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The Roles of Intuition & Reflection in Skill & Expertise

Some people think that skill and expertise is unreflective and flow-like. Others disagree. They think that skillful and expert actions often accompany (or even require) reflection. In this post, I give you excerpts from well-known proponents of each view and try to clarify their disagreement.

1. Skill & Expertise Is About Intuition

If skill and expertise are unreflective, then reflective reasoning is, by definition, not a skill. Hubert Dreyfus seems to have held this kind of intuitionist view about skill and expertise.

skill in any domain is measured by the performer’s ability to act appropriately in situations that might once have been problems but are no longer problems and so do not require analytic reflection. (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986, 156)

1.2 First Caveat

For Dreyfus, reflection might be a way of controlling or supervising one’s reasoning while one develop’s a skill. But once they ascend to skillful expertise, according to Dreyfus, they kick away the ladder of reflection that got them there. From then on, they exercise skill and expertise unreflectively—or “intuitively” (Tabel 1-1).

Table 1-1 from Dreyfus and Dreyfus’s 1986 book, Mind over Machine

So for Dreyfus, one of the marks of skill and expertise is not reflection, but intuition. And Dreyfus is not necessarily naive about intuition. He is well aware of how intuition can be faulty. But for Dreyfus, even intuition’s faults can feature in skill and expertise: “Hunches and intuitions, and even systematic illusions, are the very core of expert decision-making” (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986, 10, italics added).

1.2 Second Caveat

Intuitionists like Dreyfus seem to realize that treating skill and expertise as categorically intuitive and non-reflective is, well, counterintuitive. After all, even professional (expert?) philosophers like Dreyfus do their philosophy (e.g., writing, teaching, arguing, etc.) reflectively. They consciously and deliberately think about claims, arguments, and evidence. So, like many intuitionists, Drefyus admitted that reflection can be involved in skill and expertise—but only in the service of unreflective intuition.

While most expert performance is ongoing and nonreflective, when time permits and outcomes are crucial, an expert will deliberate before acting. But as we shall show shortly, this deliberation does not require calculative problem solving, but rather involves critically reflecting on one’s intuitions. (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986, 32)

Other intuitionists sometimes make this kind of concession by pointing out that intuitions can be compared against other intuitions via reflection.

where a genuine intuition …is misleading, it can at least normally be defeated by other intuitions that reflection might generate or by other elements in the reflective equilibrium…. (Audi 2009, 67)

So the intuitionists want to say that unreflective intuition is neccesary for skill and expertise. However, they seem to grant that some reflection can be involved in skill and expertise.

2. Skill & Expertise Is About Reflection

Other philosophers think that reflection is more crucial to skill and expertise than Dreyfus. Barbara Montero reports,

A theme of my research is that [ten or more years of close to daily extended practice with the specific aim of improving] enables experts to perform while engaging their self-reflective capacities without any detrimental effects; it allows experts to think and do at the same time. (Montero 2016)

So reflection is compatible with skill and expertise. That seems right. But compare that claim to the intuitionist’s disclaimers about reflection—i.e., that skill and expertise can involve reflection. This comparison makes you wonder whether intuitionists like Dreyfus and reflectivists like Montero actually disagree.

3. What Is The Disagreement, Exactly?

Both intuitionists like Dreyfus and Audi and reflectionists like Montero agree that skill and expertise can involve reflection. So what (if anything) do they disagree about?

3.1 The Importance of Reflection

Perhaps the reflectionist disagrees about the degree to which reflection matters to skill and expertise. Both intuitionists and reflectionists think that skill and expertise can involve reflection. So perhaps intuitionists think that reflection is not as important to skill and expertise as reflectionists think that it is. There is some evidence of that in Montero’s use of ‘a great deal of’ in the following line:

“[E]xperts …perform their exquisite skills with, if not infinite, than at least a great deal of thoughtful, attentive, and self-reflective conscious control” (Montero 2016, underline added).

The idea here is that the difference between the intuitionists and reflectionists is this: the degree to which reflection matters for skill and expertise. Admittedly, that would be a fine-grained difference. And until the difference is formalized, it is not clear that such a difference is significant.

3.2 The Necessity of Reflection

Dreyfus’s account of skill suggests that reflection is necessary only for developingskill. It is not necessary for exercising skill, once skill is obtained. So maybe reflectionists disagrees with that. Maybe reflectionists like Montero think that reflection is necessary not only for developing skill, but for exercising it.

However, whenever Montero has the opportunity to claim that exercising skill and expertise necessarily involve reflection, she abstains. Rather, she says something softer: e.g., skill and expertise “often” or “frequently” involve reflection.

The expert emergency room nurse, the professional ballet dancer, or tennis player, …when in the thick of things, often do and should pay attention to or focus on what they are doing. (Montero 2016, underline added)

For experts, when all is going well, optimal or near optimal performance frequently employs some of the following conscious mental processes: self-reflective thinking, planning, predicting, deliberation, attention to or monitoring of their actions, conceptualizing their actions, control, trying, effort, having a sense of the self, and acting for a reason. (Montero 2016, underline added)

So it’s not even clear that intuitionists and reflectionists disagree about the necessity of reflection for skill and expertise. They both seem to think that reflection is necessary for developing skil/expertise and sometimes involved in exercising skill/expertise. But neither intuitionists like Dreyfus nor reflectionists like Montero think that reflection is necessary for exercising skill and expertise.

3.3  The Evidence For Intuition vs. Reflection

Another possibility is that reflectionists disagree with intuitionists’ method. That is, reflectionists might think that intuitionists are wrong about how to infer that a given skillful and expert performance is intuitive or reflective.

[S]ome may accept the view that expert action is unreflective because, quite simply, expert actions often appear effortless. This is particularly true of ballet, where movements are often supposed to produce the illusion of effortlessness. Yet this illusion is difficult to create. (Montero 2016)

So perhaps reflectionists do, in fact, disagree with intuitionists. Perhaps reflectionists think that intuitionists’ interpretation of the evidence is somehow wrong. The mere appearance or phenomenology of not reflecting might not be sufficient to conclude that a skilled expert is not reflecting. And if that is right, then the intuitionist will need to either (a) amend their view or (b) find other kinds of evidence that skilled experts are not reflecting.


Philosophers seem to disagree about how reflection is involved in skill and expertise. However, it is not clear what they disagree about or whether their disagreement is significant. Their disagreement might only be about the method by which we determine whether any given skilled expert is reflecting.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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