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Movement and the Intellect

David Best


Writing and discussion on the contribution of physical education and human movement to the development of the intellect frequently reveals [sic] serious and pervasive misconceptions about mental concepts. It is important to eradicate the confusions which arise as a consequence, not only for the sake of clarity per se, but also because of the practical damage which they can effect in the discussion and formulation of new degree proposals in human movement. In this article, I want to expose some serious misconceptions about the relationship between the intellect and physical education or human movement. The issue is one about which it is essential to be clear at this important period of change in higher education when new degree courses are being devised and submitted.

The Development of the Intellect

One often encounters statements which explicitly claim, imply, or at least are commonly taken to imply, that the activities which comprise sport, physical education and other human movement forms1 develop, or contribute to the development of, the intellect. Such a conclusion is also frequently, and very naturally, taken to be implied by claims made about 'education through movement'.

     For expository purposes, let us consider how this conclusion is reached with respect to Modern Educational Gymnastics, since the argument for it brings out clearly a major but erroneous assumption which is frequently overlooked. However, I should like to emphasize that similar claims are made with respect to other activities in physical education and sport. It is said, then, that Modern Educational Gymnastics develops, stimulates, or in some other way improves the intellect. The argument for the claim goes something like this:

Modern Educational Gymnastics requires more thought than formal gymnastics, since there is an indefinitely wide possibility of choice of method in answering the tasks. Hence the participants have to think out for themselves the best ways of answering each task, and since there is more thinking involved, a greater contribution is made to intellectual development.

     The principal misconception inherent in this sort of argument is an oversimple notion of thinking, or the intellect, as a mental faculty which can be developed and exercised in various ways, just as muscles can be developed by means of various physical exercises. For example, Morgan et al. (1970) wrote of the power of a well-conceived program of physical activity to "exercise the intellect" and "influence the minds as well as the bodies" of pupils. Jean Williams (1974) seems to have a similar conception, since she quotes, with approval, one of the aims of physical education stated by Morgan et al, as "Intellectual . . . development through physical actions." In a similar vein, Morgan (1974) writes of a "range of activities, some of them highly organized and socially sophisticated, appealing often to the intellect as well as to the centers of motor control." A classic case of this misapprehension can be seen in Chapter 3 of Arnold's book (1968), significantly, and tendentiously, entitled "The Mental Element" (my italics). For example, of play activities, Arnold writes: "The 'prepared environment' with its water, sand, clay, blocks and open spaces positively enhances sensory and other forms of experiences so that the intelligence and intellect become nourished from the richness of the surroundings." But it is fundamentally misconceived to regard the intellect in terms of a faculty which can be "nourished." The intellect is not that sort of thing. In fact it is not a thing at all. There cannot be a contingent, inferential connection between intellect and behavior or it would be impossible ever to know to what 'intellect' refers, and a fortiori what, if anything, 'nourishes' it, since no independent verification of its existence or character would be possible. To speak of someone's intellect is a rough and misleading shorthand for alluding to his capacity for dealing with those activities which we call 'intellectual'.

     Even leaving aside this misconception for a moment, the assumption, on which it depends, that there is an essential homogeneity in, or underlying, all types of thinking is manifestly false. For the terms 'thinking' and 'mental' cover a heterogeneous range of cases. Methany (1965) fails to recognize the importance of this point, and it has damaging consequences for her theory. Among other examples in her book, one finds "In human life as we know it, thought and behaviour are the two sides of the coin of human existence. Each implies the other; neither can exist apart from the other. Thus, man has no choice other than [']to express his thoughts['] in behavioural form." From this sort of consideration she concludes: "We may therefore say with some confidence that voluntary movement experiences have intellectual content." Now certainly there is an important difference between 'mindless' movement and intentional action, and it is true that voluntary action is intentional. A way of expressing this might be to say that voluntary action is thought-impregnated. But there is great diversity in kinds of thinking, and only confusion can accrue from assimilating them all to a unified mental faculty. One can be said to be thinking when one is daydreaming about winning the football pools, wondering where to go on holiday, wishing one could stay in bed on a cold morning, and admiring beautiful scenery. Yet, it would be very odd to call any of these activities 'intellectual'. Wittgenstein (1967) writes: "Thinking" [is] a widely ramified concept. A concept that comprises many manifestations of life. The phenomena of thinking are widely scattered[.] . . . It is not to be expected of this word that it should have a unified employment; we should rather expect the opposite."

