Dance as a Way of Knowing

30 September 2015

The title of this week’s show might sound a little mysterious. How can dance, of all things, be a way of knowing? Most things we know, we know either through perception or through thinking and reasoning. But on the surface of things, it doesn’t look like dance is either a form of perception or a form of thinking. 

So, in what sense is dance a way of knowing? 

We might want to start by saying more about what knowing is. The traditional philosophical conception says that to know something, you must have a justified true belief. You can’t know something you don’t even believe, so if you do know something, you have to believe it first. You also can’t know something that is false. You might think you know it, but for your belief to be genuine knowledge, it must be true. But even that is not enough for knowledge. You might accidentally happen upon a true belief without having genuine knowledge, so for it to count as knowledge, it can’t just be a lucky guess—the true belief must be justified in some way. Different accounts of knowledge flesh out this third condition in various ways. For example, you must have perceptual evidence that warrants your belief in order for it to count as knowledge.

Now, dance doesn’t seem to be in the business of producing true—or false—beliefs, and it doesn’t seem to provide justification for anything. So, this traditional conception of knowledge doesn’t seem to help much. But we haven’t said what dance is yet. So, maybe we should do that before deciding whether or not it makes sense to think of it as a way of knowing. 

Let’s start by saying something pretty obvious. Dance involves movement of the body—it is an essentially embodied activity. Of course, there are many things we do throughout the day that we could say the same about. Sitting at my computer and typing this is also an essentially embodied activity, but we don’t call that dance. So can we narrow it down more?

Well, dance can be rhythmic, performed to music or a beat, though some post-modern dance forms like Contact Improvisation are done without music. Dance can be an expression of emotion or aesthetic impulses, or it can be more like a scientific investigation into the physics of moving bodies. Dance can be a social or sensual activity, performed with a partner, or it can be part of a cultural ritual or spiritual practice. There are many different styles, forms, and functions dance can have. So, other than being an essentially embodied activity, it’s hard to identify a single trait that all dances have in common.

 

It might be useful here to introduce Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of a family resemblance concept, exemplified by the concept of a game. Instead of there being one essential feature that defines all games—or all dance—there’s a series of overlapping similarities that group these different practices together into one extended family. If we’re looking for necessary and sufficient conditions that define dance, we’re not going to find it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize it when we see it.

So, are we any closer to understanding the title of this week’s show? The key, I think, is the embodied nature of dance. Dance isn't just movement. It's movement that relates you to the world.  To borrow a term from this week’s guest, Alva Noe, the world becomes present to you in a particular way through the dance. 

But if it’s the embodied nature of dance that’s important, couldn’t we just as easily say that walking is a way of knowing? The answer is yes! A great way to get to know a space is not just to observe it passively from a fixed position, but to wander around it. When you walk through a space, the space opens up to you. You perceive things that you wouldn’t have perceived if you didn’t move around. And dance is similar—as a form of active bodily engagement, it opens up the world in a new way.

Now it’s beginning to sound like dance might be a kind of perception. Some philosophers, like Descartes, think about perception as something passive, where the world just washes over our senses. But some contemporary philosophers argue that perception requires active bodily engagement with the world. This view of perception often goes along with a view of the mind as essentially extended, enacted, and embodied—a rejection of the orthodox philosophical view that considers the mind nothing but a function of the brain.

Of course, if dance is a kind of perception (or perception a kind of dance?), that doesn’t automatically follow from the claim that both dance and perception are essentially embodied activities. We would need to say more to conclude that. But maybe dance could also be thought of as a model that helps us understand our active, embodied engagement with the world? Perhaps focusing on dance helps us understand perception, and in that way, it is a form of knowing. 

