How to be skilful: opportunistic robustness and normative sensitivity


In a recent article, Fridland (Synthese 191:2729–2750, 2014a) characterises a central capacity of skill users, an aspect she calls ‘control’. Control, according to Fridland, is evidenced in the way in which skill users are able to marshal a variety of mental and bodily resources in order to keep skill deployment operating fluidly and appropriately. According to Fridland, two prevalent contemporary accounts of skill—Stanley & Krakauer’s (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7:1–11, 2013) and Hubert Dreyfus’s (Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1:367–383, 2002)—fail to account for the features of control, and do so necessarily. While I agree with Fridland that features of control represent desiderata for a satisfactory characterisation of the capacity of skills to respond to perturbations, I argue that her account is limited in two ways; first it is applicable only to a particular class of skills I call motor skills, leaving other classes of skills unaccounted for; second, she employs a problematic distinction that rules out the automatic and pre-reflective use of discursive, propositional cues in skill deployment. I put forward a critical elaboration of Fridland’s account based on two more general characteristic features of skills I call opportunistic robustness and normative sensitivity. I suggest that these features avoid the difficulties isolated, while preserving the substance of Fridland’s account of control.

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  1. 1.

    Though, as I discuss below (in Sect. 4.2), Hubert Dreyfus has developed a characterisation of the structure of skills that does aim at addressing these issues.

  2. 2.

    Such a capacity is what Fridland refers to as the ability to “focus on pressing situation demands such as adjusting [one’s] goals and strategies in the appropriate ways while allowing motor routines to run on their own.” (Fridland 2014a, p. 20).

  3. 3.

    ‘Attentive practice’ might suggest a focused, conscious effort to observe, repair, maintain, and improve various capacities and processes. Though Fridland might be read as suggesting such an intellectualist approach to practice when she states that practice is “effortful, attentive, intentional” (Fridland 2014a, p. 2741), I believe a deflationary reading of these terms is more in tune with the arguments presented. Such a deflationary reading would hold that when one practices, one is deeply engaged in an activity with an intention (which need not be consciously entertained) to improve. It is in this way that I use the phrase ‘attentive practice’. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on this point.

  4. 4.

    This should not be conflated with the claim that experts can always provide reasons for why or how it is they did the precise movements or actions that they did: experts regularly fail to accurately describe the minutiae of their own performance (Wallis 2007, p. 130).

  5. 5.

    See: Fridland (2014b).

  6. 6.

    I follow Fridland in taking S&K’s use of ‘abilities’ and ‘acuity’ to be interchangeable in this context.

  7. 7.

    See Carter and Pritchard (2014) for a sceptical evaluation of Stanley’s argument that knowledge-wh can be incorporated into the category of knowledge-that. See also Fridland (2012) for a more developed arguments against S&K’s intellectualism.

  8. 8.

    The most sensational ‘tweener’ I can think of is Federer’s return to Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the 2009 US Open.

  9. 9.

    I will not have more to say about the ‘open-ended’ nature of semantic skills here. I suggest that the ‘open-endedness’ pointed to actually picks out two relatively distinct and large issues: the role and prevalence of creativity and imagination in skill deployment, and the way in which individuals can appropriately switch between skill-sets and associated understandings of situations. The former issue is intuitive; the latter is more complicated and difficult to see. It is related to the problem that has recently been discussed as ‘context-switching’; how individuals determine what particular skill (or combination of skills) should be employed to best satisfy our dynamically shifting goals (Wheeler 2008; Kiverstein 2012). I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pressing me on the nature of this claim.

  10. 10.

    Some of the examples I have employed here, including the visualisation of architects, seem to implicate another kind (or perhaps, dimension) of skills: those that involve expressive or aesthetic behaviours and evaluations. I will have little to say about the role of the aesthetic with regards to skill, only here suggesting that skill is likely characterised along a number of dimensions, and that the various kinds of skills are likely to clump together in regions of this multi-dimensional space.

  11. 11.

    This is an argument from multiple realisability—one can perform the same task, of shuffling semantic vehicles or tokens, in any number of ways. Note however, that this is different from the way in which multiple behaviours might serve the same teleological role in achieving the satisfaction of desires or the achievement of goals.

  12. 12.

