Thematic Awareness and Reflection in Skill Acquisition


  • Pia Kos University of Ljubljana


Philosophical approaches to skill can be roughly divided into the information-processing and the phenomenological paradigms. The analytic school in philosophy of mind tends to favour the information processing paradigm, which explains skilful behaviour in terms of discrete mental representations processed according to certain rules [1]. Within this framework, progress in the process of skill acquisition is understood as moving from conscious to increasingly unconscious processing [1], from thematic awareness to absorption, the latter being the mark of expertise.

Phenomenological approaches, such as the unidirectional five-stage skill acquisition model [2], too, view the progress from novice to expertise as the path from conscious to “zombie-like” [1] performance, but they differ from their analytic counterparts in that they reject discrete representations and rule-following in favour of direct interaction of the skilled body with its environment [1]. They claim that calculative rationality means forsaking know-how and that, in normal situations, the expert does not consciously follow rules or make decisions, but behaves intuitively [2].

Thus, in discussions of skill acquisition, dichotomies such as knowing that and knowing how, cognitive and motor intentionality, controlled and automatic processes, come to mind. The skilful performer is to perform in a flow state, while a novice struggles with rule-following and planning each of her steps.

Yet this is not the whole picture: full automatization may in fact hinder skill development [3]; absorbed or flow states only require sufficient ability, not mastery; and conscious, thematic activity may be crucial in sports, especially at the elite level [1].

The aim of my research is to offer an alternative philosophical perspective, one that builds on existing models [2], but focuses on the role of thematization and reflection – in novices, apprentices, and masters – and reformulates their relation to non-thematic, absorbed coping.

Combining insights from philosophy of sport and philosophy of mind, phenomenology, as well as empirical studies in psychology concerning the training and performance of expert athletes and musicians, this thesis aims to elucidate the following questions: First, when and how do thematic awareness and reflection occur in complex skill acquisition? Secondly, in the absence of discrete stages of skill acquisition, how is progress to be understood?


[1] G. Breivik, “Skillful Coping in Everyday Life and in Sport: A Critical Examination of the Views of Heidegger and Dreyfus,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 116-134, 2007. doi:10.1080/00948705.2007.9714716

[2] S. E. Dreyfus and H. L. Dreyfus. Mind over Machine: The Power of Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer, New York: The Free Press, 1986.

[3] E. Pacherie and M. Mylopoulos, “Beyond Automaticity: The Psychological Complexity of Skill,” Topoi, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 649-662, 2020.  doi:10.1007/s11245-020-09715-0