Expertise and Performance

Regardless of the plausibility of truth-based accounts of expertise, no one doubts that there are performative experts. We trust airline pilots to get us where we’re going, engineers to build safe bridges, and surgeons to perform complicated procedures. And no one denies that performative expertise involves some degree of propositional knowledge. But those who approach expertise performatively argue that the propositional elements are secondary to what is most fundamental to expertise, namely practice.

Philosophical Approaches to Expert Performance: The Dreyfus Account

Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus (1986) argue that, for all the processing power of computers, human experts can do things that computers could never do. Part of what it means to be an expert, according to them, is having a certain kind of body. In contrast to truth-based accounts of expertise, which treats knowledge as propositional and explicit, the Dreyfuses contend that the knowledge essential to expertise is embodied and tacit.

Starting with Michael Polanyi’s ([1958] 1962) view of tacit knowledge and extrapolating from interviews with dozens of experts, the Dreyfuses identify five phases people matriculate through to become experts: Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competence, Proficiency, Expertise. The essential element to moving up the levels is practice. The more you perform a task, the more the task becomes integrated into your body.

A key indicator that you have achieved expertise is that you enter a “flow” state with the activity—a non-minded, reflexive type of performance which would be immediately undermined if you tried to focus on any one aspect of the task.

Because expertise is primarily tacit and non-minded, the Dreyfuses’ account has the peculiar implication that experts cannot explain to novices what they do or how they do it. Experts who try to explain themselves mislead more than they elucidate. And since expert performance is not propositional, it cannot be replicated by computers (which depend on propositional language for commands).

A Problem for the Dreyfus Account

Barbara Montero (2016) argues that the idea that expertise is non-minded is an unfortunate caricature of real expert performance. The claim that focusing on aspects of performance trips you up stems mostly from research with amateurs or in laboratory conditions that do not mimic real domains of expertise.

By specifying various types of conscious attention and drawing on numerous testimonials, Montero constructs a powerful argument against the idea that expert performance is non-minded. And Montero’s conclusion finds further empirical support in the work of psychologists like K. Anders Ericsson.

Psychological Approaches to Expert Performance: Deliberate Practice

In the 1980s, Ericsson built on the chess studies of Herbert Simon and William Chase (1973) to study memorization and musical performance. He found that those who achieved world-class status not only practiced a lot, they practiced in a specific way that he named “deliberate practice” (Ericsson 2008).

Deliberate practice works best on tasks that can be broken into constituent parts, which can then be analyzed and trained separately from the others. The best-performing experts don’t enter a non-minded state. Rather, they pay special attention to each aspect of their performance, usually through a coach. They train just that aspect and get it right before moving on to the next.

And those at the highest levels of expertise don’t stop trying to improve. So, whatever else a flow state might indicate, it primarily means you aren’t getting better. In addition, whatever propositional knowledge you pick up to perform the task, it only makes sense in the context of your performance.

Ericsson’s explanation of deliberate practice is that specialized training causes the brain to record millions of mental representations of the performed act. These combine to form patterns (much like William James ([1890] 1918: 126) described as “grooves” formed by habit). And these patterns quickly alert the expert to any deviation from the desired performance or change in environment. So, while the mind might not always be consciously aware of every aspect of an expert performance, it is always actively attuned to the task.

Challenges for Deliberate Practice

One concern for deliberate practice is that there seem to be many expert performers who did not engage in it. This is usually because their tasks couldn’t be trained using deliberate practice (Kahneman and Klein 2009). If deliberate practice can’t explain their expert performance, what could?

Another concern is that the physical requirements of some tasks put some types of expertise out of reach for most people. Studies show that the fastest runners have long legs and short torsos, and the fastest swimmers have long torsos and short legs (Epstein 2014). No amount of training can change these proportions, so genetics also seems a necessary component for some expert performance.

Deliberate practice goes a long way toward explaining expertise. But these challenges suggest it is not the whole story. And some findings from sociology, as we will see in tomorrow’s post, suggest that there is a further aspect of expertise not captured by deliberate practice.


Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Stuart E. Dreyfus (1986). Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer, New York: Free Press.

Epstein, David (2014). The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

Ericsson, K. Anders (2008). “Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A General Overview.” Academic Emergency Medicine 15 (11): 988-994.

James, William ([1890] 1918). Principles of Psychology, Volume 1, New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Kahneman, Daniel and Gary Klein (2009). “Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree.” American Psychologist, 64(6), 515–526.

Montero, Barbara (2016). Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Polanyi, Michael ([1958] 1962). Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Simon Herbert, A. and William G. Chase (1973). “Skill in Chess.” American Scientist 61(4): 394-403.

Jamie Carlin Watson, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR and author of Expertise: A Philosophical Introduction.

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