What does Berkeley philosopher Alva Noë mean when he says that dance is a form of knowing? It depends on his theory of consciousness. According to the outmoded view that he rejects, consciousness is something that happens inside the head. As explained on Philosophy Talk:
Our legacy as philosophers and cognitive scientists is intellectualist. It’s internalist. It’s individualist. It’s the idea that the mind is in our heads. And the business of the mind is to figure out what’s in the world around us by building up mental representations. And in terms of that intellectual legacy, the body itself is external and the movement of the body is external, and the body becomes nothing more than a vehicle, a vessel, for carrying this mind inside us around.
Dance, Noë suggests, offers a phenomenon that challenges this intellectualist view. It’s not just a bodily activity; it is “thoughtful, attentive, a kind of thinking as much as it is fully embodied,” Noë says. In other words, it’s an exercise of mind. It takes an incredible amount of perception, understanding, and control to do it well. But dance, as a form of mind, is not just having representations somewhere in the brain—mental pictures of your partner, the dance floor, and the steps you and your partner expect to take. Dance is both spatio-temporal and social—it's a series of coordinated bodily motions through the space of a dance floor and a cooperative and instantaneous interaction with a partner or partners. In dancing, we interact with the environment in a conscious, receptive, and manipulative way. Dancers have a peculiar knowledge of the outside world and other beings in it—one that doesn’t come in the conventional ways of looking, hearing, touching, and talking to others.
To explore Noë’s ideas further, David Foster Wallace’s writings on tennis provide an excellent resource.
For Wallace, tennis too is a special form of knowing. Tennis greats like Roger Federer are, according to Wallace, geniuses. And by “genius,” Wallace doesn’t mean simply that they show an exceptionally high caliber of excellence in what they do. He means it in the sense of intelligence—in roughly the sense we call Albert Einstein a genius. He goes into great detail to hammer the point home:
[Tennis] also requires smarts. Just one single shot in one exchange in one point of a high-level match is a nightmare of mechanical variables. Given a net that’s three feet high (at the center) and two players in (unrealistically) fixed positions, the efficacy of one single shot is determined by its angle, depth, pace, and spin. And each of these determinants is itself determined by still other variables -- i.e., a shot’s depth is determined by the height at which the ball passes over the net combined with some integrated function of pace and spin, with the ball’s height over the net itself determined by the player’s body position, grip on the racket, height of backswing and angle of racket face, as well as the 3-D coordinates through which the racket face moves during that interval in which the ball is actually on the strings. The tree of variables and determinants branches out and out, on and on, and then on much further when the opponent’s own position and predilections and the ballistic features of the ball he’s sent you to hit are factored in. No silicon-based RAM yet existent could compute the expansion of variables for even a single exchange; smoke would come out of the mainframe. The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can be done only by a living and highly conscious entity …
Such complexity warrants his, and our, curiosity.
Like Noë, Wallace sets out to pursue a theoretical question: What can we know about the consciousness of an elite tennis player? This is where Wallace’s writing on tennis gets interesting. For to answer this question, Wallace has pored over sports memoirs like Tracy Austin’s and spent hours following top-100 pro Michael Joyce. And he has found, much to his frustration, that they have a singular inability to articulate their understanding of tennis.
Why is that? Wallace seems to believe that countless hours of repetitive training of muscular memory and the quieting of the conscious mind necessary to play tennis at an elite level make one peculiarly unable to bring the experience to consciousness and articulate it. In other words, to become an elite tennis player is, paradoxically, to become a genius and a moron at the same time:
Those who receive and act out of the gift of athletic genius, must perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.
It’s an interesting theory, but I have never bought it. Granted, to play tennis at a high level requires a quieting of the conscious mind, a narrow Zen-like awareness of the ball, the court, and one’s opponent. And to achieve that skill requires sacrifices. But to think that tennis players are peculiarly unreflective and dumb simply betrays Wallace’s prejudice. If you don’t believe me, read Arthur Ashe’s reflections in John McPhee’s Levels of the Game.
No, instead I suspect that to ask the question “What is it like to be Roger Federer?” is to ask philosopher Thomas Nagel’s question “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel raises the dilemma to argue that there is something about bat consciousness (and by extension, consciousness in general) that remains irrevocably unknowable to us. Bats sense the world through echolocation, and yet we can never truly know what that’s like from the inside. Similarly, tennis and dance may be ways of knowing that are, at some level, unknowable from the outside.
To be Federer is to understand the world in a very special and distinct manner, like the bat’s echolocation. If we ordinary mortals walk onto a tennis court, we perceive the far baseline, 78 feet away on the other side of the court, in our own pedestrian way (i.e. we see it with our eyes, we hear the person shuffling his feet on the other side, we can walk to the other side and look at it up close, etc.)
But Roger Federer can perceive the baseline with his arm, his tennis racquet, and the ball. He knows, for example, exactly how far away it is and not simply by sight, sound, or walking to the other side. He knows exactly how far away it is with his racquet strings. He perceives the far baseline in the special sense that if he hits the ball just so, it will travel through the air, and land on or just before it. Moreover, his special understanding extends spatio-temporally into the future in ways we can’t grasp. As Wallace writes:
Federer is able to see, or create, gaps and angles for winners that no one else can envision … these spectacular-looking angles and winners are not coming from nowhere — they’re often set up several shots ahead, and depend as much on Federer’s manipulation of opponents’ positions as they do on the pace or placement of the coup de grâce.
Thus Federer, while moving and swinging his racquet with such micro-precision and grace, is at the same time seeing what is going to happen in the world several shots into the future. Great tennis players are like super heroes with special powers. We mere mortals can’t know what it’s like, from the inside, to enjoy such gifts. We can only watch in awe.