Philosophy of Skill

Philosophy of Skill

There is no such thing as what the above title describes. We have philosophy of knowledge, perception, thought, emotions, imagination, and action—but not philosophy of skill (except for some scattered remarks). You can’t take a course in philosophy of skill in a typical philosophy department. So, let’s create the subject—let’s put it on the map. We will begin with some good old-fashioned ordinary language philosophy—what we would say when and why. The OED sets the stage: for “skill” we read “ability to do something well; expertise or dexterity”. This is admirably terse, but it needs some expansion. I can walk well, but would we say that walking is a skill? What about breathing or excreting or sitting down or picking one’s nose? The bit that’s missing from the dictionary definition is difficulty and value: a skilled action is one that overcomes or minimizes a difficulty—it isn’t something easy and automatic—and it should be something that is valuable or worthwhile or good. We don’t say that an action is skilled if it is easy and of no account, however well done it may be—say, chucking mud over the neighbor’s fence for the hell of it. We don’t see competitions devoted to such activities, or public esteem for their agents. Expertise and dexterity help, but what kind of expertise and dexterity—not in mere mudslinging (or nose picking). The paradigms of skillful action include piano playing, surgery, and tennis—where we recognize that these are worth doing and require much dedication and practice. I will therefore say that skill involves overcoming obstacles to the achievement of a goal, as well as merit in the goal achieved (we don’t say “Jones is a skilled bullshitter” or “Wendy is a skillful annoying guest”). Synonyms for “skillful” include “talented”, “accomplished”, “adept”, “adroit”, “competent”—all positive terms of evaluation. So, a skill should require for its mastery some degree of training and effort and be directed to something meritorious. A skilled surgeon is properly so described, or a skilled craftsman. We admire skill precisely because skill requires dedication to an esteemed outcome in the face of obstacles to success. Skills are learned, acquired, honed, refined—all in the service of something good. This is the difference between skilled labor and unskilled labor (or simply being a thief). The idea of a skilled torturer sticks in the throat because it lacks the latter while it might conceivably involve the former; and the idea of a skilled food purveyor lacks the element of expertise and training. We are now moving towards an analysis of skill in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions: Xis skilled in doing A if and only if X can do A despite obstacles to doing A and A is a worthwhile thing to do.[1]We might add to this barebones analysis the further condition that X has to learn to do A by training and practice, and that worthwhileness can take many forms (so we can include surgery, tennis, and piano playing under the proposed definition). I will leave it to the reader to think through such examples as “skilled lawyer”, “skilled politician”, “skilled policeman”, “skilled chess player”, “skilled detective”, “skilled weightlifter”, “skilled philosopher”, “skilled predator”, “skilled postman”, “skilled butter-spreader”, “skilled lover”, “skilled thinker”, “skilled perceiver”, “skilled salesman”, “skilled cashier”, “skilled alcoholic”, “skilled gossip”, “skilled TV watcher”, etc. Which of these locutions sounds right and which wrong, and why?

Is talking a skill? I mean ordinary chatting about this and that, not public speaking or thespian performance. I think not: because we can all do it easily and without practice and training—it’s like eating or walking or avoiding pointy objects or biting your fingernails. There is no skill involved; this why no one is paid to do these things and there are no sports involving them. Writing is a skill, even if done poorly, because it has to be acquired by effort and it has merit; but mere talking isn’t. Swimming is a skill, but floating isn’t, or jumping into the pool. Playing a musical instrument is a skill, but singing per se isn’t—unless you take voice training lessons. Dancing may or may not be a skill, or mountain climbing. Talking is indeed an ability, a type of competence, but it isn’t really a skill—though it is like a skill such as speaking in a foreign language. Dropping a ball isn’t a skill, though throwing one is. Talking is like dropping a ball—it comes naturally, effortlessly. Animals are not usually spoken of as possessing skills, except metaphorically by comparison with human skills, because animals don’t generally work at improving their motor capacities; where they do, the term is appropriate. It would be strange to say that birds are skilled flyers or sharks skilled swimmers—though they are both good at these activities. They don’t admire other members of their species for their (ordinary) flying and swimming skills (as we don’t admire other humans for their bipedal walking skills). No obstacles had to be overcome by these species; they were born this way. Animals are generally good at excreting (they had better be), but no one thinks to congratulate them for their skillful acts of excretion. Talking is like excreting in this respect (as in other respects). Nor are perceiving, remembering, and thinking skills, though they may be involved in the exercise of genuine skills. The concept of skill is quite specific and is not to be identified with the concepts of ability or capacity or competence. It would be quite wrong to say that a blind man lacks the skill of seeing, since seeing isn’t a skill, though seeing can be described as an ability. I don’t see the cup in front of me skillfully.

