What is Matter?

What is Matter?

BARBARA GAIL MONTERO • Associate Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York

NOVEMBER 16 @ 6 P.M. | Daniel Family Commons, Usdan University Center,  Wesleyan University

What is Matter? The seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher René Descartes had an elegant answer to this question: the essence of matter, or of body, is extension-extension in length, breadth, and depth. And since Descartes also held that the mind is indivisible while everything extended is divisible, the classic mind-body problem was born: How are we to find a place for the mind in a material world. But the material world has undergone quite a few changes since the seventeenth century, or at least our conception of it has, and we no longer have an elegant answer to the question of what is matter, if we have an answer to it at all. In my talk, I shall grapple with some of the difficulties of understanding the concept of matter and ponder the question of what implications “the thinning of matter” might have for our philosophical theorizing about the mind-body problem

As part of the Wesleyan Center for the Humanities Lecture Series, Matters that Matter, I gave a talk on what else but, What is Matter? Slides and video  for those who don’t mind some rough edges. As I’d like to smooth things out eventually, comments are very welcome.



Infinite Value and True Paralysis

 Slides from my talk at the Princeton Workshop on Infinite Value.


XYZ NYC: Lost in Translation, October 29th, 7:00 pm at The Tank

I danced with Erin Carlisle Norton, who also choreographed the piece, entitled Alright. We had only 4 hours to put it all together.


Photo and Video: Patrick T. Rousseau

Michael Burke was the guest judge (that’s right: experiment, collaborate, compete is xyz nyc’s motto)


Thinking in the Zone: The Expert Mind in Action

Thinking in the Zone: The Expert Mind in Action, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, September 2015

Barbara Gail Montero

Abstract. Athletes sometimes describe “being in the zone,” as a time when their actions flow effortlessly and flawlessly without the guidance of thought. But is it true that athletes don’t think when performing at their best? Numerous studies (such as Beilock et al. 2004, 2007 Ford et al 2005, Baumeister 1984, Masters 1992, Wulf & Prinz 2001, Beilock & DeCaro, 2007). However, I aim to argue that because even highly-practiced skills can remain in part under an expert athlete’s conscious control, thinking does not hinder expert performance.Bullseye1

The Perils of Automaticity

The Online First version of my paper with John Toner and Aidan Moran, The Perils of Automaticity (Toner, Montero, and Moran) just came out in the Review of General Psychology.

Here’s the abstract:

Classical theories of skill acquisition propose that automatization (i.e., performance requires progressively less attention as experience is acquired) is a defining characteristic of expertise in a variety of domains (e.g., Fitts & Posner, 1967). Automaticity is believed to enhance smooth and efficient skill execution by allowing performers to focus on strategic elements of performance rather than on the mechanical details that govern task implementation (Williams & Ford, 2008). By contrast, conscious processing (i.e., paying conscious attention to one’s action during motor execution) has been found to disrupt skilled movement and performance proficiency (e.g., Beilock & Carr, 2001). On the basis of this evidence, researchers have tended to extol the virtues of automaticity. However, few researchers have considered the wide range of empirical evidence which indicates that highly automated behaviors can, on occasion, lead to a series of errors that may prove deleterious to skilled performance. Therefore, the purpose of the current paper is to highlight the perils, rather than the virtues, of automaticity. We draw on Reason’s (1990) classification scheme of everyday errors to show how an overreliance on automated procedures may lead to 3 specific performance errors (i.e., mistakes, slips, and lapses) in a variety of skill domains (e.g., sport, dance, music). We conclude by arguing that skilled performance requires the dynamic interplay of automatic processing and conscious processing in order to avoid performance errors and to meet the contextually contingent demands that characterize competitive environments in a range of skill domains.Changing_the_horizon (1)

Improvisation: Deliberate or Spontaneous?

I spoke this past weekend at the Cognition, Consciousness, and Behavior Workshop at the University of Louisville. My talk on improvisation in music and dance is definitely in workshop form, and any comments would be appreciated.

Dancing in the Dark

I’m dancing in this xyz nyc performance for the dark fest.
8ab24c0b69f1412b5fb65ad84ac6b1e4 I liked the idea of no lights. Aimee Plauche is the choreographer.

