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Philosophy and Human Movement: A Tribute to David Best

Drid Williams

David Best was a professor of philosophy at the University of Wales, Swansea. He was a distinguished writer in the philosophy of the arts, noted for his work in the performing arts, especially the dance. His published books include Expression in Movement and the Arts (1974), Philosophy and Human Movement (1978), and Feeling and Reason in the Arts (1985). His recent death on July 13, 2013, came as a surprising and unwelcome shock. He is and will be sorely missed.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Dr. David Best presenting his keynote address "The Social Mind" at the 2008 conference "Body, Movement and Dance in Global Perspective" that took place at Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong, July 24-26, 2008.


     Because he made many significant contributions to JASHM, we want to acknowledge David's impeccable scholarship and his profound understanding of the dance and human movement arts by identifying some of the major themes he addressed—an appropriate tribute, surely, because there is a sense in which his work defined his life.

     For many, it has always been a pleasure to encounter David's thinking about the arts. Everyone can easily share this pleasure because of the clarity with which he wrote and the seminal nature of his questions, especially about the dance. Our regard for David's work centers on the fact that he consistently sought for meaning with reference to dancing. For example, at the end of his 'Symbolism' paper (1997), he makes this important point:

How are we to explain meaning in movement then? It is again illuminating to consider the analogue with linguistic meaning. There is a common misconception that word-meanings are the basic building bricks from which the whole structure of the meaning of language is erected. Yet, roughly, the situation is precisely the converse [the opposite] of that. The meaning of a word is given by the various sentences in which it is used, and those sentences derive their meaning from the whole activity of language of which they form an interdependent part. The same is true of the meanings of movements.

     Meaning requires a context [italics added]. For example, the meaning of a particular action cannot be explained by a narrow concentration upon the physical movement in isolation. The meaning is given by the context of the action, or complex of actions, of which it can be observed to form a part. Precisely the same physical movement may have quite different meanings, i.e. it might be different actions, in different contexts. (Best 1997: 53)

He began this paper by arguing that, if we accept the fact that symbolism is the explanation of the meaning of movement, we will go astray, getting ourselves entangled in hopeless dualisms that can lead only to confusion. He used Eleanor Methany's book Connotations of Movement in Sport and Dance (1965) as a stalking horse because it is so thoroughly worked out and her book demonstrates three forms of dualism. A few of David's detractors have said that his analysis of Methany's work was unnecessary. Whatever message about movement the book contained could be understood and utilized regardless of errors in logic or defective argument. Drid Williams even had one irritated reader ask, "Who cares about dualisms? Does anyone but a philosopher know what they are? It's the performance that counts, isn't it?" Ironically, this interrogator seemed to believe that we should tolerate sloppy verbal arguments and careless usage of language, while at the same time demanding faultless physical performances and meticulous usage of body language!

     Not only did Best occasionally endure trivial negative reactions about his choice of subject (notably, the dance) from some of his British colleagues in philosophy, but his efforts were subject to criticism by members of the dance world on both sides of the Atlantic. In our opinion, these were people who evidently do not think writing about dances or dancing (apart from program notes) was necessary or important. Their idea seemed to be that a solid understanding of what was seen and enjoyed on stage was irrelevant.

     Fortunately for those of us who knew and loved David's writing, his supporters outnumbered his detractors, which leads us to the examination of a paper that was a keynote address he delivered at the Olympic Congress in Oregon, preceding the Olympic Games that were held in California in 1984. This paper attacked one of the most common presuppositions that we know of in the dance world: the separation of body and mind.

"Body, Mind, and Sport"

In "Body, Mind, and Sport" (1984), he begins by saying, "There are two technical terms I cannot avoid: dualism and behaviourism. Dualism has been for hundreds of years, and still is, the dominant doctrine of the relationship between body and mind. The dualist conception is that there are two basic and distinct entities in which human beings consist, a mind and a body, or mental stuff and physical stuff" (op. cit. 201). He continues:

The self, and all mental experience, such as sensations, emotions and thoughts are assumed to be independent of the physical behaviour by which they may be expressed. These experiences are assumed to take place in the mind, and to be directly known only to me, while other people it is believed, can be aware of them only indirectly by observing my physical behaviour and inferring from it what is going on inside my mind. (ibid.)