    See: Fridland 2014a, p. 2735. For a response to this line of criticism against Dreyfus, see: Rietveld, 2012. As Rietveld sees it, Dreyfus’s employment of the term ‘Hebbian’ does not implicate a process of hard-wiring, where neural wiring would serve as the subvenience base for something like a psychological disposition. Instead, Dreyfus’s remarks in this context should be taken to be a rough description of the dynamic process that partly realise flexible and fluid skill deployment together with bodily and environmental structures. A potential sub-personal processing account that Dreyfus points to here is Walter Freeman’s neurodynamics (Freeman 2000).

  13. 13.

    This should not be taken to suggest that Dreyfus has not engaged with causal and structural accounts of human capacities like skills. Indeed, both the accounts of Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1980, 1986) and Dreyfus (1972) were sustained criticisms of the GOFAI (Haugeland 1985) approach to capturing the intelligent, goal-directed behaviour of human beings. I thank an anonymous referee for pushing me to be clearer on Dreyfus’ engagement with cognitive science.

  14. 14.

    See, for instance, Freeman (2000) and the remarks in Dreyfus (2007b) for on such potential development of Dreyfus’ view of skill.

  15. 15.

    See especially the numerous studies cited in Montero and Evans 2011. There, they exhaustively demonstrate that one of Dreyfus’s flagship examples, chess, is not adequately characterised as mindless: expert chess players utilise a number of deliberative, calculative processes while playing.

  16. 16.

    That is, Dreyfus 2002. But see also Dreyfus (2005) for claims of a similar nature. For a more complete characterisation of Dreyfus’s account of skill, one would need to detour into his detailed exegesis of Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty (i.e. Dreyfus 1972, 1991, 2000, 2006, 2007a, b, c). This, unfortunately, is beyond the scope of this article.

  17. 17.

    For example, in Dreyfus (2013, p. 21). A related phrase is used through Dreyfus’s corpus. In Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986, this is called a ‘world of opportunities’ (p. 30).

  18. 18.

    Such a pre-reflective account of skills and understanding is caught up with Dreyfus’s exploration of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of motor intentionality: a characterisation of intentional engagement with the world that does not make recourse to mental representations of beliefs, desires, and goals (Dreyfus 2007c; Merleau-Ponty 2012; Wrathall 2005). While I think that the account under development here somewhat speaks to truth of motor intentionality, a fuller discussion of the structure of intentionality, and how my account weighs upon it, would go well beyond the considerations of this article.

  19. 19.

    Do mathematicians and logicians develop normative sensitivities, and correlated affective sensations? Despite the fact that mathematicians and logicians employ rule-governed structures, they can do so in a variety of ways. Understanding what makes deployments of mathematics or logic elegant and sophisticated (as in proofs) is what development of normative sensitivity consists in for such domains. Thus contra Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986), I think there are many interesting things to say about the skills and skill acquisition in ‘structured’ areas like mathematics. I thank an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  20. 20.

    There is more to be said about the relationship between propositionally structured knowledge and intentional, skill-governed action (i.e. Fridland 2012). Suffice to say, many authors impressed by the work of Merleau-Ponty are sceptical of the full-blown intellectualism of S&K, and suggest that motor intentionality is a more phenomenologically on-key structure that explains skilled behaviour that need not make any recourse to propositions or rules (See, inter alia, Wrathall 2005). However, as I have suggested with discursive cuing, such hard and fast separation between propositions and skilled behaviour might be too simplistic.

  21. 21.

    I thank an anonymous referee for putting forward this objection.

  22. 22.

    Douglas suggests, at qualifiers for the United States of America’s national gymnastics team, during a slip on a performance she thought to herself: “Okay, yeah just grab the bar and just finish this routine, and kind of don’t make it a big deal.” Though we should rightly be suspicious of such post-hoc rationalizations and phenomenological reports, it seems likely that Douglas could have uttered something akin to this during her performance. Insofar as Douglas did, in fact, utilize a discursive cue like the one above, I suggest it is aimed at keeping at bay a number of over-reactive affective evaluations. In effect, such a cue aims at modulating emotional responses, which might lead to feelings that everything is going wrong. (See: Stranahan 2013).


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I am extremely grateful to Christopher Clarke, Helen Curry, Ellen Fridland, Tim Lewens, and two anonymous referees for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I also thank Peter Jancewicz for the many conversations that have inspired my reflection on skills, and for being an incredible piano teacher, despite what I may have suggested here. Thank you, Peter. Finally, the research leading to this paper has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement No. 284123.

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Buskell, A. How to be skilful: opportunistic robustness and normative sensitivity. Synthese 192, 1445–1466 (2015).

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  • Skill
  • Normativity
  • Rationality
  • Intellectualism
  • Phenomenology
  • Control