Movement as a Way of Knowing

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Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (2013), Scholarpedia, 8(6):30375. doi:10.4249/scholarpedia.30375 revision #132708 [link to/cite this article]
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Curator: Maxine Sheets-Johnstone

Movement comes in all sizes. It is stretchable, temporally elastic, and full of energetic possibilities. It can be tailored to any occasion. It can be discreet or boisterous. Like anything that is overdone, it can tire you out or even knock you out.

Children often excel in it and of course infants are known to be fascinated by it (Spitz 1965). But infants also learn to stand on their own two feet and cease being moved about by someone else’s. They actually learn to do this on their own--without instructions from others and without an owner’s manual. It’s really quite an amazing feat, the understanding of which comes down in good part to understanding coordination dynamics (Kelso 1995) and the primal animation and intrinsic dynamics of animate forms of life in the first place (Sheets-Johnstone 1999/2011, Kelso 1995).


On Learning Our Bodies and Learning To Move Ourselves

In the course of learning their bodies and learning to move themselves, infants and children engage in all sorts of movement. They crawl, fall, totter, romp, break things, throw their toys about, yell for help or comfort, and engage in what older folks might deem a myriad of mischievous behaviors. But they are likely exploring the world through movement and having a great time playing around with their own movement possibilities and the movement possibilities of objects in their surrounding world. It’s a time of exploration, discovery, and often just plain fun as well as one filled with wonder and surprise.

Corporeal Concepts and Thinking in Movement

Contrary to received wisdom, all this infant movement is the generative source of fundamental human concepts. Yes! Concepts! Fundamental corporeal concepts such as near and far, hard and soft, jagged and pointed, weak and strong, open and closed, and so on. Corporeal concepts are rooted in animate movement (Sheets-Johnstone 1990), the movement we humans and other animate forms of life are constantly giving things from the time we are born, first and foremost the movement we are constantly giving our own bodies. Indeed, human infants are not pre-linguistic; language is post-kinetic (Sheets-Johnstone 1999/2011, 2010a, 2010b).

Moreover beavers building dams, lionesses moving together in concert in the process of hunting together to down a prey animal, chimpanzees fashioning a stick for use in termite-digging—all such nonhuman as well as human animal movement is testimony to the fact that corporeal concepts go hand and hand with thinking in movement. Both are natural phenomena; they derive from the very nature of animate forms of life (Sheets-Johnstone 1981, expanded version of article in Sheets-Johnstone 1999/2011, 2009).

When anyone begins thinking seriously about corporeal concepts and thinking in movement, he or she might in fact begin thinking about our long-ago hominid ancestors: How did—or could--early hominids manage to make stone tools without concepts? How did - or could - they even come to think of making such things short of their experience of their own bodies, in particular of their own teeth and what their own teeth have been doing, and even more particularly, thinking about the distinctive nature of teeth and what their differentiated teeth do—e.g., sever something as in a bite or chew it to bits (Sheets-Johnstone 1990). When animate creatures explore the possible and real-time kinetic use of things in their world, they open doors of possibility by way of corporeal concepts and thinking in movement. In short, exploring the world and coming to know it through their own bodies and the movement of their own bodies is what animate creatures do.

Coordination patterns exist in part because we are self-organizing systems (Kelso 1995), but in good measure too because we move voluntarily. We initiate movement, we determine the speed, force, amplitude, direction, and termination of movement, not in so many words—definitely not in so many words—but in the very kinesthetic experience of our own movement. Our own movement has a certain qualitative dynamics. In a living experiential sense, our everyday coordination dynamics are achieved in and through our kinesthetic memory of those dynamics (Sheets-Johnstone 2003 and 2009, exp. version of article in Sheets-Johnstone 2012). We do not have to learn anew how to brush our teeth each day any more than we have to learn anew how to stand on our own two feet each time we want to get up from the table or even out of bed. When we learn new skills or new ways of accomplishing something, we forge new qualitative dynamics, thinking in movement and drawing on a previous repertoire of “I cans” (Husserl 1989) that are replete with corporeal concepts.

