The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Countering the Idea that the Bodily Senses are Excluded from the Aesthetic Realm

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Countering the Idea that the Bodily Senses are Excluded from the Aesthetic Realm

I claim that one reason to reject forms of just-do-it that warn against bodily awareness or proprioception is that dancers are proprioceptively aware of aesthetic aspects of their movements, and that one way they evaluate the aesthetic qualities of their movements is by feeling (that is, proprioceiving) what is right. Ask a dancer why he or she changed a certain movement to make it cover less space, or decided to move his or her wrist just so, and the answer will sometimes be that the dancer can feel that this particular way of movement is better than the other way: it is more exciting, or graceful, or brilliant, or any other number of aesthetic qualities that bodily movements can manifest. This is a common sentiment among dancers, and I take it as my central piece of data that such experiences occur.

Can we believe, though, what dancers say? In line with the methodological principle of taking first-person reports of experience as defeasible evidence for the truth of such reports, I take such reports as defeasible evidence that expert dancers are proprioceptively aware of various aesthetic properties of their movements. Accordingly, if there are no countervailing arguments,(that purport to show that proprioception cannot be an aesthetic sense), we can take first person reports as evidence for the view that dancers experience aesthetic properties proprioceptively, and correlatively, as evidence against the just-do-it principle. However, there are apparent countervailing arguments.

As I’ve pointed out, one objection to this view is Child’s objection that dancers cannot experience the aesthetic qualities of their own movements proprioceptively, since this would interfere with performance. The intention of the overall argument in this book, an argument which aims at showing that experts focus on their movements and that focusing on expert action is not detrimental to performance, is to counter this view. But there are also arguments specifically targeted at the idea that proprioception is an aesthetic sense, so let me here focus on countering some of the reason why philosophers and others have held that a sense such as proprioception could not be an aesthetic sense.

The view that proprioception is an aesthetic sense – a sense through which we are able to experience aesthetic properties – is in part controversial because a long tradition of theorizing about aesthetics takes the aesthetic senses to include only those that are capable of focusing our attention beyond our own bodies. Aesthetic experience, it is thought, while sensuous (depending on sense experience), is not sensual pleasure, not pleasure in our own bodily sensations. Rather, as D. W. Prall puts it, “experience is genuinely and characteristically aesthetic only as it occurs in transactions with external objects of sense” (1929: p. 28, 56). Or, in the words of George Santayana, in aesthetic experience “the soul . . . is glad to forget its connection with the body” (1955: p. 24). Given this tradition, and given that the very function of proprioception is to provide information about, and awareness of, our own bodies, one might wonder how proprioception could be an aesthetic sense.

Traditionally, the only two senses thought of as aesthetic are vision and hearing. As Francis Hutcheson points out, “the ancients observe a peculiar dignity of the senses of seeing and hearing that in their objects we discern the kalon [beautiful], which we do not ascribe to the objects of the other senses” (1725/1973: p. 47). According to Hegel, “art is related only to the two theoretical senses of sight and hearing, while smell, taste and touch remain excluded from the enjoyment of art” (1835/1975: p. 38). However, in questioning the privileged status of the visual and the aural, I am not alone. As others have argued, many of the features that supposedly give vision and hearing their privileged status are features of other senses as well.121 The ability vision and hearing afford us to distance ourselves, both physically and psychologically, from the object of awareness is a good example. The light waves that bounce off a painting must come in contact with one’s eyes, no less than the molecules wafting away from the perfume bottle must come in contact with one’s nose. Moreover, while one must eat to survive, once the edge of appetite is taken off, one can distance oneself from one’s needs and dine without the practical purpose of fending off hunger. Indeed, in some respects, a proprioceptive aesthetics may be less controversial than an aesthetics based on the so-called lower senses, namely, taste, touch, and smell. For, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, “we do not speak of beautiful tastes and beautiful odors”—or, at least, if we do it is with a bit of awkwardness (1960: q. 27). However, it is natural, at least for dancers, to talk of experiencing beauty proprioceptively. A dancer, during a rehearsal onstage—a situation in which there are no mirrors from which to glean visual feedback—may claim that a certain movement or position is beautiful or, since dancers tend to be a self-critical lot, complain that the beauty, or whatever other aesthetic quality he or she is aiming at producing, is lacking: “The movement is too abrupt,” “The line is ugly,” “I’m not feeling the connections,” are all phrases that roll naturally off a dancer’s tongue.

It is also sometimes thought that the aesthetic senses do not admit satiety—in Bernard Bosanquet’s words, “the aesthetic want is not a perishable want, which ceases in proportion as it is gratified”—and that this precludes some of the exteroceptive senses (senses that typically inform us about the external world) from being aesthetic senses (1915: p. 4). For example, it might be thought that at a certain point of excess, the pleasures of eating chocolate and other delicacies turns to disgust. And, it might be thought that, just as this tells against the possibility of gustatory taste being an aesthetic sense, it tells against the possibility of propriocetion being an aesthetic sense, since if one kept on dancing, for example, one would collapse with exhaustion.

However, it is not clear that this line of thought excludes either gustatory taste or proprioception from the aesthetic realm. While one becomes sated by food, it may be that the pleasure of eating, if it could be prolonged without actually ingesting anything, is insatiable. And although one gets physically exhausted in moving, as one might get physically exhausted in looking at paintings in a museum (or physically stuffed by eating), one seems to never tire of the experience of moving in aesthetically valuable ways.

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