The work of philosophers in the existential tradition of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty presents a challenge to the proposition that the fundamental relation of a person to the environment consists in the relation of the content of an individual mind to the world of entities as represented by that content. Instead, the existential tradition offers an alternative view of human engagement with the world. According to this alternative view, the most fundamental variety of human action consists in the apparently unthinking, skilled action that makes up much of our everyday activities, and that does not require mental guidance or intervention for its successful accomplishment.1 In essence, the existential critique of mentalism, as it might be called, is an attack on the notion that representational mediation defines and explains the most basic kind of human interaction with the environment. This basic interaction has been characterized as consisting in "absorbed coping"2 or in "nondeliberate action."3
One of the most vigorous of recent exponents of the existential critique is Hubert Dreyfus, from whose work I have taken the expression "absorbed coping" and "nondeliberate action." Dreyfus's rejection of mentalism arises in part because he believes it to be irrelevant to, and thus unable to account for the proper understanding of, the nondeliberate action characterizing absorbed coping. Accordingly, Dreyfus has over the course of his work sketched a phenomenology of nondeliberate action that, while explicitly based on insights found in Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and others, are addressed to contemporary issues in the philosophy of mind as well. For this reason, Dreyfus's phenomenology of nondeliberate action stands as a significant contribution to the phenomenological tradition, and one worthy of consideration.
With this essay, I will examine the phenomenon of absorbed coping, with a focus on the class of intentionality that it is said to embody. I will show that while the account of absorbed coping is phenomenologically compelling, the intentionality claimed for it implicates a rather complex conceptual foundation that renders questionable any claim that it embodies a direct response to the environment. I will conclude by suggesting that the phenomenon of absorbed coping, rather than undermining the representationalist position, in fact underscores the usefulness of representationalism in providing an adequate explanation for even the most basic, and seemingly thoughtless, of human behaviors.
The Phenomenology of Nondeliberate Action
The basic features of absorbed coping are set out in Being in the World, Dreyfus's major commentary on Division I of Heidegger's Being and Time. There, absorbed coping is described as a "basic way of being with things, which does not involve mental activity" (BTW, 52). While it is conceded that the nondeliberate action associated with absorbed coping is characterized by a form intentional directedness, this directedness is understood to be non-representational, that is, it is "not that of a mind with content directed toward objects" (BTW, 69). Indeed, as a chapter section heading puts it, absorbed intentionality is posited as being prior to representational intentionality (BTW, 61). Developing the idea further, Dreyfus writes that "Heidegger accepts intentional directedness as essential to human activity, but he denies that intentionality is mental, that it is ... the distinguishing characteristic of mental states" (BTW, 51, emphasis in the original). In sum, absorbed coping is a mode of action that does not require the mediation of mental representation for its successful execution.
Although Dreyfus's remarks on absorbed coping in BTW are important statements of the anti-representationalist position, the most comprehensive yet compact account of this position in the context of nondeliberate action is to be found in a piece that Dreyfus, in collaboration with Jerome Wakefield, contributed to a critical volume on the philosophy of John Searle. …