     Whereas it is true that when one is performing an intellectual activity one is necessarily thinking, it is not true that when one is thinking one is necessarily performing an intellectual activity. That is, 'intellectual' entails 'thinking', but the converse does not hold, i.e. 'thinking' does not entail 'intellectual'. The old country yokel who, asked what he did on summer evenings, replied: 'Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits', would be startled to hear that therefore he is sometimes an intellectual.

The Intellect—Determined by Intellectual Activities

This raises the question of what it is to be intellectual. It is not necessary even if it were possible usefully to conduct a full-scale analysis, but we can obtain a rough idea of the distinction marked by the term, and that is sufficient for our purposes. There are some activities, such as mathematics, the pure sciences and philosophy, which are incontrovertibly intellectual. There are others, such as cutting the hedge, playing snakes and ladders, going for a walk, and engaging in social chat, which are clearly not intellectual. Ryle (1949) writes: "When we speak of the intellect, or better, of the intellectual powers and performances of persons, we are referring primarily to that special class of operations which constitute theorizing. The goal of the operations is the knowledge of true propositions or facts. Mathematics and the established natural sciences are the model accomplishments of human intellects." However, not all theorizing would count as intellectual. A discussion of tennis or squash tactics, for example, might be regarded as theoretical, but not normally as intellectual. The term tends to be restricted to those activities which involve a fairly considerable degree of high-level theorizing or abstraction. When, as students, we went rowing at University, it was partly as a relaxation from intellectual pursuits. Rowing, like many sports, requires considerable thought and concentration, but we certainly would not have engaged in it, after a day of examinations, for instance, if it had been yet more intellectual activity.

     This begins to reveal just how fundamental is the error implicit in the common supposition, exemplified by Arnold, that the intellect is some sort of mental faculty or element, which underlies, and is manifest in, all thinking and thoughtful action. Such an erroneous conception is part of the pervasive myth, in the literature on physical education, of what is often vaguely called 'the body-mind dichotomy', or of the tripartite division of the human personality into 'thinking, feeling and doing' aspects—sometimes more pretentiously formulated in terms of 'cognitive, affective and conative' domains—with the de fide assumption that physical education activities can provide the 'synthesis', 'unity of the organism', 'wholeness' or 'integration'. (It is significant that these and similar terms occur so frequently in the writing of Arnold and others on this theme.) Phenix (1964) exhibits the same error: "A person cannot think without a body, nor are his motor responses independent of thought. If learning is to be organic, provision needs to be made for activities in which the intellectual and motor components of experience are deliberately correlated. This union of thought, feeling, sense and act is the particular aim of the arts of movement and of the fields of health, recreation, and physical education. Nowhere else is the co-ordination of all components of the living person so directly fostered" (my italics). Similarly, Morgan (1974) writes that "All actions will be, in some measure or other, in subservience to the intellect and the will. Much education will be effected through the conscious activation of the intellectual powers through comprehension and value judgement."

     This erroneous conception of the mental as an inner faculty or element is also, of course, clearly implicit in the notion of 'developing' or 'nourishing' the intellect. Wittgenstein (1967) locates the misconception perfectly[:] "One imagines thinking as the stream which must be flowing under the surface of these expedients, if they are not after all to be mere mechanical procedures." Yet no sense can be made of the notion of a general mental faculty, which can be exercised in various activities. Indeed, such a notion, one might say, precisely reverses the intelligible order of travel. It is not that the mind makes actions thoughtful, but rather that the type of thinking is determined by the type of activity.

