Thought and Action in the Art of Dance


A thesis in partial fulfillment of the

requirement for the degree of





The movement of our bodies through time and space is a fundamental aspect of our existence. The art of dance which encapsulates the movements of the human body in an expressive and meaningful manner, has been ignored by the Western philosophical tradition for centuries. This paper hopes to elucidate the relationship between thought and action in dance. I will argue that dance is not simply a series of coordinated movements but rather  movements with intention. Then I will shift my focus to the relationship between intention and action as defined by expressionism. Finding this definition inadequate in explaining the relationship  between thought and action, I will examine dance using the Aristotelean notions of the four causes and arrive at the position that the relationship between thought and action should be logical instead of causal. Finally, I will discuss the implications of this relationship and the challenges it poses for dualism and physicalism.


“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” - Friedrich Nietzsche 


One of the most fundamental features of human existence is the movement of our bodies in time and space.

The discipline of dance employs completely the human body in an attempt to create and depict value and meaning through movement. Yet, such an important and necessary endeavor has largely been ignored throughout the history of Western philosophy. In The Republic, Plato considered dance as having little value to the perfect city. (Republic, 598c) And G.W.F. Hegel, found no distinctive cognitive function for dance in his system of the fine arts. (Sparshott, 278) It is perhaps because dance is so intrinsically linked with the body and emotions that philosophers tend to at best stay away from the topic and at worst despise it. Pure reason, considered by Descartes as the essential defining characteristic of human beings, has dominated Western philosopher for two millennia. We have inherited a type of faculty psychology where we believe that our reason exists as a separate entity and independent from perceptions and bodily movements.

However, the incredible development in the area of neuroscience within the past fifty years has posed challenges and threats to the very foundation of philosophy. To continue ignoring the importance of the body in metaphysics and epistemology is analogous “ ... to the position of Cardinal Bellarmino refusing to look down Galilieo’s telescope: it is a plain refusal to countenance the known scientific facts.” (Lakoff, 65) Dance, wholly dependent on the body as its subject, is at a unique position to challenge some of the classical treatments of the mind and body problem. Unfortunately, the majority of the discussions on dance focuses on aesthetic judgement. Very few philosophers see the value of exploring the issues of mind and body through the lens of dance. This is a major pitfall of Western philosophy.

Very few philosophers see the value of exploring the issues of mind and body through the lens of dance.

This paper is aimed at understanding the relationship between thought and action in the art of dance. In first part of this paper I will begin the discussion by identifying the basic definition of dance and show that dance is not a series of coordinated movements but rather it is movements with intention. I hope to further elucidate this point by presenting a thought experiment involving the humanoid robot Asimo. Then, I will turn to the relationship between intention and action as defined by expressionism. By borrowing from Aristotle’s treatment of the causes, I hope to support the position that the relationship between thought and action should be logical instead of causal. In the second part of this paper I will discuss the implications of this relationship and the challenges it poses for dualism and physicalism since “... any coherent theory of mind must ... coherently explain the relation between expressive body movement and the emotion it is expressing.” (Best, 78) Finally, I hope that I can shed some light on dance as a unique art form that deservers more serious philosophical attention. 


The question of what dance is is itself a complex and debated topic. 

Definitions are from the excessively broad to the extremely narrow. One example provided by Francis Sparshott (2004) defines dance as “an art form is categorized as dance if its principal medium is the unspeaking human body in motion and at rest.” (278) Under such a definition, a variety of human tasks such as gymnastics could be considered as dance. For the purpose of this paper, I will take on a much narrower definition that matches with what we conventionally identify as dance. Thus dance will be defined as an artistic activity involving the voluntary movement of the body in the context of a performance. Undoubtedly such a simple definition of dance will raise contentions. The debate of what constitutes as dance is not within the scope of this paper, I would bite the bullet and assume that it is conventional to consider a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to be dance. After all “...what distinguished dance from gymnastics involved the context within which the activities are performed and perfected... what we understand as dance is dance.” (McFee, 65) I believe the image of what we conventionally perceives as dance should suffice as a definition for the purpose of this paper. 