But, Best tells us, in spite of the fact that this concept is still widely accepted, it has fatal flaws which are 1. misconceptions about the character of thinking; 2. the notion that spoken language itself is a "code," which leads to the idea that 3. language and communication are impossible. We will briefly look at misconceptions about the character of thinking and dancing.

     David observed that the initial mistake we make is that of treating physical behavior as if it were separate from thinking:

the basic datum which we can uncontroversially see when we look at another human being is physical behaviour, construed as a mechanistic process of nerves, muscles, bones, etc. For the behaviourist mental experience can be reduced to the physical in this sense: for the dualist the mental experience is a separate, private 'inner' non-physical phenomenon which we infer from the perceived physical behaviour. (op. cit. 204)

Unfortunately, the behaviorist's construction is wrong.

     Each of us is a single human being—not accurately defined (or conceived of) as a separate body that emits behavior and a mind that thinks, 'mind' being in some unexplained way equivalent to the brain. Best points out that, just because a 'brain' is necessary for thinking, it does not follow that thinking is the sole function of a brain.1

     He drives home this point: "What I am trying to show is that the dualist notion of two distinct entitles, the mind and the body, makes no sense. What we have is one entity, the human being" (op. cit. 205). He strenuously objects to the notion that dancers' thinking (along with those engaged in sports activities) necessarily precedes or accompanies thoughtful action. What he is determined to eradicate (if possible) is the idea that 'thinking' is located in the body somewhere.

     Furthermore, there is an unfortunate tendency to equate 'thinking' solely with academic intellectual activity, as if 'thinking' does not otherwise occur:

One can be said to be thinking when day-dreaming, wondering where to go on holiday and admiring beautiful scenery. One may be thinking what one is doing when sweeping the floor, reversing a car and planting a rose. Yet none of these activities can be called 'intellectual.' (op. cit. 213)

However, they are all part of 'thinking'—a widely ramified and complex subject—that certainly is not restricted to the academic activity, although many people talk as if it is. David was explicit:

My point is that it is far too easily assumed that thinking, or at least the paradigm of thinking, is academic, intellectual thinking, and therefore that other kinds are not really thinking at all. But there is no justification for saying that a plumber, squash player or cricketer thinks less than a dentist, doctor or teacher. In this respect there are absurd and pejorative connotations to a term such as 'manual worker'—which carries the misguided implication that such a worker does not need to think. Yet I should be seriously worried about a plumber, carpenter or electrician carrying our repairs in my house if he were incapable of thinking what he is doing. The possibility of thinking, or not thinking, applies equally to a plumber and a philosopher. The crucial point to recognise is that the thinking/not thinking distinction applies just as much to intellectual activity. One can engage in an intellectual activity without thinking what one is doing. (op. cit. 214)

He concludes that no one could be a competent performer of "at least most sports" (and dance forms) unless he could think, underlining the thought that no one can be a successful "doer" unless he or she is also a "thinker."

"Culture Consciousness: Understanding the Arts of Other Cultures"

The introduction to "Culture Consciousness: Understanding the Arts of Other Cultures" (1987) is interesting. It includes an anguished cry from King Lear about his identity; a reference to Samuel Beckett's play Not I; mention of Francis Bacon's painting An Accident of Being; and a remark about the philosopher René Descartes, whom David thought of as the "influential father of dualism." The paper opens with the author's central idea:

[T]he identity of a human being, and the character of his thoughts and feelings, cannot intelligibly be regarded as independent of his culture, by which I mean that inextricable amalgam of language, art forms, and other practices of his society. On the contrary, one's identity, and the character of one's mental experiences are substantially a construct out of those social practices. (op.cit. 125)

Having (perhaps unknowingly) expressed a major belief among social anthropologists about human identity, Best then declares that "the arts are inextricably bound up with the whole way of life of a so­ciety," pointing to a "prevalent tendency among artists, arts educators and philosophers of the arts . . . to contend that the arts are devalued," citing Oscar Wilde, who also said that "to art's subject mat­ter, we should be more or less indifferent," concluding that "All art is quite useless."

