Expertise: An Interdisciplinary Problem

I am grateful to The Brains Blog for the opportunity to discuss my book Expertise: A Philosophical Introduction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). In this opening post, I introduce what I call the five Big Questions about expertise and explain how my book focuses on attempts by philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists to answer the first two. In posts 2 through 4, I sketch the central strategies used by each of these disciplines to answer these questions, along with their strengths and limitations. On Friday, I will outline a new philosophical approach to expertise informed by these discussions that I call the “Cognitive Systems” account of expertise.

Getting Started

Some concepts are so rooted in ordinary language that attempts to study them quickly become a series of quibbles over examples. Expertise is such a concept. We know what it means in general. We use it casually without any trouble. It has something do with knowledge and something to do with skill, and we tend to agree that experts—other things being equal—are authorities in their domains who can be trusted to some degree to work well in those domains. This is why we hire tax professionals when our finances get complicated, why we hire attorneys instead of representing ourselves, and so on. In other words, we know that some people stand, consistently, in a better epistemic position than we do with respect to some types of information or abilities.

It is easy to think of such people as experts. But what does it mean to be an expert? Is someone an expert just because they can do something better than we can, or do they also have to be great at it? Is it enough to be certified in a field or have a terminal degree in a domain (as we say with accountants and attorneys), or do they also have to have a minimum amount of experience in that field (as we say with doctors)? The sort of competence associated with expertise varies across domains. Pilots are not experts in the way that art historians are, and chess skill differs from Olympic athletics. Further, some people seem to be born with outstanding abilities, whereas others must train extensively. What might all this tell us about the nature of expertise?

Expertise Studies

Attempts to answers questions like these comprise the rich, multi-disciplinary field of expertise studies, which includes philosophy, psychology, sociology, political science, and neurology.

Despite research programs that trace to the early 1970s, very few scholars have collaborated across domains to study expertise. Yet, notably, all these projects can be understood as attempting to answer, whether directly or indirectly, what I call the five Big Questions of expertise:

1. What is an expert?

2. How does someone become an expert?

3. What does it mean to say that an expert has “authority,” and how much should we trust authorities?

4. How does anyone recognize an expert, and how do we choose which experts to listen to?

5. How do we decide what to believe or do when experts disagree?

This suggests a way of approaching expertise that allows each domains to speak to the others. Of course, each of these research programs is fairly extensive, and their answers vary in significant ways. So, in the book, I tackle only the first 2 of these questions.

Some scholars, for example, stipulate that experts are people who perform in the top 1% of their domain (Ericsson and Charness 1994). Others say experts are people who have more true beliefs and fewer false than most people (Goldman 2001). Still other say experts, at minimum, can competently speak the language of a domain (Collins and Evans 2007). With respect to what competence consists in, some say explicit knowledge, some say tacit knowledge, some say embodied knowledge, and some say performance, among several others. Over the next four days, I will sketch some of the major debates around these questions.

Why a philosophical introduction?

My goal in the book was originally only to introduce the variety of assumptions and difficulties involved in answering these questions, to explain the most prominent philosophical, psychological, and sociological theories of expertise, and to highlight how each project can be used to inform and critique the others. Because such a project combines conceptual analysis with empirical insights on topics like testimony, authority, and trust, the concepts and assumptions that underwrite social epistemology seemed an especially apt lens through which to synthesize the disparate fields of expertise studies.

Happily, the project proved not only descriptive and introductory, but also constructive. Engaging with expertise research across various disciplines revealed the implausibility of some ways of approaching expertise, such as those that conflate expertise with mere professionalism and those that conflate it with mere public trust. It also proved constructive in that the strengths and limitations of domain-specific theories suggested a new, interdisciplinary theory of expertise that I call the “Cognitive Systems” account. Ultimately, I hope the book bridges domains of expertise studies in a way that provides a foundation for further interdisciplinary research.

Tomorrow, I will sketch the strengths and limitations of truth-based accounts of expertise, according to which having a minimum threshold of true beliefs or knowledge in a domain is necessary for expertise.


Collins, Harry and Robert Evans (2007). Rethinking Expertise, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ericsson, K. Anders and Neil Charness (1994). “Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition,” American Psychologist 49(8): 725-747.

Goldman, Alvin (2001). “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63 (1): 85-109.

Watson, Jamie Carlin (2020). Expertise: A Philosophical Introduction, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Jamie Carlin Watson, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR.

One comment

  1. MarcoViola

    Thanks! I belief (and actually wrote) that a certain degree of expertise in a certain cognitive domain is a criterion for sorting out populations of individuals whose brain-mind mappings may significantly differ from those of non-experts. However, I’d love to nuance my notion. I’ll follow the posts!

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