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Skilled Guidance


Skilled action typically requires that individuals guide their activities toward some goal. In skilled action, individuals do so excellently. We do not understand well what this capacity to guide consists in. In this paper I provide a case study of how individuals shift visual attention. Their capacity to guide visual attention toward some goal (partly) consists in an empirically discovered sub-system – the executive system. I argue that we can explain how individuals guide by appealing to the operation of this sub-system. Understanding skill and skilled action thus requires appreciating the role of the executive system.

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  1. 1.

    This notion of guidance derives from Frankfurt (1978). See my 2014 and “Varieties of human agency,” MS.

  2. 2.


  3. 3.

    Fridland 2014, 2019; Ryle 1949; Stanley & Williamson 2001; Noe 2005; Shepherd 2019; Pavese 2018

  4. 4.

    For an argument that all skilled action is goal-directed, see Fridland 2019, 1–5. She rightly points out that goal-direction is compatible with an action’s being automatic in several standard senses.

  5. 5.

    Some philosophers maintain that they must be controlled, because they are actions. Maybe all action requires control over the act’s execution. (Shepherd 2014) I leave this point open.

  6. 6.

    Stanley & Williamson 2001; Fridland 2014; Pavese 2018

  7. 7.

    Pacherie 2006, 2008; Fridland 2019

  8. 8.

    Stanley & Williamson 2001; Pacherie 2006, 2008; Fridland 2014; Butterfill & Sinigaglia 2014; Shepherd 2019

  9. 9.

    Wu 2013; Mylopoulos & Pacherie 2017; Christensen et al. 2016; Montero 2016; Buehler 2019

  10. 10.

    Christensen et al. 2019

  11. 11.

    Papineau 2013; Shepherd 2015

  12. 12.

    Stanley & Krakauer 2013

  13. 13.

    Butterfill & Sinigaglia 2014; Mylopoulos & Pacherie 2017; Shepherd 2019; Fridland 2019. Another strand in the literature focuses on whether skill is intelligent or whether it is automatic. (Stanley & Williamson 2001; Fridland 2017; Christensen et al. 2016; Christensen et al., 2019) What I say about guidance is compatible with the idea that some aspects of skilled action are automatic in some sense. I do, however, reject the notion that skilled action is ballistic, reflex-like, and entirely inflexible.

  14. 14.

    This is not to say that contributors are insensitive to this issue. See Pacherie 2006, 2, 6, 15; 2008, 14. Fridland 2017, 4, 20; 2019, 3ff., 12. Shepherd 2019 rightly points out that, if we do not explain how individuals guide their action through the operation of, e.g., motor control structures, we “risk commitment to something like two centers of agency present in the skilled [agent]. … we seem to need an explanation of how these systems manage to interface and coordinate rather than to compete for the control of action.” (2019, 288) The control must be the individual’s.

  15. 15.

    Christensen et al. 2016 have independently drawn a connection between skilled action and executive function. They are not concerned with goal-directed guidance in my minimal sense, but with the contribution of higher (conscious) cognition, especially conscious attention, to aspects of skilled action. (ibid., 40, 45/6, 61/2) While I think of the executive functions as competencies at the level of sub-systems alone, they seem to think of them as individual-level capacities. (See below, section 3.) While I emphasize functional aspects of agency, in particular, guidance, that the executive functions explain, they focus on explaining the experience of skilled action. But even though (i) their argumentative goal, (ii) their conception of an executive system, and (iii) the empirical data and philosophical arguments they provide differ from mine, I believe that there are more points of agreement than disagreement between the two contributions.

  16. 16.

    Carrasco 2011

  17. 17.

    Posner 1980

  18. 18.

    Jonides 1981

  19. 19.

    Wright. & Ward 2008, 24; Carrasco. 2011, 1488

  20. 20.

    A representational state or event with input from different modalities is intermodal. Modular processes are fast, automatic, driven by a very limited range of inputs, relatively encapsulated, and inaccessible to consciousness. (Fodor1983, 47ff.)

