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Anti-Intellectualism for the Learning and Employment of Skill

Abstract

I draw on empirical results from perceptual and motor learning to argue for an anti-intellectualist position on skill. Anti-intellectualists claim that skill or know-how is non-propositional. Recent proponents of the view have stressed the flexible but fine-grained nature of skilled control as supporting their position. However, they have left the nature of the mental representations underlying such control undertheorized. This leaves open several possible strategies for the intellectualist, particularly with regard to skill learning. Propositional knowledge may structure the inputs to sensorimotor learning, may constitute the outcomes of said learning, or may be needed for the employment of learned skill. I argue that sensorimotor learning produces multi-scale associational representations, and that these representations are of the right sort to underlie flexible and fine-grained control. I then suggest that their content is vitally indeterminate with regard to propositional content attribution, because they exhibit a kind of open-ended structure. I articulate this kind of structure, and use it to respond to the three intellectualist strategies. I then show how the perspective I advance offers insights for understanding both instruction and expert practice.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    On one recent account (Wu 2011), attention is important for action selection – it is what allows us to select the objects in our environments that we will act upon. The view I express here, on which learned perceptual representations structure attentional search, is compatible with this perspective.

  2. 2.

    Levy (2017) considers the case of an expert pianist who sits down at an entirely unfamiliar piano. In this situation, Levy suggests, the pianist must use their propositional knowledge of pianos to inform them what to do in the novel situation. If it is holistic object effects, however, that explain the eye tracking results, and if these are not best read as propositional knowledge (as I will argue in section 4), then the Myung et al. results can be read as an objection to Levy’s view that propositional knowledge is required in this case.

  3. 3.

    Of course, there is a downside to this, given that once a representational structure is learned, it can be hard to operate outside of it. Brownstein and Michaelson (2016) give an amusing example of this phenomenon, in which Major League Baseball all-stars persistently failed to hit pitches from USA softball ace Jennie Finch. What this suggests is a different sensorimotor structure involved in hitting softball pitches, as opposed to baseball ones, despite the very general properties that the two contexts share.

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Correspondence to Daniel C. Burnston.

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Burnston, D.C. Anti-Intellectualism for the Learning and Employment of Skill. Rev.Phil.Psych. 12, 507–526 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-020-00506-5

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