Comments (18)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, April 11, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Dance takes many forms:

Dance takes many forms: ballet; tango; foxtrot; waltz; tai chi; aikido; kung fu ...all of these and more are ways of knowing; windows of perception, or as Michael Ahles might say: wings of freedom. We are capable of knowing on different levels---making us at least as unique as we hope we are. Last time I looked.
Warmest, Neuman.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Friday, April 12, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

William, not sure why you say

William, not sure why you say that "one essential property of dance is that is it partnered." Haven't you ever seen a person dance by themselves? If that was dance, then partners are not essential!

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, April 12, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

So, what DID William say? I

So, what DID William say? I see no published comment from William; only Laura's response. Such is uncharacteristic of this blog. So far, anyway.
Someone once told me: context is everything. I think so too. Don't you?

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, April 12, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

"The world becomes present to

"The world becomes present to you in a particular way through the dance." The statement is certainly true with the right partner, the right music and the right dance on the ballroom floor.
I don't wish to disparage other forms of dancing or even dancing as a spectator activity.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, April 13, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

DANCE TO THE MUSIC (OF TIME)

DANCE TO THE MUSIC (OF TIME)
Dance is the intentional physical embodiment of music. Music is the big mystery, more so than dance. (And don?t diss me about ?dancing to silence? or some such ? that is only dancing to the absence of music.) Fascinating from a philosophical standpoint is 1. How each individual reflects and expresses the music in his/her dancing; 2. The social ritualistic imperative of dance styles and steps; 3. The teaching of culturally agreed upon and recognized dance forms; and 4. The ways an observer of dance reflects on it and responds to it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 13, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

A Chronology: we live; we

A Chronology: we live; we learn; we speak. Afterwards, we ideate; write; create; destroy, and so on. All these states embody knowing---for better or worse. Dance is a specific way. One of many.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 13, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

There is a Dance Meditation

There is a Dance Meditation practice called "5-Rhythms" or "Sweat-Your-Prayers". In this meditation, over a period of two hours, commonly found music of different types are played. The first type of music played has "Flowing" qualities, the next has "Staccato", the third "Chaos", the fourth "Lyrical" and the last "Stillness". No talking is allowed. When the dance that emerges internally from feeling the music, becomes the focus of attention, the Mind's thoughts quiet. When this happen, "Intuitive Intelligence" can emerge. And with intuitive intelligence comes insights that are subject to fewer filters than are present during common thought. It is my experience that Dance activates aspects of human perception that are not accessed with common thinking and as a result, it contains more information than common thought ... it contains more clarity and a more accurate perception of what is real..

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, April 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

William deleted his comment.

William deleted his comment.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, April 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

John, you have described a

John, you have described a wonderfully illuminating exercise: one that explores the difference between what my friend SusanS calls slow thinking and fast thinking. She calls "instinct" an example of fast thinking; you would probably say "intuitive intelligence" is another example. I think of both as more like the absence of thought; more like the goals of meditation. But however accomplished, your description of how to achieve certain new and useful mental states apart from the think-generated, through the application of the body to music, is an exciting avenue for a philosopher to pursue. Thank you.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, April 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

BTW, John, see how your post

BTW, John, see how your post reads when you substitute 'poetry" for "dance." "It is my experience that Poetry activates aspects of human perception that are not accessed with common thinking and as a result, it contains more information than common thought ... it contains more clarity and a more accurate perception of what is real.." Metaphor is "more real" than narrative.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

On the William matter: Oh.

On the William matter: Oh.
Thanks.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I found the following passage

I found the following passage that you wrote enlightening: "perception requires active bodily engagement with the world." Thank you. -Nathaniel Paluga, Principle Philosopher at the Philosopher's Way, San Francisco

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 15, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I am responding as a dancer

I am responding as a dancer AND a thinker/writer (I dare not say philosopher): When I dance, I experience a unique perception of myself and the universe I am in, one that cannot be reached by thinking. I have an ecstatic connection of sorts, a release of my chattering mind into the swirling music at the heart of the universe, a freeing from - like meditation is for some, I suppose. If I think too much, my steps lose their flow, I am brought down to earth, my muscles 'work'; when I let go of thought, something else takes over, and I am swept up by the music, my body almost forgotten. Dance helps me to connect to that which is beyond my thinking mind, to know something that is made too little if boxed into thought.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 15, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks, Victoria. If we are