Dance is the only creative art form where it is displayed solely through the unspeaking human body.

When perceiving and considering dance, we are forced to focus on the body/bodies moving through time and space. The very essence of dance inevitably exists within the aesthetic body. However, a piece of music or an oil painting can very well exist and convey meaning without the musician or artist. Music is music regardless if it is played by an orchestra or a computer. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa loses no value if Da Vinci is not standing beside it. David Carr (1987) poses the example of a plastic ballerina spinning on top of a music box. Although our interpretation of the sound coming from the box as ‘music’ is straight forward and literal, our interpretation of movement of the plastic ballerina as ‘dancing’ can be only metaphorical at best. Even though the plastic ballerina performs a pirouette (spun around on one leg), an intent in the movement is missing. Here we have stumbled upon the uniqueness of dance as opposed to other art forms. Dance requires a combination of intent of the dancer and his or her action in an aesthetically meaningful and pleasant manner. A proper understanding of this relationship that exists within dance would illuminate fundamental constitutions of human existence and challenges many of the established theories of mind and body interactions.


The need for intention in dance might be better argued through the following thought experiment.

The need for intention in dance might be better argued through the following thought experiment. The Honda Asimo humanoid robot introduced in the year 2000 has the incredible ability to conduct a multitude of daily tasks. Asimo can kick a ball around, play a musical instrument, answer questions from humans and oddly enough, perform traditional Japanese dance. On one occasion, the humanoid danced elegantly (if such word can be used to describe robotic movement) to the traditional Japanese music playing the background. Its arm extensions and leg bends were clean and precise. Its performance possessed all the skills, aesthetic and kinesthetic appeal of a real performance. It made no mistakes and was as skillful as any master of Japanese traditional dance. But Asimo’s movements are caused by a string of codes preprogramed into its electronic processor. Can we claim that Asimo was dancing in the strict sense of the word? Intuitively we would say that Asimo was not dancing. It seems that dance with artistic value must have some kind of intent from the dancer. Dance without intent is just a group of movements performed by bodies. Carr (1984) critically rejects the notion that a group of students who go through the motions of a dance and get the steps right have mastered the dance. Carr notes that this treatment of dance “...reduces it to a sequence of colorless movements.” (74) The importance here is to note that dance as an activity has embedded artistic purpose. To think of anything as human activity at all requires intention which separates it from human movement. There must be a difference between someone who is doing spastic movements caused by a seizure and someone who is performing spastic movements in an intentionally performed routine.

What if we could not tell the difference between Asimo and a human dancer? In this case it might be reasonable to say that Asimo is dancing. But this is under a kind of presumption that the robot dancer has some kind of intention. “To claim that automata [are] dancing would be to ascribe artistic purposes to them.” (McFee, 56) Thus, when we uncover the fact that Asimo plays no part in performing his dance and that his movements are only caused by codes, we would feel betrayed and what we previously considered to be dance loses some of its value. Again the difference is between human movement and human movement with purpose and intention. In other words, dance is more than just human movement but rather human action or activity.

In our discussion of the intention of the dancer, questions regarding the intention of the choreographer will arise. Thus, there seems to exists two sets of intentions. The intention of the choreographer and the intention of the dancer. The questions here is whether the intention of the choreographer is expressed or the intention of the dancer is expressed? Or if one could translate or take over in the absence of the other? These are serious concerns that deserve more attention. But for the scope of this paper, I am primarily concerned with the intention of the dancer performing the dance. 


If we are to consider intent as a fundamentally important aspect of dance and human action, then it is necessary to examine the relationship between intent and movement.

