Workshop on minds in skilled performance

Katsunori Miyahara and Ian Robertson are organising the workshop “Minds in Skilled Performance: Integrating naturalistic, pragmatic, and phenomenological approaches” on March 26 at the University of Wollongong.

Minds in Skilled Performance: Integrating naturalistic, pragmatic, and phenomenological approaches

Skilled performance depends on a unique kind of mentality. It belongs to a category of embodied action that is distinct both from non-mental mechanistic movement and deliberate intentional action. Many agree with some form of these claims. However, there is little agreement as to how we should understand the nature of minds in skilled performance in more positive terms. What kind of mentality is it that makes skilled performance possible? This conference aims to explore this question by interlacing inquiries based on different philosophical approaches, including naturalistic philosophy of mind, pragmatism, and phenomenology.


Registration open until Friday, 22nd of March. To register, contact Katsunori Miyahara at

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Dan Hutto (UOW) – “Minds in skilled performance: Competence without content or comprehension”

How can we best characterize the intelligence exhibited in skilled action? On the one hand, skill performances appear to unfold automatically and reflexively, without thought. On the other hand, such performances cannot be explained by blind reflex. Skilled performers anticipate and adapt to and unfolding events in ways that take stock of the particularities of contexts. They intelligently adjust strategy, often rapidly, and sometimes under high-pressured circumstances. How can we understand such intelligence? In addressing this puzzle this presentation introduces the central ideas of Radically Enactive approach to Cognition, or REC.  REC recommends modelling cognition on the embodied and embedded activities of living systems. It construes the most basic forms of cognition as wholly interactive, dynamic and relational. REC, controversially, argues that in its most basic form cognition, which includes much of the perceiving, imagining, remembering of human beings, is not content-involving: it is neither representational at root, nor does it involve picking up and processing informational contents that are used, stored and reused in order to get cognitive work done. Yet REC also recognizes the existence of much rarer forms of cognition which are content-involving. In providing a new way of distinguishing between competent cognizing and comprehending cognizing, REC can help us to characterize and explain minds in skilled performance. However, this approach raises important questions about how much and in what ways experts are likely to be aware of what really drives their skilled mastery of some domain.

Cathy Legg (Deakin University) – “Discursive habits: A representationalist rethinking of teleosemiotics”

Enactivism has greatly benefitted contemporary philosophy by showing in detail how the traditional intellectualist ‘act-content’ model of intentionality is simply insufficient both phenomenologically and naturalistically, and minds are built from ‘operative intentionality’ – world-involving bodily habits. It has been assumed that this insight must entail non-representationalism concerning at least basic minds. But what if we could show that representation is itself a form of skilled performance? I sketch the beginnings of such an account, drawing on Peirce’s pragmatic semiotics, which understands signs as habits whose connections with rich schemas of possible experience render them subject to increasing degrees of self-control. This new framework, I argue, enables us to take a crack at the Information Processing Challenge (Hutto 2011), and offers the prospect of a new, entirely habit-based epistemology.

Massimiliano L. Cappuccio (UNSW Canberra) – “Robots that “choke” – Human performance and artificial intelligence”

For a long time, sport and performance psychologists have been studying the so-called “choking effect”, i.e. the well-known tendency of experts athletes to underperform in pressured-filled situations. Qualitative reports portray the experience of choking as a form of semi-paralyzing incapability to re-enact familiar motor routines. The most prominent theories (skill focus, execution focus, etc.) claim that, at the behavioral/functional level, choking is caused neither by distraction nor overload of the available attentional resources, but by the compulsive self-monitoring of well-trained sensorimotor skills.  When this happens, athletes attend too closely the component processes of their own movements, reducing the fluidity and flexibility of their familiar action routines. According to dispositional reinvestment theory, compulsive tendencies to monitor one’s own actions are motivated by the involuntary, temporary regression of the agent to the beginner stage, due to performance anxiety and insecurity.

Assuming that this is the psychological background of choking, what kinds of cognitive mechanisms are responsible for this phenomenon at the level of the underlying information processing? Some authors speculate that choking could be determined by an over-sensitivity of the error prediction system when motor commands are generated. In other words, because the threshold for what constitutes an error is set too low (so that the slightest deviations are tagged as errors), the motor system issues too many corrective commands, leading to freezing or a sputtered execution. In psycho-linguistics, a similar excessive issuing of corrective actions has been proposed as the cause of stuttering during speech production, a condition that presents many analogies with choking at the neuro-cognitive and behavioral level.