Thanks, Victoria. If we are to believe that dance (and other forms of physical expression) transcend surface knowledge (I do), then your comments are seminal to a transpersonal analysis of this knowing thing. I sometimes enjoy getting "lost" in my woodworking projects. When I begin a simple task such as fashioning a walking stick from a piece of tree branch, I do not have a definite image of how the final creation will look. It is, then, a small adventure---developing, bit by bit, with the application of sandpaper to wood, and an evolving sense of what might be. A way of knowing? I'm not sure. A way of learning? Absolutely---the more I work at this art, the better the results become.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I think that, absent certain

I think that, absent certain fickle emotions such as jealousy, envy and avarice, we do know what we are doing in most of the critical aspects of everyday living. There are various ways of knowing: experiential; educational; transcendental and theosophical, to name a few. All have validity within their own contexts, but probably fall flat on the outside. To say that ANY way of knowing is better, truer or more complete than another probably exhibits some sort of bias. Those ancients who persecuted Copernicus and Galileo showed bias in its worst sense: that based on ignorance and dogma. Yet, in spite of such, both science and theology endure. We are indeed lucky.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Thursday, October 8, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

In case you missed it, we

In case you missed it, we just had a Live Chat this week with Alva Noe, the guest on this show back in 2013. You can read the chat transcript here.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, October 10, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The thing about the synthetic

The thing about the synthetic a priori is that it is not extraneous to the analytic a priori, it is the final term of that analytic, the ultimate reductive term altered, redefined, and re-deployed its antecedence. This is how the a priori can be the consequent term. The most rigorous consequence of the conceit of the absolute logical invariance of antecedence is its variance. It is most explicitly recognized in satire or sarcasm. But if you don't get the joke you effectively rigidify antecedence and so protect it from the synthetic a priori that is its only completing term. The rest is aporia. The least term of time is all the differing it is.
The relation between dance and the rationality of the sensual world is seduction.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, October 12, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Feuerbach has an interesting

Feuerbach has an interesting analogy in his essay on Hegel. Reading this essay it is hard not to find in Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics a glaring case of plagiarism. That would be Feuerbach's ending theme on 'nothingness'. But the essay begins with an image of time as homeopathic. I'm not exactly sure what he does mean in this, but homeopathy is a theory that dilution of a toxin to such a degree that the dosage is probably zero, that by putting a drop of poison in an ocean of diluent, that the smallest dosage of this preparation would cure its toxic effects. But if time is either a moment of differing or a steady drip of the same, how small a dose of this toxic difference is cured us of it and made us invulnerable to it? Isn't the least differing proved the thesis of constancy invalid? Ballet is designed to force human motion into inhuman form. Other forms of dance are claimed to be expressions of human bodily truth, think of Isadora Duncan. Social dance is meant to coordinate human physicality. By moving in synchrony we share bodily proximity in an especially disciplined way. But is it constancy in elegant movement or suspended clumsy-ness? I suppose robots will eventually be made to dance, but I suspect the result will be as unsatisfactory as computer performances of great musical compositions. It is the inability of humans to perfect the design, choreographic or musical, that is the elegance of the performance. The awkward humanity diluted by a fine discipline meant to render it as invisible as possible. And yet that diluted imperfection is the perfection of it, and what the computer cannot imitate. Death is the completest differing time is, and most momentous. And so time is filled with all the drip drip drip of constant need and satisfaction that so dilutes and attenuates our perception of it that we might almost never know how much more real it is. And that is why I say that dance is seduction. But which is the seducer, the discipline of constancy, or its proven attenuation of unendurable moment?
 
 
"If that's all there is, my friend, then let's keep dancing..."

 
 
 

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