Come check out xyz nyc Dark Fest Edition! Thu, 7/23 at 7pm. $10. @thetanknyc

A photo posted by Marc Andrew Nuñez (@marcandrewnunez) on

Philosophy as an Art of Living


Forthcoming in Mind, a review of two of Richard Shusterman’s books:

For philosophy to be fully relevant to our lives—as you will come to believe after reading Richard Shusterman’s books, Body Consciousness and Thinking Through the Body—it must speak to the flesh and blood, moving, breathing, feeling, thinking beings that we are. Philosophy, as Shusterman points out, often ignores the role of the body in our lives, yet, as he argues, since our bodies are “the fundamental, indispensable instrument or medium through which we perceive, act and live this life on earth,” it follows that “[i]f we wish to improve our lives…then one important way to do so would bShusterman thinking throughe to improve our understanding and mastery of our bodies” (2012 x). Because of this, philosophy as Shusterman practices it, is “an art of living” (2012, ix). (→ Philosophy as an Art of Living)

Night of Philosophy

If you can’t sleep this Friday night, perhaps you’d enjoy coming to this:

A Night of Philosophy

I’ll be speaking at… 4:50 AM!

Night of Philosophy

Considering the Role of Cognitive Control in Expert Performance

Recently I have been collaborating with the sport psychologists John Toner and Aidan Moran.

Toner, Montero, and Moran, Considering the Role of Cognitive Control in Expert Performance (December 2014, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences  DOI:10.1007/s11097-014-9407-6):
Abstract: Dreyfus and Dreyfus’ (1986) influential phenomenological analysis of skill acquisition proposes that expert performance is guided by non-cognitive responses which are fast, effortless and apparently intuitive in nature. Although this model has been criticized (by, for example, Breivik 2007, 2013;  Eriksen 2010; Montero 2010; Montero and Evans 2011) for over-emphasizing the role that intuition plays in facilitating skilled performance, it does recognize that on occasions, such as when performance goes awry, a form of ‘detached deliberative rationality’ may be used by experts to improve their performance. That said, Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) see no role for calculative problem solving or deliberation (which involves drawing on rules or mental representations) when performance is going well. In the current paper, we draw on empirical evidence, insights from athletes, and phenomenological description to argue that ‘continuous improvement’ (that is, the phenomenon whereby certain skilled performers appear to be capable of increasing their proficiency even though they are already experts; Toner and Moran 2014) among experts is mediated by cognitive (or executive) control in three distinct sporting situations, namely, in training, during pre-performance routines, and while engaged in on-line skill execution. We conclude by arguing that Sutton et al. (2011) ‘applying intelligence to the reflexes’ (AIR) approach may help to elucidate the process by which expert performers achieve continuous improvement through analytical/mindful behavior during training and competition.

Considering the Role of Cognitive Control in Expert Performance

Talk on the Concept of Expertise

I’m giving a talk in Münster, Germany at an interdisciplinary conference on the Philosophy of Expertise: What is expertise?

Here are my slides; any comments, especially before tomorrow morning, are very welcome.  Although the conference is interdisciplinary, my talk, as the poster illustrates, is primarily armchair philosophy.

poster for expertise

One notable exception…

I have to admit, I sort of liked both of these Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Wayne Christensen writes, “Of all the contributors, only Barbara Montero directly challenges Dreyfus’s empirical claims about expertise…” (→ Wayne Christensen’s review). The paper he’s talking about: A Dancer Reflects

Amy Kind, in her review, writes, “One notable exception is Barbara Montero’s excellent chapter on physicalism…” (→ Amy Kind’s review)  And here’s the paper: Physicalism

book reviews of me



Introduction to Philosophy Fall 2014

What is the meaning of life? What is the relation between the mind and the body? How ought I to live? Does God exist? We shall explore these and other big questions of philosophy via the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and various contemporary philosophers.


Syllabus: Welcome to Introduction to Philosophy

Readings for the rest of the semesters: Draft of my Book for PHL 101

Midterm: Introduction to Philosophy Midterm

Is Monitoring one’s Movements Causally Relevant to Choking Under Pressure?


Is monitoring one’s movements causally relevant to choking under pressure?Forthcoming in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

Barbara Gail Montero

I have a painfully vivid memory of performing the Venezuelan choreographer Vincente Nebrada’s ballet Pentimento.  I was a new member of North Carolina Dance Theatre, and although I had already performed the piece on a number of occasions, this was the first time the director was watching from the audience rather than the wings. In the middle of a pas de deux, I choked big time and blanked out on the choreography; try as I may, I could not remember a single step. My partner, who had been with the company for years, knew what was going on and manipulated my limbs until (after what seemed like eons) something clicked and I was able to find the choreography again. . . Various factors likely precipitated this mishap: my relative inexperience probably had something to do with it, and the choreography was such that it was not always closely related to the music, making musical cues few and far between. ..However, it also seems likely that my heightened state of anxiety over being observed for the first time by the company’s director played a role. But how does anxiety cause a choke? How did anxiety cause me to perform far, far worse than I have ever done before? (→ to Is Monitoring one’s Movements Causally Relevant to Choking Under Pressure)

pentimento 012

Russellian Physicalism

Russellian Physicalism, forthcoming  in Russellian Monism, edited by Torin Alter and Yujin Nagasawa:

