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

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Trying in basic actions

Wittgenstein observed, “[w]hen I raise my arm, I do not usually try to raise it” (1953: p. 623). On his view, trying occurs when, for example, you want to raise your arm, yet someone is holding it down, or it’s numb, or you want to be called on to speak but are enormously nervous at the prospect and thus need to exert your will to get over your reluctance – but not when we reach for the shampoo, hail a taxi, or catch a ball. And more recently, Robert Audi (1993: p. 92) has argued that although agents may try when they encounter resistance, agents need not exert themselves or try to act in ordinary situations. (check paraphrase)

Other philosophers, however, such as Brian O’Shaughnessy (1981), Jennifer Hornsby (1980), and Robert Hanna and Michelle Maiese (2009) argue that trying is an essential element of our all our intentional actions. If this is correct, it would seem to follow directly that expert actions involve trying as well: not necessarily trying your best, as Rotella warns against in the quote above – but in contrast to falling asleep, they would involve at least some measure of trying. And if they do, this would seem to tell against the strongest versions of just-do-it, such as those proposed by Dreyfus and Kelly, that see expertise as entirely nonmental. So then, do all of our intentional actions involve trying?

Clearly, we normally do not say of someone who is, say, toasting a bagel for her typical breakfast carb-overload that she is trying to toast a bagel. Perhaps cutting the roly-poly thing, we might say, involves trying. But it would be odd to say that trying was involved, in the typical situation, when placing it in the toaster and turning it on. Yet what can we conclude about trying from the mere fact that it sounds odd to attribute trying to our quotidian tasks? Some think that the move from what sounds odd to how things are is invalid (Grice, 1989; Hanfling, 2000). On this view, how we ordinarily speak is one thing, while how things are is another. I agree that these two are distinct; however, I also think that we should not entirely disregard our ordinary manners of speech, since manners of speech sometimes embody common sense, and while common sense shouldn’t be the last word on a matter, it is often reasonable to take it as the first. In other words, I see it as reasonable to ask of any theorist whose views are contrary to common sense for an explanation of why common sense or ordinary language is wrong on this account.

O’Shaughnessy (1981) seems to take a similar stance, since his first line of business, in arguing for the view that all of our actions involve trying, is an explanation of how true claims can sound odd. He reminds us that the statement that “the President is sober this morning” sounds odd, yet is (presumably) nonetheless true. And he thinks that the oddity of imparting trying to everyday actions can be discounted for the same reason that we discount the oddity of the president’s break-of-day sobriety. If so, he will have taken care of what he sees as his first line of business. Yet, does this particular analogy help us to understand why it sounds odd to impart trying to everyday actions?

Although the statement “the President is sober this morning” provides an example of where a true sentence can sound odd, it is not clear how relevant it is to the case in question, since it seems that the reason why “the president is sober this morning” sounds odd is because it suggests that on other mornings he is not, which would, of course, be shocking.95 But the same analysis does not account for the oddity of “he tried to toast his bagel,” since it would not be shocking to hear that on other mornings he does not try to do this, but just does it; or to go back to O’Shaughnessy’s example, “he tried to walk across the road” does not sound odd for the reason that “the President is sober this morning” sounds odd, since it would not at all be shocking to hear that sometimes (or even often), O’Shaughnessy’s rural-dwelling bloke doesn’t try to cross the road, but rather – much like the proverbial chicken – just walks to the other side. Instead, the oddity in O’Shaughnessy’s example seems to arise precisely because we simply do not think that such an activity involves trying at all. That is, common sense tells us that although we need to try to cross, say, East 57th Street in New York City, and in fact may sometimes fail at our attempts—just for your information, every thirty hours a pedestrian is killed in New York City—we don’t need to try when we want to cross a familiar road in a rural setting.

O’Shaughnessy, however, is thinking of the analogy rather differently. As he sees it, we understand that “the President is sober” is true because it makes sense to say that the President is sober in response to someone who insists, as O’Shaughnessy puts it, that the President was “blind-drunk at his breakfast” (p.365). If so, because this would be the correct answer to the question were it to be asked, O’Shaughnessy claims that it is true, despite the oddity of the statement. Having argued that odd claims can nonetheless be true, his second order of business is to show how a similar line of reasoning indicates that stating that, say, we try to tie our shoes every time we tie our shoes, though odd, is nonetheless true.

