Publication 5803

Sutton J., Mcllwain D., Christensen W. & Geeves A. (2011) Applying intelligence to the reflexes: Embodied skills and habits between Dreyfus and Descartes. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 42(1): 78–103. Fulltext at
Excerpt: “There is no place in the phenomenology of fully absorbed coping”, writes Hubert Dreyfus, “for mindfulness. In flow, as Sartre sees, there are only attractive and repulsive forces drawing appropriate activity out of an active body”. Among the many ways in which history animates dynamical systems at a range of distinctive timescales, the phenomena of embodied human habit, skilful movement, and absorbed coping are among the most pervasive and mundane, and the most philosophically puzzling. In this essay we examine both habitual and skilled movement, sketching the outlines of a multi-dimensional framework within which the many differences across distinctive cases and domains might be fruitfully understood. Both the range of movement phenomena which can plausibly be seen as instances of habit or skill, and the space of possible theories of such phenomena are richer and more disparate than philosophy easily encompasses. We seek to bring phenomenology into contact with relevant movements in psychological theories of skilful action, in the belief that phenomenological philosophy and cognitive science can be allies rather than antagonists. We aim to identify some tensions within recent phenomenological approaches. In rejecting “mindfulness” and arguing that “mindedness is the enemy of embodied coping”, we suggest that Dreyfus is representative of many theorists and practitioners who privilege one aspect or feature of the phenomenology of flow as if it captured the entire phenomenon. Though we do not theorise flow explicitly here, the constructive view we sketch in the final section of the paper is closer to Csikszentmihalyi’s idea that sustained flow experience requires ongoing challenge, the sense of having one’s skills constantly stretched: as he puts it, “although the flow experience appears to be effortless, it is far from being so”, and often involves “highly disciplined mental activity” in the form of “complex mental operations.… completed in a few seconds, perhaps in a fraction of a second”. 3 The kind of mental operations in question are not reflective or considered deliberations, not intellectual instructions to the body, and yet they are in the realm of the psychological, both complex and mindful. Explaining just what ‘mindful’ operations might be in play here for different practitioners on different occasions – what mixes of rich attention, kinesthetic awareness, inter-animated forms of memory, and idiosyncratic sensuous experience – will require careful consideration of many different cases of skilful and absorbed embodied activity.

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