Today's post is by Barbara Gail Montero.
I’m a philosophy professor at the City University of New York (with a rather unusual background since prior to studying philosophy I worked as a professional ballet dancer for a number of years). Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind (Oxford University Press) is a book I’ve written that challenges the widely held view that, once you are good at something, thinking about your action, as you’re doing it, hampers your skill.
One of my goals in the book is to dispel various mythical accounts of experts who proceed without any understanding of what guides their actions. Those chicken sexers that philosophers are fond of citing who can’t explain why they makes their judgments—they don’t exist. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which supposedly came to him fully formed in a dream, actually took nearly ten years to write. Kekulé’s well known story that in 1862 the idea for the ring structure for benzene came to him in a flash after dreaming of a snake biting its tail, is contradicted by his own lesser known written account that his theory was formed in 1858. Such stories, I argue, are attractive, but misleading.
I also critically analyze research (in both philosophy and psychology) that extrapolates from everyday skills to draw conclusions about expert performance. I argue that experts’ extended analytical training, as well as the relatively higher stakes involved in expert action, make quotidian tasks (such as everyday driving) different enough from expert-level actions (such as professional race-car driving) so as to not warrant extrapolation from the former to the latter. Extended deliberate training, I argue, enables experts to perform while engaging their self-reflective capacities without any detrimental effects; it allows them to think and do at the same time.