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

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A Methodological Principle

Although for some purists, philosophy is and ought to be an entirely a priori pursuit, it should be apparent that this work does not fall into this category, for not only do I rely on empirical research to support my view, anecdotes, or what I also call “case studies,” based on data from experts with whom I have spoken or read about (as well as reflections on my own experience currently as a philosopher and formerly as a professional ballet dancer) play a role in the larger argument. Data is, of course, the stuff of science, yet I have not systematically recorded this data as would befit scientific inquiry. What, then, is the point of anecdotes?

Anecdotes are not arguments, but there are many moves in the game we call “philosophy” that do not involve arguments. For example, philosophers are often happy to countenance theory construction. Many of the great philosophers were theory builders—Kant and Hegel, for example—and as long as such theories are internally coherent and do not contradict known data, many today are happy to see theory construction as a worthwhile endeavor; but while they’ll happily countenance theory construction, as soon as an as an anecdote is brought in to illustrate what may have inspired such theory, that happiness fades. Similarly, many philosophers, though not all, rely on intuitions. For example, some have the intuition that everything must ultimately depend on something fundamental; others think that there could be an infinite descent of ontological dependence (turtles all the way down, as it is sometimes put). These philosophers think that intuitions are good evidence for a view; but my first-person report that I was thinking in action is suspicious. And finally, it is often thought acceptable to make general claims about what everyone purportedly knows to be the case; for example, it is acceptable to write that “everyone knows that when you think about the details of your movements you mess up” or “when the soccer player is on the field, as far as he can tell, he is not thinking about what to do.” But try to give even one anecdote in order to suggest that perhaps not everyone knows this, and you’re under fire. Why, then, do I employ anecdotes?

I think that anecdotes can play a role in a philosophical work such as this in a variety of ways: They illustrate a view, reveal what inspires theory, counter claims about what everyone says is the case, and (god forbid) add interest. Moreover, my hope is that in a similar way in which case studies are relevant to medical research, I sometimes employ anecdotes to provide an in-depth look at a particular phenomenon. Of course, in medicine, the case study is presented out of necessity, for the condition is usually unique (or at least previously unseen), making a larger-scale study impossible. Expertise, however, is not unique; indeed, there are even interesting statistical analyses of expert performance under what is assumed to be various psychological conditions. But I think that individual cases, like in medicine, though incapable of grounding generalization, may also provide inspiration for further research.

In Plato’s dialogue Ion (380 BCE/1996), Socrates presses Ion to accept the conclusion of his argument that poets and rhapsodes (performers, like Ion, who recite and interpret poetry) are in some way guided by divine madness since they cannot have any understanding of the topics about which they speak. However, Ion responds: “[although your reasoning appears unassailable,] I doubt whether you will ever have eloquence enough to persuade me that I praise Homer only when I am mad and possessed” (380BCE/1996: 536d). This line is sometimes cut when the dialog is anthologized (for example, in Bychkov and Sheppard, 2010), but it’s important! Socrates not only doesn’t take Ion’s claims seriously, he apparently had never even observed Ion in action. One leitmotif throughout the book is that is at least sometimes worthwhile to listen to the experts themselves.

The questioners of assumptions may point out that we are frequently mistaken about the contents of our own minds and therefore neither introspection nor first person reports can be trusted. However, although we are sometimes mistaken about what is going on in our own minds, especially with regards to the reasons we are acting in a certain way,3 I think, and shall assume throughout the book, that, in general, as long as there are no good reasons to question any particular report about what someone says he or she is experiencing, first person reports can be taken as evidence for what is actually going on in a person’s mind. In other words, I accept the following:

Methodological Principle. First person reports of what goes on in one’s own mind should be accepted as defeasible evidence for the truth of the report; that is, we should accept such reports unless we have good reason to question them.
For example, if you have good reason to believe that someone is lying or that someone is likely self-deceived (based on, say, personal interactions), or that someone is making claims about his or her own mental states because they are responding to leading questions, or they have been reading a theory that suggests the view, or that the results of a psychology experiment show that such type of introspection is more likely wrong than right, then we should doubt the reports of such an individual. However, barring any reasons for doubt, I take first-person accounts of one’s own mental processes at face value.

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