A picture of a woman reflectively and skillfully repairing an engine.

On Whether Reflection Is A Skill

In my last post, I considered whether reflective reasoning is a virtue. One possibility was that reflection cannot be a virtue. However, if reflection is not a virtue, then we need another account of why many people value reflection. One such account might be that reflection is a skill. In this post, I’ll briefly consider some reasons for and against thinking that reflection is a skill.

(For the uninitiated: What Is Reflective Reasoning?)

1. Reflection Is Not Necessary For Skill

At first glance, reflection seems like a skill. However, skill need not require reflection. To illustrate, consider mathematicians.

Some professional mathematicians have a sense of whether a theorem is provable just by looking at it. In other words, some mathematicians seem to be able to make good judgments unreflectively. That seems like a skill. After all, determining the provability of mathematical theorems at a glance is probably not the kind of thing that amateurs can do. Rather, unreflective proof estimation is a skill that requires years of training.

This suggests that reflection is not necessary for something to be a skill. After all, mathematicians seem to exercise skill without reflection.

2. Reflection Cannot Be A Skill

While some think that reflection is merely unnecessary for skill, others seem to think that reflection is altogether incompatible with skill. For instance, some people say things like “our snap reactions are the real measure of skill because they represent our true level of expertise”—I’m not quoting anyone in particular, but here’s an excerpt from someone who might say something like that:

Have you ever been driving effortlessly along a city street in a stick-shift car and suddenly found yourself consciously thinking about the gear you are in and whether it’s appropriate? Chances are the sudden reflection upon what you were doing and the rules for doing it was accompanied by a severe degradation of performance. (Dreyfus, 1986)

The idea is that skill is exercised unreflectively; skill is not the kind of thing that we can do reflectively. So if a skill is the kind of thing that is exercised unreflectively, then reflection—by definition—seems to be ineligible for skill status.

3. Skill Can Be Reflective

As you might expect, some philosophers disagree with the idea that reflection cannot be a skill (Montero, 2016). These people refer to examples of skillful action—e.g., professional dancing or, in my experience, welding—that seem to benefit from mindfulness and concentration. So insofar as mindfulness and concentration amount to reflection, it would seem that there are cases of skill that are reflective.

A question that remains is whether this allows us to conclude that reflection is a skill. Perhaps this only gets as far as saying that reflection can be involved in skillful action. Does this get us all the way to the conclusion that reflection itself is a skill? An answer to that question would seem to require an account of what skill is (and is not), which goes beyond the scope of a blog post. Fortunately, I have blogged about this in the past. So if you’re interested, you might want to check out “The Roles Of Intuition & Reflection In Skill & Expertise“.

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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