Since intent is a phenomenon that includes a variety of notions, I will be focusing on the intent of self- expression in dance. Expressionism, an influential artistic movement, is concerned with the expression of the artist’s own emotions in his own artwork. If the audience experienced an emotional reaction while looking, reading or listening to the artist’s work then a recreation of the emotion felt and portrayed by the artist has occurred. This tradition in stressing the importance of the outward manifestation of the artist’s emotion in his artwork has carried on into the realm of dance. It is not uncommon for anyone attending a dance class to be told by the instructor to bring out their inner emotions through the movements; a kind of cathartic release of inner feelings. Expressionism even permeates the language that is used when dance is taught or judged. Often one can hear comments such as “I didn’t feel enough of your emotions in your dance” or “I needed more passion from your movements.” It is evident that dance is one of the most expressive forms of art. It can succeed in capturing and expressing emotions where words fail. Thus, it is important to consider more seriously the relationship between the intention of expressing emotions and the physical movement of the dancer.

One of the influential definitions of expressionism was proposed by R.G. Collingwood (1938), where he described expressionism “... as process in which the artist gets clear about his emotional states by working through them imaginatively in a medium [that] consists in the outward manifestation of the artist’s emotion in an artwork.” (Robinson, 179) The outward expression of the artist’s intended emotion is not a simple manifesting the symptoms of emotion such as a clenching fist, heaving chest or trembling limbs. Rather than a discursive representation, Collingwood called for the “intuitive” representation of emotions in a work of art. This generic definition of expressionism is conveniently summed up by Alan Tormey (1971).

“If art object O has an expressive quality Q, then there was a prior activity C of the artist A such that in doing C, A expressed his F for X by imparting to Q to O (where F is a feeling state and Q is the qualitative analog of F)” (103)

This view of expressionism and the common discourse surrounding dance seem to suggest that the artist’s emotion is expressed through their art or movement. It other words, it would be reasonable to say that dancer A is feeling angry because his explosive movements is evidence of his anger.

This general definition of expressionism is not without difficulties. The first problem arises from this interpretation is how do we distinguish a physical movement without emotional intent and a physical movement expressive of emotional intent? A dancer smiling and waving his arm in jubilation does not imply that he is feeling happiness. He could be nervous and his smile is a coping mechanism. It is logically impossible to infer this connection unless we can be observers of both the emotion and its physical expression. For example, consider that I hear music and laughter coming through the wall of my apartment. I could make the statement that this noise came about because my neighbor is having a party. My claim would gain strength if I knew that my neighbors are Macalester students and that they habitually like to host parties at ungodly hours. My statement would be the strongest if I could go over to their apartment and peak inside and see for myself that they are indeed having a party. As audience members watching a dance, we cannot peek into the mind of the dancer to confirm that he is indeed feeling the emotion that his dance is conveying. Without directly knowing the emotional state of the dancer, we cannot make a definite claim that the dancer is feeling the emotion that his dance expresses any more than we can make a definite claim that my neighbor is having a party without looking into his living room. In a dance, all of the evidence that we have is presented and represented in the observable moving body of the dancer. Thus the claim that that we can know the emotion of the dancer through his dance based on a kind of causal inference is implausible.

I am not trying to challenge the role of the expression theory in dance here. Dance, as an art form, has expressive characteristics that can elicit and inspire emotional responses and empathy. However, it is important to note that it would be a mistake to talk about the expressive qualities of dance as caused by some innate mental and emotional event. There is a difference when making the statement that a dancer is melancholy versus the statement that a dancer is expressing melancholy. Dance can and does express emotions of happiness or anger or sadness, but this does not have to be the manifestation of thoughts or intentions; it could simply result from the nuances of the dancer’s movement. Under the theory of expression, we can make the claim that a sad dance has the characteristics which manifest sadness rather than directly evidencing the sadnesses of the dancer. An attempt should be made to salvage expressionism since it would be equally illogical to completely deny that dance has the ability to express human emotions. Robinson writes that a dance might indeed have the character of melancholy expression which we perceive to be the manifestation of someone’s melancholy. Thus, we can modify the general theory of expression by suggesting that the emotions expressed in a work may not belong to the artist himself but to an implied or imaginary artist or dancer.