     This reveals another source of confusion, again exemplified in Arnold's book (1968). For example: "The intelligence of a person is closely associated with his intellectual abilities." "[I]t becomes hard to see how early physical activity can fail to contribute towards the growth of overall intelligence and thus to overall intellectual functioning." And "[P]lay may be said to further if not foster the growth of intelligence and thus make a contribution to the child's intellectual advancement" (my italics). One can, of course, perform gymnastics, sporting activities generally, and indeed, most physical activities intelligently, but that is certainly not to say that ipso facto one is being intellectual. Indeed, we often speak of animals as intelligent, but not as intellectual. In short, 'intelligent' does not entail 'intellectual', and failure to recognize this leads to the sort of confusion exemplified by Arnold.

Evaluative Content

Another factor which exacerbates the misconception is that 'intellectual' tends to be used evaluatively, hence to confess that an activity, especially in higher education, is not intellectual seems to denigrate it. This, I think, partly explains the motivation of those who, because they want to argue that physical education activities are no less valuable in education than some academic subjects, feel that consequently they have to prove that engaging in such physical activities does involve the intellect. In this respect, I have heard it argued that there is such a thing as 'kinaesthetic intellect', and that we should not restrict 'intellectual' to purely cognitive activities. But this is a confusion, and to speak of a 'non-cognitive intellectual activity' sounds very much like a contradiction in terms. One could, I think make out a case for 'kinaesthetic intelligence' if this were to mean, for example, the ability to perform a variety of physical actions skillfully, to overcome new problems in different situations with dexterity and imagination, etc. In Modern Educational Gymnastics, for instance, students are encouraged to extend their capacities and to develop greater diversity of movement experience. We might well want to describe an able performer here as exhibiting kinaesthetic intelligence. But to put my earlier point another way, the able mover who is not intellectually gifted will perform physical activities better, will exhibit greater kinaesthetic intelligence, than the intellectually gifted who is not an able mover.

     It has been objected against my argument that to use 'intellectual' to apply only to the sorts of activities I have mentioned, is to apply it without any good reason, and thus to refuse to apply it to physical education activities is mere academic prejudice. The objector claimed that in some Eastern countries the subjects are divided up in different ways, and that our method of classification is simply a Western convention. There are some deep philosophical confusions which underlie this objection, but it is not necessary to pursue them in depth in order to refute it. Notice, first, that the objector cannot have it both ways. He cannot consistently argue both that 'intellectual' is meaningless, since it depends solely on Western conventions and academic prejudice, and that physical education activities are intellectual. The objection clearly reveals his own evaluative notion of 'intellectual' in this confused argument.

     More importantly, if the objection amounts to the claim that we use the term 'intellectual' to apply to certain activities, such as mathematics, when we could have used another term, or a different distinction, then of course this is true. But this will not help the objector, for if we widen the term to include physical activities then we shall have blurred or eradicated a useful distinction, and we shall have to provide another term to refer to activities such as mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences. The fact, if it is a fact, that other countries divide up subjects into different categories has no bearing on the issue.

     The point I am trying to make can be brought out clearly in this way. It largely constitutes the meaning of the term 'intellectual' that it distinguishes those activities which are properly described as 'intellectual' from physical activities such as sport. That is, in virtue of its meaning, 'intellectual' is properly used to mark the contradistinction from such physical activities.

     Referring back to the point adduced above, concerning the evaluative content of 'intellectual', we can now see that one would be on much safer ground readily to concede that physical education activities are not intellectual, but to argue that they are none the less valuable for all that.

The Contribution of the Intellectual

Now it is of the first importance that my argument should not be misconstrued. I am certainly not saying that we cannot be intellectual about physical education activities. On the contrary, I should want to insist that it is not only possible but necessary, for a complete understanding of them, to consider such activities from the point of view of the disciplines of, for example, anthropology, physiology, psychology, sociology and philosophy. What I am arguing is that in performing physical activities, even thoughtfully, one is not, or at least is not normally and necessarily, engaged in intellectual activities. By contrast, to engage thoughtfully in, for example, higher mathematics is to engage in an intellectual activity. To fail to see this could have a disastrous effect on the formulation of proposals for new degree courses in which intellectual content is demanded. Such a failure stems from a fundamentally misconceived oversimplification of, and therefore confusion about, mental concepts.

