The brittleness of expertise and why it matters

Abstract

Expertise has become a topic of increased interest to philosophers. Fascinating in its own right, expertise also plays a crucial role in several philosophical debates. My aim in this paper is to draw attention to an important, and hitherto unappreciated feature of expertise: its brittleness. Experts are often unable to transfer their proficiency in one domain to other, even intuitively similar domains. Experts are often unable to flexibly respond to changes within their domains. And, even more surprisingly, experts will occasionally be outperformed by novices when confronted with novel circumstances within their domains of expertise. In section 1, I marshal the evidence in favour of brittleness. In section 2, I argue that appeals to brittleness can advance the dialectic in debates on skilled action and provide reasons to reject a powerful recent argument offered by Christensen et al. (Philos Psychol 32(5): 693–719, 2019). In section 3, I appeal to brittleness to argue against a common conception of philosophical expertise, according to which philosophers possess a domain-general set of reasoning skills. Although my argument in this section is largely negative, there is a twist. Recalibrating our understanding of philosophical expertise opens new avenues of research for defenders of the so-called ‘expertise defence’ against the findings of experimental philosophy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Crichton named the effect ironically, "because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have".

  2. 2.

    There is some wiggle room here. Domains are not so fine-grained that any change in rules results in a change in domain. The rules of chess have changed over time, for instance.

  3. 3.

    ‘Brittle software’ struck me as a contradiction in terms until a colleague noted that my immediate environment contained two examples of objects that are both soft and brittle: blackboard chalk and biscuits!.

  4. 4.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for both this and the ‘grenade’ example.

  5. 5.

    A smothered mate is a checkmate achieved when the mated king is unable to move because he is surrounded (or smothered) by his own pieces.

  6. 6.

    In the sense that sophisticated representations play a causal role in their manifestation.

  7. 7.

    Indeed, I think they probably are right. The evidence I have given above for the brittle and context-sensitive nature of expertise is well explained by accounts that emphasise the embedded and extended nature of know-how.

  8. 8.

    He ended up with 25 wins, 19 draws and only 2 losses.

  9. 9.

    See, for example, (Gobet 1998).

  10. 10.

    This hierarchy is to be understood as an idealisation. The number of levels may vary from competition to competition and it might not always be possible to differentiate them in practice.

  11. 11.

    This example was adapted from Willingham (2012).

  12. 12.

    A similar argument, but one which applies only to veristic accounts of expertise, can be found in Coady (2012).

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Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Alan Hájek who provided invaluable feedback on several drafts of this paper. Thanks also to John Sutton, under whose guidance I originally developed many of the ideas in Sect. 2 of this paper. I am also indebted to several colleagues at the ANU for their insightful discussion: Don Nordblom, James Willoughby and Ross Pain. Finally, thanks to two excellent anonymous referees at Synthese. The final version of this paper was much improved by their thorough and thoughtful criticism.

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Kilov, D. The brittleness of expertise and why it matters. Synthese (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02940-5

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Keywords

  • Expertise
  • Brittleness
  • Social epistemology
  • Skilled action
  • Expertise defence