Conversely, the works of anti-expressionism choreographers purposefully direct the audience’s attention away from the expression of mood or meaning. Instead, the anti- expressionism schools focus on rhythm and dynamics inherent in the dancer’s performance. Yet, even when there is a deliberate attention to remove the role of expressionism in dance, it does not mean that nothing is expressed. Ironically, the anti-expressionism choreographer must express the anti-expressionism or else the work in question would be rendered literally meaningless. The point here further supports the idea that dance has to be understood within the context of of intentions if it is to have meaning.


An alternative possible interpretation of the relationship between intention and action is purposed by Carr (1987) in accordance with the ideas of Aristotle.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, art pursuits can be said to be belonging to the class of phronesis, or practical wisdom. (Ethics, 1140b10) When applied to the discipline of dance, this can be said to mean that the aim of practical reason in art is to discover and act out a set of actions so that some kind of practical aim or plan can be accomplished. In addition, Aristotle attributes all of the natural and human features of the world to four causes; formal, material, efficient and final. (Metaphysics, 1013aff) Even though Aristotle maintained that a consideration of all four causes is necessarily for a complete understanding of phenomena, the two causes that are of interest to us are the efficient cause and final cause. A clear understanding between the two causes in the context of dance would shed light on the relationship between intent and action in dance. Whereas the efficient causes are associated with the theoretical reasonings within natural science, (ie. the father is the cause of the child), the final cause is better associated with the practical reasoning in art.

“For Aristotle, purposes, intentions and reasons for action in general are not just peculiar kinds of efficient causes but final causes; to say that B happened for a given purpose A is to say that B came about in order that A should be fulfilled rather than that B occurred merely as a causal consequence or effect of another event A. ” (Carr, 349)

The point here is that dance performed should not be interpreted in the sense of intent A caused movement B, but rather that movement B occurred in order that intent A can be expressed. A dancer’s intent, thought and emotions are not the cause of the his movement in the sense of efficient causes. Rather, the teleological account of intent suggest that movements occurred so that intention and emotions can be expressed. As we have already established in the case with Asimo, a dancer must have some kind of practical intention while moving so that his movement would be considered to be a kind of meaningful dance. Thus, once it is established that the dancer is acting purposefully and practically, it is hard to reduce the relationship between intention and action to efficient causes.

Aristotle does require that all four causes coexist within all natural and man made phenomena, and my goal is not to reject or neglect one over another. McFee notes that “...both of these kinds of explanations are essential to the description of human life, and that neither can be reduced to the other.” (57) By showing that there can be a logical relationship between intention and action does not discount the efficient cause. But we should give more consideration of the relationship as one of internal and logical since we do not have the evidence to correctly and justifiably infer a causal relationship. 


Based on the discussion above, we have identified that a logical relationship is preferred between intention and human movement.

Dance, as the unique art form that connects both thought and action in a seamless manner could pose challenges for various theories of mind, in particular, dualism and physicalism. The traditional substance dualism defended by Descartes states that there are mental and material substances. Mental substance which can be equated to the immaterial consciousness can be seen as the cause of the movement of material substance. Taken into the context of dance, this is the traditional view held by expressionism that one’s emotion causes one’s expressive actions. Because of our rejection of the causal relationship between intention and action, dualism proposed by Descartes can be swiftly and effectively challenged. To insist that a dance can draw up innate emotional feeling that causes movement is analogous to a painter with a plate of colors choosing freely which one to employ on his painter. This consideration of dualism turns the body into a mere vehicle or instrument of dance. This is an obscure idea since the body is the subject of the dance. As Fraleigh claims,

“The body is not something I possess to dance with. I do not order my body to be here and whirl there. I do not think “move”, then do move.” No! I am the dance. Its thinking is its doing, its doing is its thinking. My dance is my body as my body is myself.” (90) Dance effectively questions the relationship between intention and movement. In a boarder sense how do we relate the existence of consciousness and its relationship to our body that is composed of material substance? These are questions raised but not solved by the art of dance. However, it seems that “since the 1950s, the majority of view in analytic philosophy of mind has been not dualist but materialist or physicalist. ” (Pakes, 88) Physicalism would appear to be an adequate explanation of the relationship between intention and action. Fraleigh’s claim above highlights the importance of the body in understanding dance. The new trend in the discussion of dance seems to attribute meaning of dance to the physical attributes that cannot be separated form intentions. 