  21. 21.

    They are, or could become, rational-access conscious. (Block. 1995) Human individuals can often report being in those states or undergoing such events.

  22. 22.

    Carrasco 2011; Giordano et al., 2009

  23. 23.


  24. 24.

    Carrasco 2011, 1488

  25. 25.

    The endogenous and exogenous systems are not only behaviorally and functionally, but also anatomically distinct. (Corbetta & Shulman 2002; Shipp 2004; Gottlieb 2014)

  26. 26.

    Behavioral, brain, and computational studies converge in relying on such a map for understanding the activity of the exogenous and endogenous systems. See, for instance, Itti & Koch 2000; Zelinsky 2008; Najemnik & Geisler 2009. I discuss the priority map more fully in my “The priority map,” MS. In what follows, whenever I describe how different systems or states help shift attention, it should be understood that they do so by influencing priority assignments on the priority map.

  27. 27.

    Carrasco 2011; Wright & Ward 2008

  28. 28.

    Theeuwes 1991a; Theeuwes 1991. Cf. also Jonides 1981; Yantis & Jonides 1984; Yantis & Jonides 1990; Theeuwes 1992

  29. 29.

    Wright & Ward 2008. The threshold depends on context.

  30. 30.

    Early research on capture assumed that a salient stimulus overrides the individuals’ endogenous control under all circumstances. But attentional capture is not strongly automatic. Rather, capture is a function of context and intensity of the salient stimulus. (Lamy, 2005; Yeh & Liao 2008; Folk et al., 2009; Lamy et al., 2012)

  31. 31.

    Pashler 2001; Bacon & Egeth 1994

  32. 32.

    Ullman 1996; Cavanagh et al., 2001; Cavanagh 2005

  33. 33.

    Wright & Ward 2008

  34. 34.

    Theeuwes 1991; Yantis & Jonides 1990

  35. 35.

    Folk et al., 1992, 1035

  36. 36.

    Ibid., 1041ff.

  37. 37.

    Walker & McSorley 2008

  38. 38.

    McPeek et al., 2003; Walker et al., 2006

  39. 39.

    Kristjansson & Campana 2010; Kristjansson & Nakayama 2003; Maljkovic & Nakayama 1994; Maljkovic & Nakayama 2000

  40. 40.

    Anderson 2013; Anderson, 2013; Anderson et al., 2011a, b; Anderson et al., 2012

  41. 41.

    Chun & Jiang 1998; Chun 2003; Chun & Turk-Browne 2008

  42. 42.

    Bar 2004; Brady et al., 2008; Hollingworth 2014; Oliva 2005; Torralba et al., 2006; Brockmole and Henderson, 2006; Brockmole and Henderson, 2006

  43. 43.

    Even working memory can draw attention. (Soto et al., 2006; Soto et al., 2008; Soto et al., 2005)

  44. 44.

    See Miyake et al. 2000; Miller & Cohen 2001; Baddeley 2007; Koechlin and Summerfield, 2007, 2014; Diamond 2013; Gazzaniga et al., 2014; Goldstein et al. 2014; Botvinick & Cohen 2014; Fuster 2015. The conception of the executive system that I sketch here is grounded in psychology. I do not commit to the details of specific psychological account of the executive system. For more on the executive system, see (Buehler 2018)I think of the different executive functions as components of a mechanism constituting the individual’s capacity to guide. The executive system is a sub-system of the individual minimally insofar as this system itself is a component in mechanistic explanation of the whole individual’s capacity to guide. (Craver 2007; Weiskopf 2018) See Buehler 2018 and forthcoming for more on explanatory levels. Thanks to a reviewer for pressing these issues.

  45. 45.

    Miyake & Shah 1999; Jurado & Roselli 2007; Baddeley 2007; Anderson et al., 2008

  46. 46.

    Wayne Wu (2016, 108) and Ellen Fridland (2014, sect. 4.2) have proposed that such (active) attention-shifts must be semantically integrated with individuals’ intentions, or top-down biased by their contents. My proposal might be used to specify how the relevant integration or biasing must work. Thanks to a reviewer for prompting clarification.

