Merleau-Ponty's "Intentional Arc"

from Hubert Dreyfus, "The Current Relevance of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Embodiment"

Dreyfus argues that Merleau-Ponty identifies a series, or intentional arc, which takes us from learner to expert in knowledge. He argues that this is a progressive move that involves the body at every stage, but in different ways. The point is that our knowledge is embodied, but not the way that the empiricists thought.

From Dreyfus:

Stage 1: Novice

[7] Normally, the instruction process begins with the instructor decomposing the task environment into context-free features which the beginner can recognize without benefit of experience in the task domain. The beginner is then given rules for determining actions on the basis of these features, like a computer following a program.

[8] For purposes of illustration, let us consider two variations: a bodily or motor skill and an intellectual skill. The student automobile driver learns to recognize such interpretation-free features as speed (indicated by his speedometer) and he is given rules such as shift to second when the speedometer needle points to ten miles an hour.

[9] The novice chess player learns a numerical value for each type of piece regardless of its position, and the rule: "Always exchange if the total value of pieces captured exceeds the value of pieces lost." He also learns that when no advantageous exchanges can be found, center control should be sought, and he is given a rule defining center squares and one for calculating extent of control. Most beginners are notoriously slow players, as they attempt to remember all these rules and their priorities.

Stage 2: Advanced beginner

[10] As the novice gains experience actually coping with real situations, he begins to note, or an instructor points out, perspicuous examples of meaningful additional aspects of the situation. After seeing a sufficient number of examples, the student learns to recognize them. Instructional maxims now can refer to these new situational aspects, recognized on the basis of experience, as well as to the objectively defined non-situational features recognizable by the novice.

[11] The advanced beginner driver uses (situational) engine sounds as well as (non-situational) speed in his gear-shifting rules. He shifts when the motor sounds like it is straining. He learns to observe the demeanor as well as position and velocity of pedestrians or other drivers. He can, for example, distinguish the behavior of the distracted or drunken driver from that of the impatient but alert one. No number of words can take the place of a few choice examples in learning these distinctions. Engine sounds cannot be adequately captured by words, and no list of objective facts enables one to predict the behavior of a pedestrian in a crosswalk as well as can the driver who has observed many pedestrians crossing streets under a variety of conditions.

[12] With experience, the chess beginner learns to recognize over-extended positions and how to avoid them. Similarly, he begins to recognize such situational aspects of positions as a weakened king's side or a strong pawn structure despite the lack of precise and universally valid definitional rules.

Stage 3: Competence

[13] With more experience, the number of potentially relevant elements of a real-world situation that the learner is able to recognize becomes overwhelming. At this point, since a sense of what is important in any particular situation is missing, performance becomes nerve-wracking and exhausting, and the student might wonder how anybody ever masters the skill.

[14] To cope with this problem and to achieve competence,
people learn, through instruction or experience, to adopt a hierarchical perspective. First they must devise a plan, or choose a perspective, that then determines which elements of the situation are to be treated as important and which ones can be ignored. By restricting themselves to only a few of the vast number of possibly relevant features and aspects, decision-making becomes easier.

[15] The competent performer thus seeks new rules and reasoning procedures to decide upon a plan or perspective. But these rules are not as easily come by as the rules given beginners in texts and lectures. The problem is that there are a vast number of different situations that the learner may encounter, many differing from each other in subtle, nuanced, ways. There are, in fact, more situations than can be named or precisely defined so no one can prepare for the learner a list of what to do in each possible situation.
Competent performers, therefore, have to decide for themselves what plan to choose without being sure that it will be appropriate in the particular situation.

[16] Now, coping becomes frightening rather than exhausting, and the learner feels great responsibility for his or her actions. Prior to this stage, if the learned rules didn't work out, the performer could rationalize that he or she hadn't been given good enough rules rather than feel remorse because of a mistake. Now the learner feels responsible for disasters. Of course, often, at this stage, things work out well, and a kind of relation unknown to the beginner is experienced, so learners find themselves on an emotional roller coaster.

[17] A competent driver leaving the freeway on a curved off-ramp, after taking into account speed, surface condition, criticality of time, etc., may decide he is going too fast. He then has to decide whether to let up on the accelerator, remove his foot altogether, or step on the brake. He is relieved when he gets through the curve without mishap and shaken if he begins to go into a skid.

[18] The class A chess player, here classed as competent, may decide after studying a position that his opponent has weakened his king's defenses so that an attack against the king is a viable goal. If the attack is chosen, features involving weaknesses in his own position created by the attack are ignored as are losses of pieces not essential to the attack. Removal of pieces defending the enemy king becomes salient. Successful plans induce euphoria, while mistakes are felt in the pit of the stomach.

As the competent performer become more and more emotionally involved in his or her tasks, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw back and to adopt the detached rule-following stance of the beginner. While it might seem that this involvement-caused interference with detached rule-testing and improving would inhibit further skill development, in fact just the opposite seems to be the case. As we shall soon see, if the detached rule-following stance of the novice and advanced beginner is replaced by involvement, one is set for further advancement, while resistance to the frightening acceptance of risk and responsibility can lead to stagnation and ultimately to boredom and regression.

Stage 4: Proficient

[20] Suppose that events are experienced with involvement as the learner practices his skill, and that, as the result of both positive and negative experiences, responses are either strengthened or inhibited. Should this happen, the performer's theory of the skill, as represented by rules and principles will gradually be replaced by situational discriminations accompanied by associated responses. Proficiency seems to develop if, and only if, experience is assimilated in this atheoretical way and intuitive behavior replaces reasoned responses.