Quite apart from concepts such as near and far, open and closed, and so on, is the prime corporeal concept we have of ourselves as vulnerable—vulnerable to injury, maiming, and pain, not only by our own ineptitudes but by our interactions with others. Play is not only of considerable moment in this context but of considerable epistemological significance. In the course of play with others, we develop a keen and active sense of how we can be hurt by others and how we ourselves can hurt others. We thereby become sensitive to what we can and cannot do. Our repertoire of “I cans” (Husserl 1989) in playing with others develops in consonance with our awareness of the vulnerability of the bodies we are and the bodies we are not, or in other words, with our awareness of how our play with others, when careless or thoughtless, can result in harm to ourselves and to others.

Creativity and Play

Movement and play literally go hand in hand, whether a matter of balls, sticks, racquets, cards, or chess pieces. But of course feet play too. They kick and scramble, slip and slide. Most importantly of course too, whole moving bodies play: they do somersaults and cartwheels, tour jetés and battements, rope-jumping and hop-scotching; they leap and soar, crouch and slink, spin and dive; and so on, and so on, with a seeming infinite variety of possibilities. Moreover we humans are known to kick an idea around. We play with it. In fact there is a real or imaginary whole-body involvement when we kick an idea around. We might give it a flick in now this direction, now that, in order to see new sides of it. In the process, we might gaze out the window, put our forefinger to our lips, pace up and down, and widen our eyes. The same is true when we toy with an idea. The same is true too when we fiddle around with things, not just when we see if we might be able to fix the dishwasher, but when we fiddle around with a melody on the piano or with a crayon in our hand. Fiddling around can be creative as well as “fixative.”

When we truly engage our creative capacities, we are in fact on something akin to a playing field. We may know our goal, but not yet how to get there. We are thinking and feeling our way there creatively. In the process, we might imagine this or that possibility, invoke this or that capacity, try this or that technique, go forward on this roll or surge of energy and satisfaction. All such creativity is at the same time both here and now and forward-seeking. It knows where it is, so to speak, but know not where it will go—yet. Which is why when we engage our creative capacities we are on something akin to a playing field where a game is in progress and the final result of any play, let alone of any final score, is yet to come.

In just such circumstances, “the creative poverty of not yet knowing” (Fink 1981) is an invitation to play, not in a hare-brained sense, but with concerted attention and energy directed toward fathoming in just which direction we should move, wondering and wandering as we weave our way through a maze of possibilities and uncertainties. Our imaginations are thus in full play. An observation of Carl Jung is not just strikingly apt in this context but eloquently describes the gift and wonder of play. Jung writes:

For everyone whose guiding principle is adaptation to external reality, imagination is for these reasons something reprehensible and useless. And yet we know that every good idea and all creative work are the offspring of the imagination, and have their source in what one is pleased to call infantile fantasy. Not the artist alone, but every creative individual whatsoever owes all that is greatest in his life to fantasy. The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable (Jung 1976, p. 63).

On whatever terrain it unfolds, playing clearly enhances our lives. We have nothing to lose in play, only to gain. For even if we literally lose—alas! we lose the game or our creative endeavors come to naught--we learn something in the process or have the possibility of doing so. Moreover if we are truly engaged in playing, whether with balls or ideas or melodies, we are rapt in in the challenges of the moment, attentive to the immediate and to its possibilities.

Playing With Movement

It might even be said that a play a day keeps the doctor away. Since movement and play are natural bedfellows, it is possible that, by putting movement into your life, you might actually enliven your life beyond measure in ways you never before imagined possible (Sheets-Johnstone 2010b). When you play with movement—everyday movement, whatever it might be--it can give you back reams of fun and enjoyment. You smile and you laugh—as when you go through a doorway in your home and instead of just going through a doorway in your home, you “Reach for it!” as in an old Hollywood gangster movie, lifting yourself to highs you never before dreamed of (Sheets-Johnstone 2010b, Chapter 4).

