Tennis as a Way of Knowing
David V. Johnson

12 December 2013

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.

Comments (4)

Guest's picture


Thursday, January 2, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

My reading of this piece is

My reading of this piece is that Foster Wallace is using dumb in Wittgenstein's sense of that of which we cannot speak... He is saying that in this instance we must remain silent, not that we are in some sense stupid!  Julius Erving, another sports genius makes a similar point re basketball
 I worry that I am not up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text. You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, of imposing your will, of the precise moment that you realize you can reach the front of the rim.   
Because it is not a moment, it is a sense, an instinct, a flicker of insight and nerve so sud­den that you have to act on it before it is a thought. What do you see? A subtle shift of weight, a lowering of the hands, a leaning forward, a glance, and that is enough to set off a chain of events. They are actions that stem from a thousand tiny in­stincts. But from where we are sitting above the court, we are unable to explain the game through these small moments, and instead talk about the Bulls' second chance scoring and the Rockets' bench production. I understand the need to do that, I have done some of that in this book, but I also know that we are simply describing a simulation of the game, rendering a three-dimensional activity in two dimensions. The truth, I think, is two men facing each other on a playground some­where, and one of them senses the other is leaning to his left, only the defender isn't actually leaning, he is trying to force the ball handler to his own left, and so on, the game spiraling upward in complexity and reaction and twitch and rise, from asphalt to high school, college gymnasiums to NBA parquet, and finally to here, where I sit behind this desk, talking about all of this as if it is nothing more than just those two kids in that school yard. ... 
It really isn't like Nagel given that we share Federer's biology, if not his tennis skills. Any tennis amateur can imagine what it would be like to be Federer, which is a far cry from actually being Federer. The Foster Wallace idea example seems more akin to the things Heidegger or Dreyfus would have to say about skills.

mirugai's picture


Saturday, May 3, 2014 -- 5:00 PM


The discussion today was an excellent example of ?doing philosophy,? in my view. Classic philosophical debate is the only way to investigate the ?objective/subjective? nature of color perception. There is no real way that science can help with this; rational debate, with tolerance and consideration of contrary positions, is the only way to explore such an issue.  As one who has provoked skepticism (about my intelligence) by my assertion that neuroscience and philosophy are incompatible, I think this color show gives me some support: as carefully and certainly as one can describe the physiological activities of color perception, that data is of no use whatsoever in the ?objective/subjective? perception discussion.  Science can only describe the material (in variously exciting dramatic presentations); philosophy is the only way to explore the consciousness aspects of color perception, which is really what we want to know about.
In a similar way, I have to object to John?s assertion that ?Different animals have evolved to see colors differently.? He uses the word ?evolved? to magically transform stuff he does not and cannot ?know? into unassailable truths. Like the current use of the word ?genetics.?
For a truly dramatic experience of the way context influences and changes color (and all visual) perception, go see anything by the artist James Turrell.  

Matthew Van Cleave's picture

Matthew Van Cleave

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

Really interesting post,

Really interesting post, tying together two of my favorite people to read: Noe and DFW.  I'm sure there is a kind of knowlege that bats and Federers possess that is inaccessible.  I think Noe would agree with that.  What I found particularly interesting in the Philosophy Talk show with Noe, was that he wasn't making the (interesting, but plausible enough) claim that dance is a form of knowing, but rather (the much more puzzling claim) that knowing is a form of dance.  This is what Ken was trying to push him for clarification on.  I suppose I don't find Noe's claims that implausible, but perhaps that's just because I have already read a lot of his (and others') work on enactive perception.

Yames's picture


Saturday, October 19, 2019 -- 10:52 AM

The legendary german

The legendary German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said that intellectual ability cannot be compared to physical activity. I happen to agree with him. Playing tennis does not make you a "genius". The term genius is indeed used out of context here, as it is generally applied to intellectual merits rather than mere athletic talent. But, even if we insist in calling geniuses to tennis players, then Rafael Nadal should be acknowledged as the greatest genius in the history of tennis. Nadal, and only Nadal, will achieve the Grand Slam record, which demands the highest degree of talent. Only the most talented player can win more Grand Slams than anyone. Nadal's style is also based on large rallies where he needs a higher degree of point construction than Federer. While Federer merely serves aces and routinary forehands, Nadal needs to construct longer points, which demands a higher intelligence.