In this paper, I suggest that modelling the phenomenon of skill disruption with synthetic methods through forward models, based on a combination of predictive processing and dynamical systems theory, can improve our understanding of the fundamental nature of skill and expertise, in multiple ways. First, from the point of view of neuro-cognitive and psychological research, such model can help us identify the characteristic features of the athletes that are most prone to choking, tailoring therapeutic intervention on their specific needs. Second, from the point of view of a biomimetic approach to robotics, it tells us what it would take for an artificial system to simulate the remarkable adaptivity and flexibility, but also the fragility, of the human expert sensorimotor skills. Third, from the point of view of phenomenology and theoretical research, it allows us to distinguish the specific roles played by the notion of consciousness, awareness, intention, and attention in the control of automatized action.

Kath Bicknell (Macquarie University) – “From flips to foibles: The dynamic experience of embodied expertise”

How do our changing, physiological capacities impact skill, agency, anxiety and control? How do experts guide their minds and bodies, or the minds and bodies of others, to perform skilful tasks in response? And what challenges does this raise for theories of skilled action ­– theories which tend to emphasise embodied knowledge and a continuum of improvement over the dynamic, sometimes restrictive, capabilities of our unique, bodily capacities? Our strengths, our limitations, our foibles.

In this paper, I present findings from a three-year autoethnographic study investigating the ways cognitive strategies developed in high-performance sport in one domain (mountain biking) may influence developmental experiences in another (the trapeze). In doing so, I describe the value of phenomenological and ethnographic methods as one avenue for responding to the questions above, methods which are frequently called for in studies of skill and cognition in philosophy and psychology. My analysis highlights the distributed, idiosyncratic and context-specific ways in which strategies honed on the bike, and in a physiotherapy context, fundamentally shaped experiences of lowering and raising anxiety, and sharpening focus, before attempting complex tricks in a training environment on the trapeze. These observations raise questions about the dynamic and context-specific nature of agency and affordances, and highlight the value of experientially-grounded research methods to interdisciplinary debates on skilled action and cognition. I demonstrate the reciprocal benefits of interdisciplinary study in actively shaping new paradigms for ongoing research, and suggest that sometimes a little anxiety and inhibition can in fact be key, rather than detrimental, to the successful execution of skilled technique.

Shaun Gallagher (University of Memphis/UOW) – “Prospecting performance: Rehearsing prior to acting”

There is plenty of empirical evidence that anticipation is an essential characteristic of motor functioning, and this underpins our capacity to reorganize our actions in line with events that are yet to happen. In this presentation I want to explore what this means with respect to the concept of affordance, and whether this is best conceived as a form of simulation. I’ll argue that nothing is an affordance for my enactive engagement if it is presented to me passively in a knife-edge present; that is, nothing would be afforded if there were only sensory impressions, one after the other, without my perception having an anticipatory structure (or what phenomenologists call a protentional structure), since I cannot enactively engage with the world if the world is not experienced as a set of possibilities, which, by definition, involves the not-yet.

Ian Robertson (UOW) – “Knowledge how isn’t knowledge that: why skilful action doesn’t always require propositional knowledge”

[Coming soon]

Katsunori Miyahara (UOW) – “Motor-intentionality: Non-propositional or contentless?”

Merleau-Ponty’s notion of ‘motor intentionality’ plays a central role in Hubert Dreyfus’ influential non-representational account of skilled action. In this talk, I first argue that Dreyfus sometimes runs together two different conceptions of this notion, which I call “the motor intentional content conception” and “the contentless conception,” but that it is confused to treat them as describing the same notion because they entail different accounts of skilled action. I then argue that the contentless conception is more favourable: It is more congruent with Merleau-Ponty’s account and the phenomenon itself of skilled action.

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Attendance to the conference is free, but registration is recommended to ensure your seat. To register, please contact Katsunori Miyahara ( by Friday, 22nd March.

This event is hosted by Philosophy@UOW, jointly sponsored and supported by the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry and the School of Liberal Arts.​ It is funded by the ARC Discovery project “Minds in Skilled Performance: Explanatory Framework and Comparative Study” (DP170102987). Project Members: Dan Hutto (Lead CI), Michael Kirchhoff (CI), Jesús Ilundain-Agurruza, Shaun Gallagher (PIs), Katsunori Miyahara (Post-doc), and Ian Robertson (PhD student).

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