It is notable that evolutionary continuities exist with respect to human smiling, laughing, and playing. Primate ethologist J. A. R. A. M. van Hooff has convincingly shown that human smiling “in its form and it context resembles to some extent” what is termed “silent bared-teeth face” of Theropithecus and Mandrillus monkeys and chimpanzees (Pan) (van Hooff 1969, p. 75). A few pages later, he expands on the resemblance: “Apart from the similarity of the facial expression elements, both movements are often characterized by a ‘cautious’, perhaps ‘inhibited’, nature of the body movement. On the other hand, the laughing response shows a great similarity in form with the relaxed open-mouth face, especially in connection with the rhythmic, low-pitched staccato vocalizations and the boisterous body movements.” In light of the distinction between human smiling and human laughter, he observes that, the similarity in form between human and nonhuman primate smiling and laughing “would suggest that the human smiling response has evolved from the silent bared-teeth face and is homologous with it, and that the human laughing response has evolved from the relaxed open-mouth face and is thus homologous with it” (p. 77). Most interestingly too, he notes later in conjunction with an experiment when a nearly adult chimpanzee and a smaller younger are introduced that “the silent bared-teeth face was, on one occasion frequently, shown by the potentially dominant animal during the first minutes of the introduction,” that it “was accompanied by ‘cautious, inhibited’ approach movements which led to embraces, etc.,” and that “After this period the two animals began to move more freely.” In fact, the silent bared-teeth face disappeared and the relaxed open-mouth face appeared, and [t]he behavior developed into boisterous play” (p. 78). It should be noted explicitly that the relaxed open-mouth face is often accompanied by “fast rhythmic staccato breathing,” and in fact, in the chimpanzee, it is “often accompanied by bouts of short staccato vocalizations which sound like a soft, low-pitched, noisy ‘ah, ah, ah’,” and further, that “This facial expression which is often referred to as laughing has been described or mentioned by many authors,” including Darwin, who noted “that the main feature in which this chimpanzee laughing differs from our own laughter is the fact that the teeth in the upper jaw are not exposed” (p. 65).

Primatologists Michael Tomasello and Josep Call, in their book Primate Cognition, give us a further perspective, one particularly rich in its description of chimpanzee play:

The initiation of play often takes place in chimpanzees by one juvenile raising its arm above its head and then descending on another, play-hitting in the process. This then becomes ritualized ontogenetically into an ‘arm-raise’ gesture in which the initiator simply raises its arm and, rather than actually following through with the hitting, stays back and waits for the other to initiate the play, monitoring its response all the while. . . . If the desired response is not forthcoming, sometimes the gesture will be repeated, but quite often another gesture will be used. In other situations a juvenile was observed to actually alternate its gaze between the recipient of the gestural signal and one of its own body parts; for example, one individual learned to initiate play by presenting a limp leg to another individual as it passed by (an invitation to grab it and so initiate a game of chase), looking back and forth between the recipient and its leg in the process (Tomasello and Call 1997, p. 244).

Clearly, movement not only comes in all sizes but in more than human form. Just so: play comes in all sizes and in more than human form. Where movement and play come together, movement can be experienced as a kinetic joy ride. Though put in this way, the confluence may sound anthropomorphic, it might better be termed pan-animate. For example, in the course of his studies, ethologist W. H. Thorpe observes that in the crevice between two hills, two birds are soaring and that the birds are riding a single upcurrent of air; it is taking them no place in particular (Thorpe 1963, p. 363); in the course of her studies, Jane van Lawick Goodall observes a young chimpanzee swings repeatedly between the same two resilient branches then drops down and beings somersaulting and frolicking on the ground (van Lawick Goodall 1974, p. 156). Evolutionary biologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s description of a somersaulting badger is equally instructive:

In the badger, the joy in play was very strongly expressed and was particularly so in locomotor, fight, escape, and hunting play. . . . During locomotor play, the badger frolics around, runs in curves, suddenly changes direction and rolls over. . . I consider the extremely favored rolling around on his back to be pure locomotor play. Here the badger showed a peculiar preference for real ‘somersaults’ (rolling forward), the origin of which I was able to follow. . . In the evening of July 10, I observed that the badger had invented a new game. In my room, he forced himself between wall and desk, put his head between his forelegs, curled himself up and made a real somersault (Eibl-Eubesfeldt 1978, p. 142).