For O’Shaughnessy, even though it might normally sound odd to impart trying to everyday actions, we can see that trying is nonetheless involved in such actions, because we can imagine certain situations in which the trying is revealed. Hornsby (1980) agrees with this: “[B]y way of seeing that we can often envisage a person [who sees the action as involving trying], we should be persuaded (defeasibly perhaps) that ‘He tried to φ’ is not merely compatible with a man’s success in φ-ing, but integral to his having φ’d intentionally” (p. __).
O’Shaughnessy (1981) elaborates with another example:
Suppose a man sets out to start a car . . . and suppose [another] person witnesses the spectacle; and suppose he knows the putative car-starter to be a fantastic pathological liar and this car to be a grossly unreliable instrument; and, to complete the picture, let us suppose him to know that the car starter has a truly urgent reason for making a quick getaway. The pathological liar gives vent in an absurdly complacent voice—as it happens on a sound factual basis, having just had the car completely overhauled and tuned—to the announcement that he is "now about to drive off." The skeptical onlooker has excellent reasons for doubting the truth of this evident boast. But, because he knows of the urgent reason for making a quick getaway, he does, I suggest, know one thing: namely, that the pathological liar is at least going to try and start the car. It follows that it is true that he is. (p.368)
The skeptical onlooker, according to O’Shaughnessy, reveals that even though the agent does not conceive of himself as trying to start the car, he is nonetheless trying; “such onlookers,” as O’Shaughnessy puts it, “act unwittingly as separator agencies, rather like magnets that one draws through a fine mixture of iron and copper filing. They draw to themselves an item normally concealed from view” (1973: p.368). And this item, as he sees it, is an event of trying. Moreover, the skeptical onlooker, for O’Shaughnessy, need not even be present, since all action brings with it the possibility of failure. “Of no situation,” he tells us, can it be said:
This situation bears a charmed life . . . Therefore the totally aberrant can never be guaranteed not to happen. Now it is precisely this refusal of empirical reality ideally to match our mental representations, it is this special brand of uncertainty hanging like a question mark over everything, that gives trying a permanent foothold in intentional action” (1973: p. 366).
What are we to think of this line of argument? The argument, I take it, is supposed to show that because an onlooker could know that the agent would try to start the car, the agent did try to start the car. That knowledge that p implies p is a truth universally acknowledged (among philosophers at least), and here we have knowledge of trying. Of course, there may be reason to doubt this “universal truth.” Think, for example, about scientific knowledge. We know so much; but, alas, some of what we currently know – as future generations will discover – is false. So if you think that science is the best example of knowledge that we have, perhaps it makes sense to say that we can have knowledge of falsehoods. But let us leave that aside, since even if the implication from knowledge to truth holds—that is, even if it is the case that if the onlooker knows that the agent tries, then the agent does try—I think it is at least an open question whether the onlooker does know this, as it seems reasonable for the onlooker, after seeing the pathological liar drive off, to retract his knowledge claim, saying something like “well, look at that; I guess I was wrong, he just did it.” Because the skeptical onlooker did not have the relevant information about the car’s tune-up, it seems possible that he simply didn’t know that the pathological liar is going to try to start the car. The situation for this reason seems different from the situation in which someone can answer truly that the President is sober at breakfast. In that case, we imagine that all the relevant facts are known.

But perhaps what is relevant here is not that someone else would think that trying is involved in the action, but rather the ‘hanging question mark’, mentioned by O’Shaughnessy in the quote above. Here, then, is a variation of this argument that maintains the question mark, yet does away with the skeptical onlooker: Imagine Jane is ready to set off to her office and, as she always does, she goes to her car and puts the key in the ignition; yet today, unlike other days, the car does not start, for, unbeknownst to her, the battery is dead. It seems, then, that she tried to start the car, but failed. Yet every other day she has done the same thing, so if she tried in the former case, she tried in the latter one as well. And, since all our actions bring with them possibility of failure, since there is that giant question mark looming over all of them, all action, whether successful or not, involves trying. If so, then – for example – Bubba Watson’s apparently effortless swing when he won the 2012 Masters golfing tournament (supposedly arrived at without ever having the assistance of a swing coach) involved trying, and thus Dreyfus and Kelly, along with Rotella, are mistaken about true excellence. However, even in this example, it is not clear that when her car’s battery is dead, Jane should be described as trying to start the car when she does exactly what she would do if the car were to start, which would be turning the key once. Genuinely trying, in such a case, would seem to involve at least a few more attempts.