Physicalism, in its various forms, has been a widely accepted way of looking at mind- body issue. 

Physicalists believe that consciousness or the immaterial stuff of the mind can be explained through the study of physical and neural structures of the mind. From a dancer’s perspective this means that the movement and the intention behind the movement of the dancer’s arm is a physiological event that can be explained by the firing of neurons in certain patterns. Physicalism is not aimed at eliminating the existence of consciousness, but rather it aims to explain the processes of the mind through empirical and scientific reasoning. Pakes defines physicalism as that “all physical effects are fully determined by law prior physical occurrence” (65) In other words, "no physical event has a cause outside the physical domain." (65) Thus, even intentions should be able to be explainable with physical science.

This overwhelming importance placed on the body and bodily processes would seem to suggest that the art of dance is a natural ally of physicalism. On the contrary, the uniqueness of dance and its inseparability with intention challenge the central tenant of physicalism. Wittgenstein famously asked,

“When I raised my arm, my arm goes up. And the problem arises: what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?” (Pakes, 87)

The dancer’s intuitive response is that it is the intention or will that is left over. If a particular movement in the context of a dance is regarded a simple physical event, (ie. my neurons fire which cause me to lift my arm) the whole meaning and significance of dance is negated. It seems that even though we can realize and accept our materiality, it is intuitively difficult for us as human being to give away the cause of our consciousness and intentions to only physical processes. 


Consider the famous thought experiment from Frank Jackson (1986) which challenges the adequacy of physicalism in explaining intention. I will modify his thought experiment to suit our current discussion. Imagine that Mary is not allowed to dance to music since the day she was born. Yet, she is incredibly smart and talented and she learns through textbooks and videos everything she needs to know about dance. She has an excellent grasp of everything about dance from the dance history to the most intricate detail in the neurological processes of dance. She know exactly which neuron fires when the dancer moves a limb or performs a pirouette. Suppose one day her oppressors allow her to finally dance, would Mary learn anything new? Jackson argues that Mary does learn something new. She is not simply affirming the physiological process that she has studied. Mary finally knows subjectively what it feels like to dance. For the first time, she would have the kinesthetic sensation of intentional movement. She feels her muscles tighten, the bounce in her feet and the stretch in her finger tips. She experiences the manifestation of an intention in meaningful movement. The fundamental tenant of physicalism that “all physical effects are fully determined by law prior physical occurrence” (Pakes, 65) is being challenged by the gap in knowledge. There is something - whether is intention, consciousness or phenomenological experience - that cannot be explained by only examining neurological processes. It is important to note that this idea that there is a knowledge gap is based on intuitions. But, intuition alone cannot discredit the claim of physicalism. Perhaps in due time, intention and qualias in dance can be physically and scientifically explained by the discovery of a series of elaborate neuron sequences.

There are other considerations that also poses an interesting challenge to physicalism. If we are to characterize human action and even consciousness as the result of physiological process, then we are subjecting ourselves to be governed by a set of scientific laws. McFee (1992) suggest that given enough scientific understanding of the physiological that we would be able to predict human movement. But if we are “to accept that human behavior is predictable in this sense would be to accept an absolute inevitability for it...thinking of my behavior as the result of inexorable scientific law leaves me no room at all for the exercise of my powers of choice. ” (McFee, 55) This is a possible consequence of explaining human action as physiological phenomena. Thus physicalism might not be suitable in explaining the art of dance. Physicalism reduces the notions of intention, creativity and responsibility for one’s art work to irrelevance.


It is important that we now direct our discussion towards the importance of the phenomenological experience in dance.

