sees as immediate and unreflective – fails to provide the right move (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986). However, when performing at their best, according to Dreyfus, the actions of the grand-master chess player are no more based on deliberation than your movements when you go to open a familiar door.

Dreyfus makes a number of related points here, all of which individually could be seen as supporting various restricted versions of the just-do-it maxim: Experts proceed without attention to what they are doing; experts do not calculate or compare alternatives; experts are arational134 (they are not in a position to justify their actions); they act spontaneously (they proceed without deliberation); and they rely on neither rules nor standards to decide on or justify their actions. To add to this, he also claims that experts act “intuitively,” which, for Dreyfus, involves “the understanding that effortlessly occurs upon seeing similarities with previous experiences” (1986: p. 28 and passim), and that “expert coping [is]. . . direct and unreflective” which he takes to be the same as “nonconceptual and nonminded” (2007a: p. 355). Taken together, these points add up to a fairly extreme version of just-do-it, for they leave very little, if any, room in occurent expert action for the mind at all.

To address Dreyfus’s argument for this extreme view as it applies to chess, as well as McDowell’s less extreme position, let me categorize the central questions as follows: (1) Can expert chess players proceed just as well when they are not attending to (focusing on) the game? (2) Do expert players rely on neither rules nor standards to decide on or justify their actions? (3) Do they proceed, as Dreyfus holds, without deliberation and thought (for example, without calculation, comparing of alternatives, reflection)? Or is such deliberation and thought, as McDowell holds, typically only implicit? (4) Are their actions based on intuitive, arational responses to a situation (that is, are their actions effortless, nonconceptual, arational responses that occur upon seeing similarities to previous experiences)? Affirmative answers to these questions support various just-do-it principles, while negative answers tell against such principles.

In sum, the answers I provide are as follows: (1) Dreyfus has not made a convincing case for the view that expert chess players proceed just as well, if not better, when they do not attend to the game; (2) The rules of the game are usually not consciously present, yet sophisticated heuristic rules may be consciously employed; moreover, contrary to Dreyfus’s suggestion that the rules are not in the mind at all, chess players can readily accesses them; (3) experts deliberate, often explicitly, even in speed chess, but not over everything; and (4) their best actions are not grounded in intuitive responses, if intuitions are seen as arational and nonconceptual. However, if intuitive responses are seen as both rational and conceptual (though not necessarily declarative), expert-level chess involves not only thought and deliberation, but also intuition.

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