Are some kinds of skill paradigmatic while others are so described only by analogy? The OED tells us that “skill” is primarily used to ascribe “manual or physical” skills. This is exactly right: hands are the primary locus of skill, with feet coming second, and other body parts following along, the mental kind of skill being a distant runner-up. The pianist and the carpenter are the paradigms—they are “good with their hands”. The skilled agent has skilled hands above all (footballers may loudly protest, but they are an unusual case). Hand skill is not the same as hand strength or endurance or sheer flexibility; it is a matter of fine-tuned dexterity—a word that covers a multitude of talents. For dexterity comes in many forms that don’t transfer much from one to the other: you can have finger dexterity in one domain but not in others (e.g., throwing a ball with spin versus playing the violin). The brain, of course, is centrally involved, but the hand is the part of the body where the skill shows itself. It is our skill with our hands that sets us apart from other species, and which led to our species dominance.[2] The human hand is designed for skilled action, because of its powers of gripping and its team of adaptable digits. A skilled lawyer or politician can handle difficult situations, quickly, nimbly, effectively; he or she can mend fences, hold people together, keep a firm grip on things. Lawyers and politicians tend to use hand gestures a lot when they speak, as if exhibiting their strong (but gentle!) hands—so caressing, so reliable. They are not inept or clumsy; they have the world in the palm of their hands. They won’t let you slip. And they are always shaking people’s hands—they are skillful at that. The skilled laborer, for them, is the salt of the earth, the repository of all that is good and wholesome: the skilled hand is the good hand, the virtuous hand, the industrious hand. Manual skill is something to be admired and prized. The more a man approximates to that paradigm the better he is thought to be. Thus, skill comes to occupy a position of social and political centrality. A man who does not work with his hands is hardly working at all (he is an egghead, a brainiac, a pencil-pusher, an “intellectual”). In any case, the concept of skill is centered on the hands and derivatively elsewhere. Not “In the beginning was the deed” but “In the beginning was the skilled hand deed”.

The concept of skill has been neglected by philosophy (analytical philosophy anyway—too closely associated with the laboring classes), but it has not been neglected by other disciplines. I am referring to economics and psychology, in which skill has always had a central role. In the case of economics, the concept comes in via the focus on labor as the engine of production—skilled labor being of paramount importance to an economy. It is skill that primarily drives economies, where manual skill holds pride of place. When the economist speaks of the contribution of labor to productivity, he really means skilled labor—the greater the skill of the workforce the greater the economic progress. What is called the division of labor is really the division of skill, in which each worker specializes in a particular sub-skill (say, nail sharpening in Adam Smith’s famous example). The more that different skills are parceled out to different agents, the greater the productivity, and hence the greater the wealth of the society. The philosopher could contribute to this subject by employing her specific kind of intellectual talent (skill?) to clarify the concept of skill. In the case of psychology, the study of skill has been there from the start; not behavior as such but skilled behavior. How are skills acquired? What learning methods work best? Are there transfers of training between skills? But philosophy, which borders economics and psychology, has had little time for the concept of skill, preferring to focus on the cognitive and the phenomenological. Even cognitive science has shied away from skilled motor performance (perception and reason being the favored subjects). There is nothing objectionably behaviorist about studying skilled action, which has its roots in the brain after all. So, I suggest making the philosophy of skill part of the philosopher’s regular agenda. Enterprising graduate students could specialize in the philosophy of skill (not much literature to read).[3]

[1] This may remind us of Bernard Suits’ definition of a game in The Grasshopper (1978).

[2] See my Prehension (2015).

[3] Whole dissertations could be written on the different skills (piano playing, wood carving, knife throwing). Interdisciplinary work could be undertaken. Journals could be founded (Skill Studies, Hand, Quarterly Journal of the Society for the Study of Human Skilled Behavior). Bitter controversies would ensue.

6 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    In addition to the distinction physical vs mental, is that of form vs content also relevant? If you consider the designation “skilled writer”, presumably what is typically being called out is the writer’s craft, the quality of the form of what they produce, not necessarily the content of what they write. A skilled writer would make a good pen (or keyboard) for hire. Another example: a skilled painter is not necessarily a great painter.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      That’s right: being a skilled writer or painter is not the same as being an interesting writer or painter, let alone a great one. But I can’t think of a great one of these that isn’t also skilled at what they do.

  2. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    Learning a skill seems like consciously practicing an activity so much that it can become subconscious. I’ve watched drummers for over 20 years and I get the feel that drum fills are channeled – the drummer is not quite as in control of them consciously than they might be the rest of the beat (they often don’t remember exactly what they did when I ask them to repeat it). Once they are commited, we/they don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out. Same with lead guitar – it is channeled to some degree. Writing songs certainly contains an element of subconcious channeling. However it is only learning the skill that allows this. It’s almost as though the main obstacle to be overcome is consciousness itself. By practicing hard it becomes like breathing. In fact when performing live – being overly conscious of what you are doing is often disastrous.

    Musically – I am generally bored by virtuosity (though I might still admire it) unless the individual can impart feel. I have heard a number of performers who are highly technically proficient at extreme speeds, but otherwise emotionless, musically dead – a robot could do it. I have also heard performers who could play mesmerizingly fast and make me cry. So the question would be whether feel is part of skill or something different? In terms of lead guitar playing, feel comes from timing, dynamics and vibrato – all these things could be learnt and still be emotionless. Perhaps connecting these things to one’s emotions directly could be skill too?

    I would also imagine the skill level of a bullshitter is inversely related to the level of all their other skills and frankly – to be fair – annoying guests always seem extremely skillfull to me.


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