     David also records other surprising attitudes toward art by renowned artists:

Peter Brooke, the theatre director, has said: "Culture has never done anyone any good whatsoever," and "NO work of art has ever made a better man." A similar conception seems to be implicit in Hirst's contention that "the purpose of art is to aestheticise people." A distinguished educational pundit is quoted in The Observer (24 Jan. 1982) as saying: "The arts are marvellous, but moral they are not." Stravinsky contended that music by its very nature is incapable of expressing anything—it is like sculpture cast in bronze (which of course, begs questions about the expressive possibilities of sculpture cast in bronze). (ibid.)

David's response to such remarks was that they were "odd," telling readers the story of a German officer who visited Pablo Picasso in Paris during the WWII occupation of France:

Impressed by Guernica, which, of course, Picasso had painted as an expression of his revulsion at the bombing of the little Spanish town of that name by the German fascists, the officer pointed to the painting and asked: "Did you do that?" To which Picasso replied: "No, you did."

Clearly, Picasso was looking at the content of the painting. The German officer was concerned with the picture's painter.

     Best believed that an alleged 'autonomy' of art made no sense. To deny the relevance of art to anything else in the society was either absurd or incoherent. He said, "[T]o understand a poem is to understand a language, which is to understand a culture." He refused to have art disassociated from the rest of human culture—to have it isolated from life. Indeed, he often used very obvious statements about human movement, physical education, and the dance to emphasize his point. Among the papers he wrote for JASHM, there is no better example of this emphasis than a short essay he wrote titled . . .

"Physical Education is for Human Beings"

Best begins the discussion by drawing attention to his title, stating that readers may think it merely states the obvious:

Why would anyone waste time writing an article arguing that physical education is for human beings? Any P. E. teacher knows that well enough. In fact, bizarre as it may seem, there is a very widespread and influential, if largely implicit, denial that physical education is for human beings. A glance at most of the journals, visits to most departments of physical education, sport, and human movement studies, in colleges, polytechnics and universities, and the prevailing tendency in the education of physical education teachers gives the overwhelming impression that the concern is not with human beings but with machines. For the overriding, even exclusive, areas of study are the scientific, mechanical aspects of sport and human movement, such as, for example, exercise physiology and bio-mechanics. The dominant emphasis is on what can be weighed and measured and on the mechanics of the movements of muscles, bones, joints, etc. "If it moves, measure it," is the prevailing theme. (Best 1991: 141)

Following his initial criticism, he says that he does not want to deny the importance of the scientific study of human movement, which he believes to be of great advantage for "improving performance and preventing injury." Instead, he argues against scientism, based on a misbegotten assumption that that the science of movement can explain everything of any value that can be known about the subject.

     Best did not want science in this case to be classified with "the status of religious belief," hastening to explain that he also did not advocate dabbling "in the mystical, rapturous and soporific effusions which have been so damaging to the academic credentials of the study of physical education and human movement, which are often passed off as philosophy" (ibid). He wrote at length about this subject in Philosophy and Human Movement (1978), and he enlists the support of another excellent philosopher, Peter Winch:

Philosophy has no business to be anti-scientific: if it tries to be so it will succeed only in making itself look ridiculous. Such attacks are as distasteful and undignified as they are useless and unphilosophical. But, equally, and for the same reason, philosophy must be on its guard against the extra-scientific pretensions of science. Since science is one of the chief shibboleths of the present age this is bound to make the philosopher unpopular; he is likely to meet a similar reaction to that met by someone who criticises the monarchy. (Winch 1958, cited in Best 1991: 142)

     Best attempted to draw attention to the aesthetic and moral characteristics of the arts of human movement, contending that their written language descriptions, and such could be fully as objective as the mechanical and scientific facts about them. He was concerned that physical education teachers, especially, were becoming "indoctrinated" to scientism because "students and intending teachers" were not being presented with other characteristics of the activities in which they were engaged.

"Educating Artistic Response: Understanding Is Feeling"

If we were asked to choose the greatest contribution Best made to the study of the dance arts, our choice might well be found in the article "Educating Artistic Response: Understanding Is Feeling" (1998), which opens thus: "A principal reason for the pervasive scepticism about the educational values of the arts is the persistent assumption that artistic experience lacks genuine intellectual content" (op. cit. 30). Why? Because the dance arts, especially, have been saddled with this dualism in the English-speaking world throughout most of its history, it demands special consideration. Moreover, it is a misconception (as Best would call it), based on the dualism between mind and body, reason and feeling, intellect and emotion.

