Mind in Skilled Performance ARC Discovery Project

Mind in Skilled Performance (ARC Discovery Project - DP170102987)

Project overview

Our ARC Discovery Project team is developing a new explanatory framework for characterising the mentality of skilled performance, focusing on its intelligent and emotional factors and how they dynamically integrate. An illuminating understanding of minds in skilled performance is highly sought after yet it remains elusive. Utilising and refining core ideas of enactive and embodied approaches to cognition, this project addresses philosophical challenges that have blocked progress in this domain. A distinctive feature of our approach is to establish links between Anglo-American Analytic philosophy of mind and other rich traditions of thought, including Phenomenology, Pragmatism and Japanese ".". Our aims are to clarify and re-contextualise what these diverse traditions of thought have to offer to contemporary thinking about skilled performance.

Project status report

Project team:

This ARC DP has two main phases.

Phase 1

Phase 1 of the project aims to develop a new explanatory framework for understanding the cognitive basis of skilled performance, divided into two work-packages.

Work Package 1 is focused on Enactive Intelligence and Emotion and involves Hutto (lead), Kirchhoff and Robertson. It seeks to: (1) determine if a modified biosemantic theory differs from crude behaviourism; (2) evaluate whether intentionality of basic emotions requires representing targets in ways that involve reference or truth conditions; (3) explicate what it means for environmental targets to appear under phenomenal aspects.

Work package 2 is focused on Brains in Performance and involves Kirchhoff (lead), Hutto and Robertson. It seeks to: (1) analyse the compatibility of predictive processing accounts and radically enactive approaches to mind; (2) determine if a non-representational account of predictive processing is possible; and (3) develop an explanation of how intelligence and emotion could coemerge from the same underlying predictive neural architecture.

There have been many publications emerging from Phase 1 of the project already. To date the team has produced three books (MIT, OUP, Routledge), with another in press with OUP by Gallagher entitled: Action and Interaction. This phase also produced over 40 project-related articles and book chapters, in prominent venues (e.g. The MIT Press Handbook of Embodied Cognition and Sport PsychologyThe Oxford Handbook of 4E CognitionThe Routledge Handbook on Skill and Expertise, and high-ranking generalist philosophy journals (e.g. Philosophical Studies and Synthese).

Currently, a further 12 project-related papers are under review/in development, including several pieces co-authored by the PhD/Post doc and CIs/PIs. Promisingly, one of the articles emerging from this phase, on basic emotions, has already figured centrally in a University of Sydney PhD thesis.

Phase 2

Phase 2 will be comprised of comparative studies. This is deemed necessary for two reasons. First, some philosophers find the very idea of a contentless mind to be hard, if not impossible, to imagine (Aizawa 2014). Second, enactive and embodied accounts of contentless minds have been faulted for saying too little about how to understand the character of such minds (Shapiro 2014). Phase 2 seeks to address these problems by demonstrating that the notion of contentless mind is not an aberration but that it, or something near enough, can be found at the core of influential reflections about the nature of minds in performance in non-analytic philosophical traditions.

Work-package 3, on Phenomenology, runs from Spring 2019. The team, led by PI Gallagher and Miyahara, will work with the CIs and PhD to explore the possibilities that there are resources in the phenomenological tradition for understanding a contentless reading of intentionality which can aid our understanding of minds in skilled performance.

Work-package 4, on Pragmatism, will run in Autumn 2020. The team, led by PI Gallagher and Miyahara, will work with the CIs and PhD to explore the degree of overlap between the project’s vision of contentless minds and the Deweyian notion of habit. This arm of our research will provide a basis for re-establishing the contemporary relevance of a venerable way of understanding minds that has fallen out of favour since the rise of representationalist theories of mind in the wake of the cognitive revolution.

Work-Package 5, on Japanese Dō., is running from Autumn 2019 until Autumn 2020. It is led by PI Ilundáin-Agurruza and Miyahara, who will work with the CIs and PhD as needed.

This work-package is particularly important to our project. Nowhere are the unique characteristics of minds in skilled performance better exhibited than in East Asian traditional martial arts. The varied techniques of Japanese jutsu 術, warfare techniques, the original Chinese martial arts, zhōngguó wǔshù, 中國武術, or the skills of the Korean Hwarang, 화랑/花郎, all require incredibly fast and accurate adaptations to possibly deadly challenges in extreme conditions. Properly characterizing this fluid and processual notion of skilled performance, capturing its emotional tonality, and connecting it with any Western vision of mind is challenging. Initial work comparing a radically enactive account of mind as an activity with Japanese dō via canonical texts in translation has yielded promising results (Ilundáin-Agurruza 2016). That work elicited deeper questions that can only be answered by examining the original Japanese texts in light of the most recent developments in enactivism: Can mushin’s ‘no-mindedness’ be characterized as any kind of cognition? Can a radically enactive framework account for this state’s fluid mindfulness and emotional temperance? What role does ‘emptiness’ – an extremely fertile concept in this tradition – play in successful performance and can it be articulated in radically enactivist terms? 

Forging these links with such Japanese traditions is also philosophically valuable because, as Slote claims, Asian conceptions of mind can serve to correct the ‘exceedingly intellectualistic’ tendencies of Western thought. Indeed, with the right conceptual backing, they can help “to correct or reset Western philosophy by drawing [on] … traditions which have recognized the value of emotion” (Slote 2015 p. 1).

PI Ilundáin-Agurruza visited UOW for an intensive collaborative visit in August-September 2017. He also spoke at a UOW’s Naturally Evolving Minds conference in Feb 2018, and he will return as part of ICA in 2020, and will organize meetings with Miyahara with relevant contacts in Japan.


Project findings have been disseminated by team members at the following events:

These efforts at dissemination have been well received. As Prof. Kono, Rikkyo University, Japan, reports: “I think the symposium was a great success and the audience was strongly impressed by the new direction of phenomenology you have proposed”.

Significantly, though our project uses tools and methods familiar to analytic philosophers, it  adopts a pluralist spirit and actively seeks to engage with and benefit from non-analytic schools of thought.

Cooperation among researchers in the analytic, phenomenological and Buddhist traditions is fairly common nowadays, given that enactivism is partly inspired by Buddhist sources. Our project takes the further step of bringing Japanese traditions, not actively studied in Australian philosophy, into the mix. Supporting the Australian Association of Philosophy’s ambition to promote diversity and inclusion, it can serve an exemplary model of how productive research connections can be fostered between diverse philosophical traditions without loss of rigor.