According to David Chalmers, the conceivability of worlds that duplicate our physics yet lack consciousness refutes physicalism. Or rather, it almost refutes it. This qualification arises because “Russellian monism,” characterized roughly as the view that consciousness is determined by the intrinsic properties of fundamental physical entities, escapes this sort of antiphysicalist conceivability argument. One might think this is good news for the physicalist, but not so Chalmers. Although he takes Russellian monism to be a highly appealing view, he claims that many physicalists will reject it as it “shares the spirit of antimaterialism.”  I think that the loophole in the conceivability argument is more significant than Chalmers has made it out to be, for, as I shall argue, Chalmers fails to take into account a version of Russellian monism, what I refer to as “Russellian physicalism,” that escapes the conceivability argument yet is fully physicalistic.  (→ to Russellian Physicalism)


Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, and the Meaning of Life

From Chapter 12 of my forthcoming book, The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:

…There are a few lingering concerns I would like now to address. For example, I claim to take the words of experts seriously, but experts at times say things that suggest [that they do not engage their minds while performing]… Dave Hill, we ought not to forget, quipped that a golf swing is like sex because you can’t be thinking about the mechanics of the act while doing it. How do I explain this? I should point out that not all of the loose ends I shall take up fall under the heading of “sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the meaning of life.” Though some do; be patient… (→ Chapter 12)

Chapter 12

Intuition, Rationality and Chess Expertise

From Chapter 11 of my forthcoming book, The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:

Hubert Dreyfus argues that although analysis and deliberation play a role in chess in sub-optimal situations, the best moves made by chess players at the international master level or grandmaster level involve neither analysis nor deliberation nor even conceptualizing the board. Rather, Dreyfus tells us that “after much experience, the chess master is directly drawn by the forces on the board to make a masterful move.” High-level chess, on Dreyfus’s view,is bred neither in the heart nor in the head, but out there on the sixty-four squares. Is this right? (→ chapter 11)


The Aesthetic Experience of Expert Movement

From Chapter 10 of my forthcoming book, The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:

The idea for writing a book on the role of thought, effort and self-focus in expert action was prompted by an objection the philosopher and avid golfer Bob Child made after a talk I had given on the idea of proprioceiving aesthetic properties. I was arguing that proprioception—the sense by which we acquire information about the positions and movements of our own bodies, via receptors in the joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and skin—is an aesthetic sense, that is, a sense by means of which we experience  beauty, grace, and other aesthetic properties. Child wanted to know how a dancer on stage could have the aesthetic experience of her own movement, since  focusing on highly-skilled movements trammels their performance. If experts are to perform at their best, he averred, they can’t focus on what they are doing, and thus they cannot have the sorts of aesthetic experiences I attribute to them. This chapter, at long last, is my response. (→ chapter 10)


The Pleasure of Movement and the Awareness of the Self

From Chapter 9 of my forthcoming book, The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:


In a paper entitled “The Way of the Wanton” (2008),  David Velleman suggests that we achieve excellence only after we have moved beyond reflective agency. What he means by this is that although reflective agency—that is, thinking about and deliberating over our occurrent actions—is a stepping-stone to developing expertise, we perform at our best when we attain what he refers to as “self-forgetful spontaneity,” or “flow.” Expressing a version of the view I have been referring to as the just-do-it principle, he tells us that in highly-skilled actions, “the capacity to monitor…performance, to consider how it falls short of an ideal, and to correct it accordingly…is no longer exercised” (p. 188). Rather, after the requisite training, according to Velleman, “evaluative judgment is suspended” and experts act “without deliberate intention or effort” (p. 185). In previous chapters, I have argued for the importance of monitoring, evaluation and effort in expert action. In this chapter, I want to explore the role of self-awareness and discuss whether the pleasure of movement due in part to losing the self. (→ Chapter 9)



Effortlessness with Effort

From  Chapter 8 of my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:


What  is it for an action to be effortless?  What are we appreciating when we admire Castiglione’s effortless courtier, a dancer’s effortless leaps, or a seagull’s effortless soar?  For Castiglione as well as for the ancient Chinese thinkers, effortlessness was primarily a social value.  According to Castiglione, effortlessness, or at least the façade of effortlessness enabled individuals to gain recognition, approval and promotion to higher political positions in the Royal Court, and according to the Daoist tradition it engendered, de, a type of charisma that allows rulers to persuade neither by force nor decree but merely in virtue of their magnetism.  Though no less relevant to politics now than it was in the past, my focus is more on aesthetic rather than social value, and specifically with the aesthetic value of effortlessness in works of art. (→ to chapter 8 Raimondi_Lucretia's_suicide


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.