Prof. Simon Penny, University of California Irvine
Skill: Know-how, Artisanal Practices and 'Higher' Cognition


OFAI is pleased to present "Skill: Know-how, Artisanal Practices and 'Higher' Cognition", a talk by Simon Penny of the University of California Irvine. The talk is part of OFAI's 2023 Fall Lecture Series.

Members of the public are cordially invited to attend the talk in person (OFAI, Freyung 6/6/7, 1010 Vienna) or via Zoom on Monday, 23 October 2023 at 18:30 CEST (UTC+2):

Meeting ID: 842 8244 2460
Passcode: 678868

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Talk abstract: Skilled practitioners attest that in their experience of skilled practice, intelligence feels like it is happening in peripersonal space, at the fingertips, on the workbench. This paper begins from the premise that skilled embodied practices are intelligence - as much improvisation as hylomorphism (Ingold) - enacted amongst tools, materials and cognitive ecologies. As a lifelong practitioner, I seek to remain grounded in practice, while pursuing an interdisciplinary inquiry into the concept of skill, engaging philosophy, psychology, anthropology, cognitive science and neuroscience. The experience of skilled practices destabilises the (received) skill-intelligence binary, which is seen as a corollary of the mind-body binary. A dualist framework that distinguishes ‘higher' and ‘lower’ cognition and valorises abstraction, is not conducive to optimal discussion of skill. I will discuss the historical construction of this privileging of abstraction in philosophy and theorisation of cognition. A different framework will be suggested, drawing upon concepts of know-how (Ryle), the ‘performative idiom’ (Pickering), enactivism (Varela, Thompson, DiPaolo), pre-reflective awareness (Legrand), epistemic action (Kirsh), cognitive ecologies (Hutchins, Sutton). Arguments from neuroscience are then marshalled, focusing on phylogenetics and on proprioception, in order to build a non-dualist approach to neurophysiology, that provides a more balanced theoretical framework within which to discuss skill and/as cognition. If embodied practices are taken to constitute intelligence, this has ramifications for general conceptualisations of intelligence, and in turn, for rhetorics validating artificial intelligence, and claims made for interactive screen-based pedagogies.

Speaker biography: Simon Penny is an artist and theorist with a longstanding focus on emerging technologies, embodied and situated aspects of artistic practices, and critical analysis of computer culture. Much of his career has been at the intersection of engineering and art – he has developed custom immersive, sensor-based systems for embodied interaction. He published Making Sense: Cognition, Computing, Art and Embodiment in 2017 (MIT press) and directed A Body of Knowledge: Embodied Cognition and the Arts conference (2016). As part of his current book project Skill, he is working to build a non-dualistic approach to neurophysiology as a basis for a discussion of skill vis-a-vis intelligence. A current preoccupation is with ways emerging technologies constrain scientific and applied research.

Originally from Australia, Penny was Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon (1993-2000). He founded the Arts Computation Engineering (ACE) graduate program at the University of California Irvine, 2001-2012. He was Labex International Professor, University Paris8 and ENSAD in 2014, and visiting professor at Cognitive Systems and Interactive Media masters, University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, 2006-2013. Penny is professor of Electronic Art and Design (Dept of Art) at University of California, Irvine, with appointments in the Department of Music and in Informatics.

Simon Penny