  47. 47.

    Zelinsky 2008

  48. 48.

    Geisler & Cormack 2011; Najemnik and Geisler, 2009; Zelinsky 2008

  49. 49.

    Of course, not all executive functions need be exercised, for the executive system to regulate some psychological process. The executive system might regulate, e.g. by allocating central resources to a process, even if no memory and inhibition are required for its execution.

  50. 50.

    Olivers & Eimer 2011; Olivers et al., 2006; Olivers et al., 2011

  51. 51.

    Oh & Kim 2004; Woodman & Luck 2004

  52. 52.

    Walther & Fei-Fei 2007; cf. also Lavie et al., 2004

  53. 53.

    Lavie & De Fockert 2005; Lavie, 2000; Fukuda & Vogel 2009; Lavie & Dalton 2014

  54. 54.

    Individuals also guide attention shifts outside of visual search. We have already seen that individuals can intentionally guide their attention to some specific object, location, or region. Shifts subserving more complex, goal-driven intentional actions form another large class of active attention shifts. One sub-class of these shifts consists in shifts subserving motor behavior. (Hayhoe & Ballard 2005; Land, 2009; Sprague et al., 2007; Land 2009) Another sub-class of shifts is directed toward the goal of acquiring information. (Ballard & Hayhoe 2009; Babcock et al., 2002; Canosa et al., 2003)

  55. 55.

    The fact that executive regulation both correlates with, and explains, individuals’ guidance does provide an argument for the claim that the executive system constitutes a capacity to guide. I address this issue more fully in my “A capacity to guide,” MS.

  56. 56.

    Frankfurt 1978

  57. 57.

    Marks do not constitute a definition. They are paradigmatic characteristics of items in the extension of a concept.

  58. 58.

    The literature acknowledges three marks of individual-level states and events. The third mark is their being phenomenally conscious. States of the executive system are often conscious. This fact supports the idea that the executive system underlies individual-level states and events. The fact justifies predictions that guidance-events will often be conscious. But since I reject a functional explanation of phenomenal consciousness, I do not think that appeals to executive regulation explain states and events’ being conscious in any interesting sense. For this reason I relegate the third mark of individual-level states and events to this footnote. See Burge 2010, 369ff.; on consciousness cf. Dennett 1968; on integration cf. Stich 1978; Fodor 1983; Burge 2009; on coordination cf. Frankfurt 1978; Burge 2009; Hyman 2012.

  59. 59.

    See section 2.3

  60. 60.

    Cf. section 2.2

  61. 61.

    Shepherd 2019, 288

  62. 62.

    Cf. section 2.2

  63. 63.

    Butterfill & Sinigaglia 2014; Mylopoulos & Pacherie 2017; Fridland 2017, 2019


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Special thanks to Tyler Burge. Thanks also to Ned Block, Susan Carey, Martin Davies, Harry G. Frankfurt, Pamela Hieronymi, Kevin Lande, Bence Nanay, Elisabeth Pacherie, Christopher Peacocke, Michael Rescorla, Miguel Ángel Sebastián, Josh Shepherd, James Stazicker, David Velleman, and Hong Yu Wong. Thanks to my commentators Peter Fazekas, Mark Fortney, and Sebastian Watzl at the Minds Online 2016 conference, to participants at the NYU Mind & Consciousness Group in September 2016, UNAM-IIF’s TEC discussion group in May 2016, the UCLA Mind and Language Workshop in October 2015, and to audiences at UCLA, Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Leeds, UNAM, the National Research University in Moscow, York University, Antwerp University, the Pacific APA Seattle, and at Tübingen University. Finally, I wish to thank the reviewers and editors for this journal for their feedback and support. I acknowledge funding from ANR-17-EURE-0017.

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Buehler, D. Skilled Guidance. Rev.Phil.Psych. 12, 641–667 (2021).

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