[21] As the brain of the performer acquires the ability to discriminate between a variety of situations entered into with concern and involvement,
plans are intuitively evoked and certain aspects stand out as important without the learner standing back and choosing those plans or deciding to adopt that perspective. Action becomes easier and less stressful as the learner simply sees what needs to be achieved rather than deciding, by a calculative procedure, which of several possible alternatives should be selected. There is less doubt that what one is trying to accomplish is appropriate when the goal is simply obvious rather than the winner of a complex competition. In fact, at the moment of involved intuitive response there can be no doubt, since doubt comes only with detached evaluation of performance.

Remember that the involved, experienced performer sees goals and salient facts, but not what to do to achieve these goals. This is inevitable since there are far fewer ways of seeing what is going on than there are ways of responding. The proficient performer simply has not yet had enough experience with the wide variety of possible responses to each of the situations he or she can now discriminate to have rendered the best response automatic. For this reason, the proficient performer, seeing the goal and the important features of the situation, must still decide what to do. To decide, he falls back on detached, rule-based determination of actions.

[23] The proficient driver, approaching a curve on a rainy day, may realize intuitively that he is going dangerously fast. He then consciously decides whether to apply the brakes or merely to reduce pressure by some selected amount on the accelerator. Valuable moments may be lost while a decision is consciously chosen, or time pressure may lead to a less than optimal choice. But this driver is certainly more likely to negotiate the curve safely than the competent driver who spends additional time deciding based on speed, angle of curvature, and felt gravitational forces, that the car's speed is excessive.

[24] The proficient chess player, who is classed a master, can recognize a large repertoire of types of positions. Recognizing almost immediately and without conscious effort the sense of a position, he sets about calculating the move that best achieves his goal. He may, for example, know that he should attack, but he must deliberate about how best to do so.

Stage 5: Expertise

[25] The proficient performer, immersed in the world of his skillful activity, sees what needs to be done, but decides how to do it. The expert not only knows what needs to be achieved, based on mature and practiced situational discrimination, but also knows how to achieve the goal. A more subtle and refined discrimination ability is what distinguishes the expert from the proficient performer, with further discrimination among situations all seen as similar with respect to plan or perspective distinguishing those situations requiring one action from those demanding another. With enough experience with a variety of situations, all seen from the same perspective but requiring different tactical decisions, the proficient performer gradually decomposes this class of situations into subclasses, each of which share the same decision, single action, or tactic. This allows the immediate intuitive response to each situation which is characteristic of expertise.

[26] The expert chess player, classed as an international master or grandmaster experiences a compelling sense of the issue and the best move. Excellent chess players can play at the rate of 5-10 seconds a move and even faster without any serious degradation in performance. At this speed they must depend almost entirely on intuition and hardly at all on analysis and comparison of alternatives. For such expert performance, the number of classes of discriminable situations, built up on the basis of experience, must be immense. It has been estimated that a master chess player can distinguish roughly 50,000 types of positions.

[27] A few years ago my brother and I performed an experiment in which a former international junior champion, Julio Kaplan, was required to add numbers presented to him at the rate of about one number per second as rapidly as he could while at the same time playing five-second-a-move chess against a slightly weaker, but master level, player. Even with his analytical mind almost completely occupied by adding numbers, Kaplan more than held his own against the master in a series of games. Deprived of the time necessary to see problems or construct plans, Kaplan still produced fluid and coordinated, long-range strategic play.

[28] Here the question arises: How can the expert initiate and carry through long-range strategies without having assessed the situation, chosen a perspective, made a plan, and formed expectations about how the situation will work out? To answer this question the tradition has assumed that goal directed action must be based on conscious or unconscious planning involving beliefs, desires, and goals. If, however, the expert responds to each situation as it comes along in a way which has proven to be appropriate in the past, his behavior will achieve the past objectives without his having to have these objectives as goals in this conscious or unconscious mind. Thus the expert is moving into the future, and although he does not consciously entertain expectations, he is set to respond to some developments rather than others. If events take a turn that is new to him, he will be startled, and, at best, fall back to competence.

[29] Kaplan's performance seems somewhat less amazing when one realizes that a chess position is as meaningful, interesting, and important to a professional chess player as a face in a receiving line is to a professional politician. Almost anyone can add numbers and simultaneously recognize and respond to faces, even though the face will never exactly match the same face seen previously, and politicians can recognize thousands of faces. Likewise, Julio Kaplan can recognize thousands of chess positions similar to ones previously encountered.

[30] Automobile driving probably involves the ability to discriminate a similar number of typical situations. The expert driver, generally without any awareness, not only knows by feel and familiarity when slowing down on an off-ramp is required; he knows how to perform the appropriate action without calculating and comparing alternatives. What must be done, simply is done.

It seems that a beginner calculates using rules and facts just like a heuristically programmed computer, but that with talent and a great deal of involved experience, the beginner develops into an expert who intuitively sees what to do without applying rules. The tradition has given an accurate description of the beginner and of the expert facing an unfamiliar situation, but normally an expert does not calculate. He does not solve problems. He does what normally works and, of course, it normally works.

[32] Given this account we must now make a qualification that may seem to run counter to Merleau-Ponty's body-rhetoric, but which is in accord with his most fundamental and original insights. A disembodied being could acquire chess mastery by playing mental chess on an imagined board. Its ability to discriminate and respond to the solicitations of more and more subtle patterns and so its ability to play better and better chess would thus not require that it have a body structured like ours. But to acquire a skill at all it must have some kind of perception or imagining capacity and some way to act in response to what is presented to it so as to change the presented situation. Thus the intentional arc must at least be embodied in the sense that the know-how we acquire is reflected back to us in the solicitations of situations correlative with our dispositions to respond to them. It is this attenuated, but still important, sense of embodiment that interests Merleau-Ponty. That is why he speaks of the body's capacity to act, the "I can," not its structure, as its essential trait, and why reading Phenomenology of Perception one gets so little sense of the body's actual shape.(2)