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

Expertise as openness to divine inspiration

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Expertise as openness to divine inspiration

Although Eastern ideas have inspired many in the West to see expert action as proceeding without thought and effort, just-do-it has a distinct lineage in Western thought, as seen, for example, in the ancient Greek conception of poets as conduits for the words of the gods. It was not a poet’s thought and effort that gave birth to the great story or turn of phrase. Rather, poets were conceived as merely expressing what came to them from above. When in the opening lines of the Odyssey, Homer proclaims, “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story,” he is, in line with this conception of poetic inspiration, giving credit where he sees credit is due (1961).

Plato also saw poetry and the sort of poetic interpretation performed by rhapsodes (who were individuals who recited and sometimes interpreted poetry) as being divinely inspired, yet he thought that such inspiration was a form of madness and ought to be guarded against. In the dialogue Ion, Socrates claims that “beautiful poems are not human, not even from human beings, but are divine and are from gods; that poets are nothing but representatives of the gods, possessed by whoever possesses them” (Plato 350BCE/1996: 535e). Peter Kivy calls this “Plato’s non-theory of poetic creation,” according to which, as he puts it, “poetry happens to you; you don’t do it” (2001: p. 12)13. On this view, he says, “bright ideas are not generated by acts of will through the application of some ‘method,’ bright ideas just ‘happen’ to people…[rather like an] infectious disease one succumbs to” (ibid.). This is an extreme position. It does not say merely that the poets do not engage in certain types of thoughts when creating poetry, but that in a sense they do not do anything.

Since Plato decried rather than exalted such creation, he is not advocating the normative view that experts ought to just let it happen: yes, expert poets, according to Plato, let the ideas come to them, yet this is not what they, or anyone, should do. However, ignoring the irony of Socrates’s praises, the Romantic poet, Percy Shelley, embraces just-do-it wholeheartedly, interpreting the Ion as a tribute to otherworldly inspiration.14 In Shelley’s own translation of the dialogue, he has Socrates tell us that a poet is,

. . . a thing ethereally light, winged, and sacred, nor can he compose anything worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired, and, as it were, mad, or whilst any reason remains in him. For whilst a man retains any portion of the thing called reason, he is utterly incompetent to produce poetry or to vaticinate. (Shelley 1840/1965: 534b3-6)
Interpreting “genius” as expertise, the idea of the expert’s actions as originating not from the self but from some external force, is well summed up by the American Romantic poet James Russell Lowell’s oft-quoted comment, “talent is that which is in a man’s power: genius is that in whose power a man is” (Brogan 1993, p. 550).

That divine inspiration is a conduit for great actions is brought into the twenty-first century by the contemporary philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly (2011a), who, in their book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to find Meaning in a Secular Age, argue that the most important lesson we can learn from the Ancient Greeks, as they are depicted by Homer, is that meaningful lives are in part the result of individuals performing great actions for which, in the relevant sense, they are not fully responsible. Not going back to a polytheistic picture, nor even, at least explicitly, a theistic one, they argue in a similarly themed article, “Saving the Sacred from the Axial Revolution,” that Homer shows us that “human beings are at their best when they hold themselves open to being called by the gods” (p. 200). And Kelly and Dreyfus think that recognizing the importance of this phenomenon in Homer, in the idea of being open to the call of the gods, will help us recognize what is important about expert action today: “When human beings are acting at their best—in great feats of athleticism or in the composition of the finest poetry, in the activities of life in the everyday world or heroism on the battlefield,” Kelly and Dreyfus tell us, they often feel as if their actions were “drawn out of them, as if they were called to act in the way they did” (ibid.). In their (2011) book, they describe the force that draws action out of someone in this particular way as the “whoosh,”15 (which is, interestingly enough, how one of the onomatopoetic descriptors of Butcher Ding’s movements is sometimes translated: see Slingerland p. 29).

Dreyfus and Kelly also draw inspiration from the late 19th-early 20th century phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945), who describes the “magical” efficacy of our unreflective bodily actions—actions which are such that, as Merleau-Ponty sees it, if we were to focus on them, they would degenerate into the absurd—as well as from Merleau-Ponty’s contemporary, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who theorizes that when a lecturer enters a familiar classroom, the lecturer experiences neither the doorknob nor the seats; such features of the room, for the lecturer, are “completely unobtrusive and unthought” (1988: p. 164). Heidegger’s views, inasmuch as they are about everyday actions, do not fall under the scope of what I am calling the just-do-it principle, since I understand this as a principle about expert action. Merleau-Ponty, however, appears to hold more of the type of just-do-it principle that I reject, for he extends his theory to cover actions such as that of the expert soccer player for whom “the soccer field…is pervaded by lines of force…[and that] the player becomes one with [the field]…[and] at this moment consciousness is nothing but the dialectic of milieu and action” (1945: p. 168-9). The conscious mind, he seems to be saying, dissolves into a relation with the environment, which, like Homer’s gods, calls forth actions. In a recent debate with the philosopher John McDowell, Dreyfus states his position like this: “for an expert to remain in flow and so perform at his best, he must let himself be merged into the field of forces and all monitoring must stop” (2013: p. 31).

McDowell, objects to such a picture, for he thinks that all expert action exemplifies rationality in action. Yet even McDowell holds a version of just-do-it, for, according to him, although an expert’s actions are guided by reasons these reasons are not on the forefront of an expert’s mind as she proceeds; the idea that an expert “deliberates about what to do and acts in the light of the result,” McDowell tells us, “should be rejected” (p. 47).

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