Be it rhythmic or shuffling, athletic or pedestrian, erotic or just social, dance is an art form that utilizes movement of the body through space.
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.