     His brilliant arguments in this paper against this most pervasive of dualisms begin by using the words 'subjective' and 'objective.' He quotes an editorial in the Times Higher Educational Supplement to introduce his theme:

It is thought that [the arts] do not need to be taken seriously, since it is stated quite explicitly that creativity is an inspirational . . . activity rather than a cognitive and disciplined process. As a result, the arts are often re­garded as of low academic content, and hopelessly subjective. (ibid.)

If this idea were held only by critics and detractors of the dance and other arts, it might be understandable, but the problem is far greater than that. It is an idea that is commonly held by supporters of the arts, by students and artists themselves:

Thus these "supporters" defeat their own case. For it makes no sense to suppose that there could be learning in an educational sense if there can be no place for understanding, and rationality. On the subjectivist, non-cognitive basis the only learning possible would be of the causal, stimulus/re­sponse kind of which an animal is capable. (ibid.)

Best rightly attributes this kind of conceptualizing to "the general influence of logical positivism and its heirs," explaining that logical positivism is based on the unquestioned, axiomatic assumption that cognition, understanding, rationality, and objectivity are the exclusive province of the empirical sciences and deductive logic.

     We are told that "[t]he deeply seductive belief is that the only propositions which make any sense, are those which can be supported by such reasons." The upshot is that "the arts, like morality and religious belief, are assumed to be non-cognitive, non-rational, and thus, as the Higher puts it, hopelessly subjective" (ibid.).

     Best often argued that it does no good to claim that the arts are "cognitive activities," requiring full usage of people's reasoning and mental capacities, then claim to reject the need for informed critical analysis and thought.

     Unfortunately, literature on the dance is often characterized by such contradictions, which are based, in the end, on unquestioned, unexamined assumptions—the most dangerous of which is the assumption that the arts are nonrational and subjective.

     His central theme, as the title of this paper foretold, is not that the arts involve both feeling and reason but that artistic experience is rational, cognitive, and fully objective. He was convinced that all of the arts were "ineliminable" as subjects in educational curriculums in the English-speaking world because human feelings are logically inseparable from understanding works of art.

     By way of conclusion, we can do no better than let the author of speak for himself:

This is the direction in which further research is urgently needed, for unless we can provide sound reasons to show unquestionably that, while centrally involving feeling, the arts are as fully and intelligibly cognitive, objective and rational as any subject in the curriculum, then the arts will continue to be marginalised, in education and society.

     Once we have eradicated self-defeating subjective assumptions, then, in view of, for instance, the deeply personal, moral, social issues which can be the subject of the arts, there is a sound, in-depth case for arguing that the arts should be central in the curriculum. For in educating understanding we are educating feelings, and those feelings are not supernatural, but offer insights into life generally. (op. cit. 40)

It is surely only too clear, in our society, and many others, how urgently needed, yet widely ignored, is such education of the emotions.


1 Moreover, he reminds us that other organs (liver, heart, etc.) are also necessary for thinking. In fact, we couldn’t do without any of them.

References Cited:

Best, David
1974. Expression in Movement and the Arts. London: Lepus Books.
1978. Philosophy and Human Movement. New York: Allen & Unwin.
1984. Body, Mind and Sport. JASHM 7(4): 201-18.
1985. Feeling and Reason in the Arts. New York: Allen & Unwin.
1987. Culture Consciousness: Understanding the Arts of Other Cultures. JASHM 4(3):124-35. Reprinted by kind permission of the Journal of Art and Design Education, 1986.
1991. Physical Education is for Human Beings. JASHM 6(4): 141-45.

1997. Symbolism and the Meaning of Movement. JASHM 10(1): 42-54.
1998. Educating Artistic Response: Understanding Is Feeling. JASHM 10(1): 30-41. Reprinted from Curriculum 15(1), 1994.

Methany, Eleanor
1965. Connotations of Move­ment in Sport and Dance: A Collection of Speeches about Sport and Dance as Significant Forms of Human Behavior. Physical Education Series. Winston-Salem, NC: WC Brown.

Winch, Peter
1958. The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy. London. Routledge and Kegan Paul.


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