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

The generality of the claim: Cognitive and Motor Expertise

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The generality of the claim: Cognitive and Motor Expertise

I think that everyday-expertise is sufficiently different from professional-level expertise so as to warrant my focus on just professional-level expertise. However, within the category of professional-level expertise, there are some strikingly different kinds of expert actions that I plan to address in a more or less unified manner. In particular, I think that the just-do-it principle applies to neither motor nor cognitive expertise, that is, to neither the actions of an Olympic gymnast, nor the professional wrestler, to neither the grand-master chess player, nor or polished poet. But if, as I claim that all sorts of professional level expert actions involve thought, why do I even distinguish cognitive, or mental, expertise from motor, or bodily, expertise?

Clearly, given my view that expertise involves thought, I do not distinguish these two types of expertise in terms of one involving thought and the other being mindless skill. No, I’m with the golfer Bob Jones who purportedly said, “competitive golf is played on a five and a half inch course—the space between a player’s ears.” Yet I still think that there is at least a rough distinction we can make between these two kinds of skills, even if both involve thought. So let me conclude this chapter with a few comments about how I understand this distinction in light of my view about expertise.

Perhaps the first point I should note is that although I think that there is a distinction between motor or bodily expertise and cognitive or mental expertise, the line between mind and body need not be that of Descartes, where the mind is immaterial and the body material (1641/1986). Rather, it is the ordinary line we draw when we think of the mind as the part of us which, among other things, thinks, feels, emotes, wills and attends (be it embodied as you like), and the body as the part of us which, among other things, jumps, runs, dances and moves the fingers while typing. Whether dualism is true and the mind is immaterial—as well as, for that matter, whether idealism is true and the body and mind are both immaterial—is irrelevant to our concerns; regardless of the truth of these metaphysical doctrines, we can distinguish mind, as what thinks and feels (among other things), from body, as what jumps and runs (among other things). Thus, when I say that my claims about expertise will apply to both bodily and mental expertise, the contrast between mind and body is in this metaphysically neutral way. But what, then, is this metaphysically neutral distinction?

One reasonable suggestion would seem to be that we can draw the line between gymnastics and tennis on the one hand and chess and poetry on the other in terms of how these activities differentially employ large muscle movements. That is, one might say that while both gymnastics and poetry involve hard mental work, gymnastics and golf also involve hard bodily work, as measured by strength of large muscle contractions (or, subjectively, by the gymnast herself), whereas chess and poetry—at least if you have good posture, are sitting in a decent chair, and take occasional breaks—are physically undemanding. Yet golf is not nearly as physically strenuous as gymnastics, and something like video gaming might be less physically strenuous in terms of large muscle contractions than even philosophy, which at a minimum often involves occasionally turning one’s head away from the screen to take a sip of coffee and, perhaps in the best of situations, involves, in the peripatetic style, taking occasional strolls. So it seems that some of what we might want to call physical skills do not involve more muscle contractions than mental skills. And in fact, chess would be counted as a mental skill even if it were played with heavily weighted pieces. Perhaps such a game could count as both physical and mental expertise, yet if the strength it took to lift the pieces did not require special training, we might not think of it as involving physical expertise at all.

I think a better (though still not perfect) approach is to look at what counts as success in the respective endeavors. In gymnastics, for example, the success of an action seems intimately connected to the bodily movements the gymnast makes, whereas in chess, the grandmaster’s exact bodily movements seem incidental.48 If a gymnast accidentally stumbles during a routine, it reveals something about her ability as a gymnast. Similarly, if the fingers of an expert at playing video games slip, this merits criticism. However, if a chess player’s hand slips and accidently knocks over a piece during a game, she is not thought any the worse of as a chess player. That is, for the gymnast (or video gamer), if her intention to act fails to produce the desired bodily movement, her performance is generally seen as flawed. Yet for the chess player, unintentional bodily movements are generally not relevant to the quality of play. To be sure, if a chess player’s hand slips during a tournament and accidentally pushes a pawn ahead, the player may very well need to accept the consequences of that move. It seems, however, that such slips have more to do with coordination than with chess expertise.

But this still might not give the results we want since one might argue that physical slip-ups are not necessarily any more relevant in gymnastics than in chess, as long as they are mere “slip-ups.” If a gymnast stumbles on her landing from a butterfly twist, this would seem to indicate that her actions are not as expertly performed as they would have been without the stumble. Yet does a small trip on the floor really matter in judging the overall quality of a gymnast’s performance? The judges may say so, yet perhaps such a trifle is not really relevant to our judgment of an individual’s expertise; this would make the situation more similar to chess, where a slip, it would seem, should not affect our judgment of an individual’s chess ability. In arts such as dance, I think it is arguable that even a large misstep should at times be irrelevant to the overall quality of the performance. Dancers sometimes fall, but one might argue that as long as they can pick themselves up and continue without letting the fall hinder the rest of the performance, the quality of the performance need not be affected. (Or at least, since falls are not all that uncommon in dance, this is what dancers tell themselves, and some, like I did and still do, come to believe it.) In philosophy-speak, one might say that although the quality of the dance supervenes on the individual movements, it is not reducible to them. In other words, although you can’t change the quality of a dance without changing the dancer’s movements, you can change the movements—even to a large degree—without changing the quality of the dance. This is true of chess as well: although you can’t change the outcome of a chess game without changing the bodily movements of at least one of the players, large-scale bodily movements of the players can vary without altering the outcome of the game. (I’m simplifying here by ignoring the possibility that outcomes can change because of external factors. For example, two chess games might involve the exact same moves by the players, but if the rules of chess differ, then the outcomes of the games might be different as well. And the quality of two bodily identical dance performances might differ, if, quality depends in part on how observers perceive the performance.)

Nonetheless, there does seem to be a difference between the kind of movements done in chess or in writing poetry and those done in ballet and basketball, for the physical movements of a chess player seem to be irrelevant inasmuch as the board could be replaced with a computer screen without really changing the game. Those who can play well on the physical board can also generally play well on the screen. But a dance created and performed on a computer is an entirely different kind of performance from one done in flesh and blood, and it is not the case that those who are good at physically dancing will be generally good at manipulating virtual bodies with a cursor. Video games, which seem to lie on the dividing line between mental and physical expertise (or at least the more engaging ones do!), might still count as the same whether played with a mouse or joystick, however, if once moved to a non-virtual setting with actual physical pieces, the skill that is required changes and those who are good at moving the mouse might not be as skilled at lifting and dropping chips.

So, I think it does make sense to contrast mental and physical expertise, though not sharply. Yet despite the differences between chess and poetry on the one hand and ballet and basketball on the other, many philosophers and psychologists working on expertise hold that the correct theory of expertise is going to cover all types of expert action, from overtly physical actions like gymnastics to barely physical ones like chess. As Ericsson and his collaborators put it in their introduction to the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, although “[i]t is not immediately apparent what is generalizable across such diverse domains of expertise, such as music, sport, medicine and chess…[t]he premise of a field studying expertise and expert performance is that there are sufficient similarities in the theoretical principles mediating the phenomena and the methods for studying them in different domains that it would be possible to propose a general theory of expertise and expert performance” (2006: p. 9). Whether the motivation for this classification is partly due to the human tendency to look for unified explanations, I cannot say; however, I, too, shall for the most part look for theoretically significant commonalities between mental and physical expert endeavors, and so, in talking about experts, be referring to those who have engaged in deliberate practice and are still intent on improving, whether athlete or dancer or chess player or poet.

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