Dance as a Way of Knowing

Sunday, October 4, 2015
First Aired: 
Sunday, April 14, 2013

What Is It

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. Could the aesthetic experience of being physically present and embodied in the world be considered a way of knowing? Is there something in particular we can come to know by watching or performing dance? And are there broader lessons that dance can teach us about human perception and action? John and Ken hit the floor with Alva Noë from UC Berkeley, author of Varieties of Presence. This program was recorded live at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley.

Listening Notes

John and Ken start the show to applause from the live audience in the Marsh Theater in Berkeley. Ken introduces the week’s topic: Dance, as a way of knowing. John, a consistent skeptic, is immediately dubious: “How can dance be a way of knowing?” he asks. After all, dance isn’t a form of perception, reasoning, or thinking. Ken tells John he needs to get with the times: knowledge means a lot more than “justified true belief” to modern-day philosophers. John still isn’t convinced: dance is dance, and knowing is knowing, he says. But Ken makes a point he agrees with—maybe they should define what dance is before they decide what it’s not. But defining dance turns out to be difficult: sure, it’s done with the body, and often involves music, but there are so many different kinds of dance (and reasons to dance). John wonders if they’ve got the same problem that Wittgenstein ran into when it came to defining the word “game”: no one characteristic describes all games; rather, there is a web of “family resemblances” that they all more or less share. The same is true with dance. No one thing describes dance, but one dance invariably shares “family resemblances” with another kind of dance.

Moving on from definition, Ken makes a deep point: dance is movement that relates you to the world—when you dance, the world becomes present to you. When one moves through a space, it unfolds to them: perhaps in a way, one’s mind expands to the space. John asks how this is a way of knowing, and Ken describes that dance can be thought of as a model for the complex ways human beings perceive the world and draw knowledge from it.

After an interlude for the Roving Philosophical Report, John and Ken welcome their guest Alva Noë, a professor at UC Berkeley. John asks how Professor Noë—an analystic philosopher—became involved with dancers (Noë is a “professor in residence” for a German dance company). Noë thinks dance has something particular and special to teach philosophers: dance questions the inwardness of philosophy, and takes the body as a subject, rather than something external to the mind or individual.

The three go on to talk about the primitive origins of dancing, and what dance can tell us about perception. After a wide-ranging conversation, the trio welcomes questions from the live audience. A student of dance asks what describes the often-emotional experience of dance—what is the role of emotion in dance? Ken responds by talking about the expressive qualities of dance. A San Franciscan choreographer asks what describes audiences’ urge to “understand” dance, rather than valuing it as an experience itself. In response, Noë describes the philosophical transformation someone watching a dance performance can experience, as they move from interrogation or interpretation to a more pure form of perception. The three end the show by talking about how the beauty of dance and the beauty of knowledge relate to each other.

Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 7:00): Caitlin Esch goes to a senior center in California where a group of women gather together each week to dance the hula. But the dance is more than just company—some of the women found that it improved their memory. Esch asks medical experts about what might explain that improvement.