The 19th century anatomist and neurologist Sir Charles Bell (1833/2009) held that the exercise of the muscular frame is the source of some of our chief enjoyments.109And as professional dancers, athletes, musicians, surgeons, and other experts with highly developed motor skills will tell you, moving your body can be a highly pleasurable experience. Numerous possible factors might account for this. Sometimes a physical activity is pleasurable in part because it facilitates other pleasures. Going to the gym, playing tennis, and taking a ballroom dance class are all social activities, and so one might derive pleasure from the interactions such activities afford. Other activities enable distinct pleasures, such as the pleasure of spending time in nature (e.g., for mountain climbing or kayaking), while taking a ballet class allows you to enjoy listening to the often delightful piano accompaniment. Sometimes, however, one takes pleasure in the aftermath of the movement. For example, Bell himself refers to as an “almost voluptuous” feeling that follows fatiguing physical activity, a feeling, as he points out, that is “diffused throughout every part of the frame” (p. 205-6). And then there is the so-called “endorphin high” that accompanies prolonged exercise, such as marathon running110. But there is also something pleasurable in the experience of bodily movement itself. And it is this pleasure of movement, some think, that washes away the self.
Perhaps not everyone experiences pleasure in movement. And some philosophers might feel that they get enough exercise simply working their brains. However, my concern is not the philosopher’s pleasure in movement, but the pleasure that is experienced by someone who is an expert in physical activities, such as the expert dancer, athlete or musician. Cole and I speculated that activities such as dance and yoga, which are more internally focused, may be greater sources of pleasure in movement than sports which are often focused on an external objectives, such as making a goal, catching a ball, or winning a point. Yet, as I can barely throw a football (to say nothing of throwing one with a perfect spiral), I now see that I am not in a position to make even such speculations. And from what I have been able to gather, I now think the experience of bodily movement of the professional athlete, musician, and others who use their body more as a means may be just as pleasurable as those who use their body as an end.
One can also find pleasure in acts of mental expertise, such as chess or poetry or philosophy, for that matter. The thrill of coming up with a surprising checkmate, or a keen poetic phrase, can be pleasurable. One even finds pleasure in those rare moments when one seems to have formulated a surprising necessary condition for something (such are the thrills of the analytic philosopher!). And, as with bodily expertise, there is also often a considerable amount of pain involved in such activities; sometimes one perseveres merely because it will be an enormous relief to be done. Having been seriously involved in both the life of the mind (as a philosopher) and the life of the body (as a ballet dancer), here I feel a bit more qualified to make comparisons, and can say that (for me) the occurrent pleasure of bodily movement is more salient than the occurrent pleasure of exercising the mind, though the afterglow tends to last longer with the philosophy.
There are possible evolutionary explanations for why the exercise of bodily skills should be, as Bell puts it, rewarded by pleasure. Obviously, escaping from danger sometimes requires fleetness of foot. Since being physically fit is conducive to such fleetness, it would seem that those who find pleasure in activities that promote physical and mental fitness are more likely to practice them. Thus, a selective advantage would seem to accrue to those who find pleasure in challenging physical activities. Yet evolutionary explanations for the existence of a trait are notoriously easy to come by, so let me leave this issue aside. Besides, my concern is not with the evolutionary explanation of why certain movements are pleasurable, but rather with what it is about such movements that makes them pleasurable, and in particular, whether it involves a loss of the self.
The philosopher Julia Annas, in her book Intelligent Virtue (2011), tells us “we lack a vocabulary for explicating just what is enjoyable about the exercise of expertise” (p. 81). I think that this is true, to a degree; however, although we may not be able to say “just what is enjoyable about [it]” (and as a matter of fact, if philosophy is any guide, we lack a vocabulary for saying just what anything is), I also think it is possible to say something informative about it. For example, the writer David Foster Wallace seems to capture at least an aspect of this enjoyment when he writes about tennis star Roger Federer: “Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter” (2006). I think Wallace expresses something correct here: expertly moving through space and interacting with matter can be glorious. But again, one should not forget that it can be sheer hell as well, and from what I have read, this may be more so in tennis than in many other endeavors. Tennis, for example, does not have the sorts of dynasties one finds in other athletic endeavors—professional tennis players apparently do not want their children to follow in their footsteps—and one possible reason for this is that professional level tennis, as Andre Agassi’s (2011) autobiography makes abundantly clear, is remarkable not just for its peak-type sensuous epiphanies, but also for its excruciating pain. Ballet can also be excruciatingly painful, yet, in my memory—which, admittedly, is often rosy—the pleasures outweigh the pain.
Although Wallace captures something correct about at least some types of expert movement, some of what he says suggests a view that I oppose. In speaking of the amazing physicality of Federer’s movements, Wallace—and this is one reason why Dreyfus and Kelly cite him approvingly—seems to understand Federer’s superior athletic skill as bestowed upon him from the outside. “It’s hard to describe,” Wallace says, “and one wouldn’t want to make too much of it….[b]ut the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer” (2006). While a deity, entity, flow of energy, or random genetic flux may be the primary causal force behind birth defects and illness in children, on my view, the primary causal force behind Roger Federer—that is, Federer’s athletic prowess—is Roger Federer himself.