Clearly, the badger’s somersaulting is exemplary of a kinetic joy ride and Eibl-Eibesfeldt goes on to describe other “invented” locomotor play by the badger.

Human bipedality gives an added advantage when it comes to play. Humans can turn around on one leg, for example; their whole body can be supported on one leg. A certain complexity and subtlety of movement is thus possible, especially in the form of ballistic movement in which body parts can swing freely (Sheets-Johnstone 1983). Rhythm can play a decided part in these ballistic movements where an initial surge of energy carries the movement on its own, as in skipping, swinging arms, and so on. Rhythm can in fact be fascinating, mesmerizing, and experienced too as a kinetic joy ride in its pulsings, accents, crescendos, and so on.

In sum, and to paraphrase Shakespeare: If movement be the food of life, play on! For movement and play are indeed natural bedfellows and not just for humans but for many species of animate life.


Eibes-Eibesfeldt, Irenäus. 1978. “On the Ontogeny of Behavior of a Male Badger (Meles Meles L.) With Particular Reference to Play Behavior.” In Evolution of Play Behavior, ed. Dietland Müller-Schwarze. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson, and Ross, pp. 142-148.

Fink, Eugen. 1981. “The Problem of the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl,” trans. Robert M. Harlan. In Apriori and World: European Contributions to Husserlian Phenomenology, ed. William McKenna, Robert M. Harlan, and Laurence E. Winters. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, pp. 21-55.

Husserl, Edmund. 1989 Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Book II (Ideas II), trans. R. Rojcewicz and A. Schuwer. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Jung, Carl. G. 1976. Psychological Types, rev. trans. R. F. C. Hull. Collected Works, Vol. 6 (Bollingen Series XX). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kelso, J. A. Scott. 1995. Dynamic Patterns. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/MIT Press.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 1981. “Thinking in Movement.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 39/4: 399-407; expanded version of article in Sheets-Johnstone 1999/exp. 2nd ed. 2011, Chapter 12, and in Sheets-Johnstone 2009, Chapter II.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 1983. “Evolutionary Residues and Uniquenesses in Human Movement.” Evolutionary Theory 6: 205-209.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 1990. The Roots of Thinking. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 1999/exp. 2nd ed. 2011. The Primacy of Movement. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins University Press.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2003. “Kinesthetic Memory.” Theoria et Historia Scientiarum: An International Journal for Interdisciplinary Studies, special issue on “Embodiment and Awareness,” ed. Shaun Gallagher and Natalie Depraz, VII/1: 69-92; article also appears in Sheets-Johnstone 2009, Chapter X. Expanded version of article in Sheets-Johnstone 2012.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2009. The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2010a. “Why Is Movement Therapeutic?” American Journal of Dance Therapy 32/1: 2-15.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2010b. Putting Movement Into Your Life: A Beyond Fitness Primer. Amazon Kindle ebook.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2012. “Kinesthetic Memory: Further Critical Reflections and Constructive Analyses. In Body Memory, Metaphor and Movement, ed. Sabine C. Koch, Thomas Fuchs, Michela Summa, and Cornelia Müller. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, pp. 43-72.

Spitz, René. 1983. Dialogues from Infancy, ed. Robert N. Emde. New York: International Universities Press.

Thorpe, W. H. 1963. Learning and Instinct in Animals, 2nd ed. London: Methuen & Co.

Tomasello, Michael and Josep Call. 1997. Primate Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Hooff, J. A. R. A. M. 1969. “The Facial Displays of the Catarrhine Monkeys and Apes.” In Primate Ethology, ed. Desmond Morris. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, pp. 9-88.

Van Lawick Goodall, Jane. 1974. In the Shadow of Man. New York: Dell Publishing.

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