Conceptual Abilities

One further misconception which exacerbates the confusion in this area of discourse is bound up with a very loose usage of the term 'concept' and its cognates. The term 'conceptualisation', for example, is often misleadingly employed, not only in debate about physical education but also, for instance, in educational theory and psychology, to refer to any sort of knowledge. Again, this is too complex a topic to discuss here in the detail it merits but, to put the point briefly, it is quite possible to be able to swim without having the concept of swimming, and conversely to understand the concept of swimming without being able to swim. To take another example, however expertly a dancer or gymnast can move in space this does not necessarily imply that he has much of a grasp of the concept of space. A physically inactive philosopher who has carefully considered such questions as 'Could there be a two-dimensional space?' is much more likely to have a comprehensive grasp of the concept. Understanding concepts at this level is a genuine intellectual enterprise. It is a matter of tracing out logical consequences, relations and possibilities. Of course this is not to deny that a young child may be helped to begin to develop a rudimentary concept of space by moving, but it is to deny that at a later age he will necessarily or even usually continue to learn more about the concept in that way.

A Matter of Degree

The understanding of a concept is not a case of all-or-nothing, it is not that one either has it or one hasn't, but is rather a matter of degree. The importance of this point to the issue under discussion can be brought out this way. Ryle (1949) writes: "It is easy to see that intellectual development is a condition of the existence of all but the most primitive occupations and interests. Every advanced craft, game, project, amusement, organization or industry is necessarily above the heads of untutored savages and infants, or else we would not call it 'advanced'. We do not have to be scientists in order to solve anagrams or play whist. But we have to be literate and be able to add and subtract." This quotation might seem to support the claim that physical education activities are intellectual after all. But notice that Ryle here uses a very minimal sense of 'intellectual' such that it is a condition of "all but the most primitive occupations." Thus the term 'intellectual' in this sense marks off those actions which only a rational being can perform. But we should be clear (a) that this sense implies only a minimal degree of the sort of ability we call 'intellectual', and (b) that therefore the term would not normally be used of such cases. No sharp distinction can be drawn here, but we would certainly want to deny that the term 'intellectual' would be legitimately employed to refer to activities which were only marginally above the capacity of untutored savages and infants. Higher mathematicians are notoriously inept at simple arithmetic, but we still regard them as intellectuals. We do not similarly call someone 'intellectual' who can do simple arithmetic but not, for example, higher mathematics.

     The importance of this point emerges clearly in relation to our earlier example. It has been objected against my argument that there must be a certain degree of the intellectual, even though it may be small, in performing Modern Educational Gymnastics, since it requires at least some conceptual ability. My reply was that we refer to an activity as 'intellectual' only if it involves a considerable degree of that sort of thinking. If even a minute amount of the intellectual is sufficient to call an activity 'intellectual', then it would be possible, on parity of reasoning, to propose a converse argument against the objector. One could claim that we don't need all this physical education because we have enough physical exercise doing our intellectual activities. Philosophy, one could claim, is a physical activity, or nourishes the physique, since it involves the physiological functioning of the eyes and brain when reading, the ears and tongue when discussing, the limbs when walking to and from the library, etc. Thus, on parity of argument, I could claim that philosophy develops the physical through the intellectual.

     And if you'll swallow that, you'll swallow anything.


This article was first published in 1976 in the Journal of Human Movement Studies 2(1): 64–69. It later appeared in Philosophy and Human Movement (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978), 50–64. Any changes made to the essay are noted in brackets.

1 I shall use only "physical education" henceforth. The differences between the two terms are not relevant to my argument.

References Cited:

Arnold, Peter J.
1968. Education, Physical Education and Personality Development. London: Heinemann. Metheny, Eleanor
1965. Connotations of Movement in Sport and Dance. [Dubuque,] Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Co.

Morgan, Ronald Earnest et al.
1970. The Concept of Physical Education. British Journal of Physical Education 1(4).

Morgan, Ronald Earnest
      1974. Concerns and Values in Physical Education. London: Bell.

Phenix, Philip
      1964. Realms of Meaning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ryle, Gilbert
1949. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson.

Williams, Jean
1974. Themes for Educational Gymnastics. London: Lepus.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig
1967. Zettel. Oxford: Blackwell.


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