A similar point applies to an example of Arthur Danto’s, which Hornsby (1980) cites favorably.
I dial Jones’s number. . . . If I fail to reach Jones, I say I will try again, meaning that I will again dial that number, and if I reach Jones, I will have succeeded, even though I did nothing differently on that occasion than on the one before (Hornsby 1980: p. _)
Must we say, though, along with Danto and Hornsby, that you are trying to reach Jones every time you dial Jones, whether you succeed or fail? It is not clear that we must. Let us say that Jones is your son’s teacher, and that your spouse has asked you to try to reach Jones today to explain why your child was late to school. If you just call once and don’t get through, you are going to be in deep water: “you didn’t try,” your husband will complain. In other words, inasmuch as O’Shaughnessy’s considerations are supposed to show that trying does occur, these considerations would seem to show just as well that it does not. The refutation of the extreme just-do-it, based on the idea that trying occurs in all of our actions, is looking rather precarious.

Doing such things as dialing a telephone and starting your car are typically effortless; thus if such actions involve trying, it would need to be an effortless sort of trying. But does the idea of effortless trying makes sense? Don’t trying and effort go hand in hand? That is, isn’t it the case that if you are trying to do something, you are making an effort to do it? If so, this may be another reason to reject the idea that all of our actions involve trying.

Hanna and Maiese (2009), however, think that the two concepts of trying and effort can come apart. Wittgenstein’s comment that he normally doesn’t need to try to raise his arm, they tell us, merely indicates that he usually need not make an effort to raise his arm – not that he wasn’t trying to raise his arm. As they see it, “effortless trying” is present in all of our actions, and “manifests itself as the subjective experience of flowing forward right into intentional body movement, as in Yeats’ dancer becoming her dance” (2009: p. 179)96. So on their view, a special kind of trying, an effortless trying, pervades all of our actions. But, as some actions are nonetheless also effortful, this, they are aware, leads to the question of how an action can be effortful and effortless at the same time. In response to this difficulty, they present an example of an action that encompasses both effort and the lack of effort: if you have a sore arm, raising it would require effort, however, “as you effortfully try to raise your sore arm, you also effortlessly try to balance and orient the rest of your body” (p. 179). It is not clear, though, that this is an example of an instance of trying to do something both effortfully and effortlessly, since it is not at all clear that, typically, you try (even effortlessly) to balance and orient the rest of your body when you raise your arm; this would seem to be something that just happens. Of course, Hanna and Maiese would deny this. But even still, one might wonder if their view implies a more problematic type of effortless and effortful overlap, for if they think that all of our actions involve effortless trying, it would seem that the very lifting of the arm itself is both effortful and effortless.

Thus, it is looking even less likely that we are going to be able to defeat just-do-it by arguing that all action involves trying. Neither the example of the skeptical onlooker, nor the idea that the very same actions occur in situations in which we would ascribe trying and in situations in which we would not, seems to lead to the desired conclusion, and even if they did, we would still be left in the uncomfortable situation of trying (as it were) to make sense of an action being both effortful and effortless. Of course, those who hold that all of our actions embody trying have more to say in defense of their view. However—and this is the final and I think conclusive reason to reject this approach—it seems that no matter how much is said, proponents of the extreme form of the just-do-it-principle, such as Dreyfus and Kelly, will be unmoved. True enough, Dreyfus and Kelly think that expert action is nonminded, and thus does not involve trying; yet they will be unmoved because O’Shaughnessy, Hornsby, and Hanna and Maiese take their arguments to apply only to intentional actions, while Dreyfus and Kelly think that the actions of the expert, when she is doing her best, are not intentional.

According to O’Shaughnessy, actions such as occasionally moving your toes while reading a book are idle bodily movements, which he counts as actions—“one can hardly telescope them into mere spasms on the part of the toes—yet nonintentional ones that occur without trying (1973: p. 366). Such nonintentional actions, according to O’Shaughnessy, are merely “afterthought[s] in the scheme of things”; they relate, he tells us, “to standard examples of action somewhat as do objects that are mere lumps of stuff, say rough diamonds, to objects that are both lumps of stuff and more, e.g., artifacts” (p. 367). In contrast, Dreyfus and Kelly see many expert actions—for example, typical cases of shaving, reaching for doorknobs, and starting of cars, as well the truly great actions of Homer’s heroes or today’s heroes, such as, on their view, Lou Gehrig and Roger Federer—as nonintentional. They are onintentional, but on their view they are more like finely faceted diamonds than lumps of stuff since they server as the mainstay if not the meaning of our existence.

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