A phenomenological experience is perhaps the closest event to the intended nature of expressionism. Phenomenal experience or kinesthetic feelings give value to dance precisely because “the central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object.” (Pakes, 68) When I am dancing, there are specific feelings associated with dancing that I cannot quite describe. There is a certain satisfaction and qualia from the extensions of my limbs, the bounces to the beat, and the vibrations of the music. A materialist might say that the phenomenal experience that I experience from dancing can be analyzed in terms of physiology and reproduced by a neuroscientist. But if I was offered to have my brain stimulated in the exact same way as when I am dancing, I would not so easily consider the two to be equivalent experiences. Dancers love dance because of this phenomenal experience.

It is not uncommon for dancers to describe their phenomenal experience in terms of descriptive language. For example I can offer the following description of my experience dancing. The funky music starts. The hits from the sound of the kick drum vibrate through my body. I start to move my body rhythmically. My legs and core muscles contract and my arms swing together forming a neat cross in front of my mid body as I hop off the floor. As gravity pulls me down towards the ground, the balls of my feet land first as the rest of my body weight follows. Instantaneously, as the full force of my weight lands on the floor, my right leg shots out to the left corner in front of my body as my contracted upper body release my retracted arms into a full and lengthy spread. This description is a typical but simplified account of a short “routine” that I would do when I am dancing. The descriptive language that I have adopted should invoke a response that it would be extremely difficult even to explain this simple sequence purely in terms of physiological or neurological theories. Dance has value partially because of these subjective kinesthetic features that are personal. Under such assumptions, we can make claims that no amount of study and thought can give what one hour’s sweat in a studio can give, since appreciation of the aesthetic quality of dance is in the subjective experience of the movements. Phenomenological experience is therefore a natural opposition to the strict form of physicalism since it is not captured by the reductive analysis of our mental states. 


A phenomenological view is not without its problems.

Two main difficulties arises when talking about the phenomenological view. The first is that the subjectivity of the dancer makes the experience seemingly inaccessible to anyone else. In a more extreme case it would seem that no one can relate to the dancer since his kinesthetic experience is so unique and personal. If I was not trained in the classic ballet, it would be absurd to say that I can’t appreciate the elegance and grace of the performance. Similarly, a person attending an orchestra concert need not to master all of the instruments in order to appreciate the value of orchestral music. Secondly, phenomenological experience might be an inadequate explanation to account for the meaning of dance. It is conceivable that a dancer might experience any kind of sensation from an infinite range. The dancer could be unique and only experience pleasure when in pain. The theory is open to the same objections that the embodiment of emotion cannot be evidence for the occurrence of sensations.

On the other hand, a supporter of phenomenology would appeal to introspection. Surely, a dancer would be the best judge of his phenomenological experience since he alone has access to his mind. Who else is more authoritative then a dancer to say that he performed a contorted movement in order to expresses a sense of torment? Far from solving the problem, introspection proves to be unreliable as well. It is possible to make the claim that the audience is at a better place to understand and appreciate the dance than the dancer. Consider the audience sitting in front of a troupe of dancer performing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The audience has the ability to see everything that is happening on stage and thus engage better with the overall picture of the ballet. Compare this with the dancer on the stage, who might be feeling the sensation of nervousness or constantly trying to evaluate his position in regards to other dancers. It is possible to say that the audience has a superior interpretation and understanding of various aspects of the ballet than the dancer in performance. 


The ideas outlined in this paper barely scratched the surface of the philosophical potential of dance.

It is an art form that can be analyzed in various areas of philosophy. However, instead of supplying solutions, the discussion surrounding dance will undoubtedly question the nature and the foundation of Western philosophy. As I have shown, dance challenges the views of physicalism through its phenomenological properties and forces us to consider the relationship between body and intentions. Although there are still issues in regards to the various interpretations of dance, the challenges suggested in this paper are the start of a bigger movement to reinstate the importance of the body in the various areas of philosophy. To reiterate David Best, any respectable theory of mind must offer a coherent explanation between the expressive body and the object of its expression. Everyone moves, but not everyone listens to music or paints. Thus, dance, which is composed of meaningful human actions, occupies a universal position in human society. A closer exploration and better understanding of dance would result in a better understanding of the fundamental nature of being human.