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Conference Papers Year : 2002

Roles of the Body in Learning


In recent years research in fields as diverse as philosophy, pedagogy, psychology, and anthropology has shown that the knowledge people possess in practice may not always be linguistically expressible 1. Part of what practitioners know can certainly be and normally also is formulated in textbook knowledge as well as in rules of thumb, sayings, and the like, but still, a large part is more readily understood as made up of skills, 'know how', 'ways of going about the practice', and so on, which cannot be adequately explicated in words. Often, for example, the experienced nurse can tell that something is wrong with a given patient without being able to say exactly what and without being able to formulate the grounds for her judgement (Josefson, 1988, Benner, 1984). Likewise, the skilled driver adapts his driving to the concrete situation and for example knows how to react to a sudden danger like a car swerving towards him or a child running out in front of the car without recourse to linguistically expressed or expressible knowledge like the following of a rule (cf. Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986). Even in fields as 'objective' and 'theoretical' as the natural sciences, practitioners report that through practice they acquire a "feel for good science" that is not expressible in words, but that is essential to the way they conduct their own research as well as to the way they judge the work of others (Kanigel, 1986, p. x). Actually, in my opinion, the knowledge of practitioners is not pieced together of a linguistic and a practical part, each acquired by the practitioner more or less independently from the other. Instead, as I see it, the 'knowledge in practice' of the practitioner is a synthetic unity of linguistic and practical knowledge as well as of experience or 'knowledge by acquaintance' with concrete situations occurring in the practice. More precisely, in my opinion the knowledge of the practitioner is an integrated whole that goes far deeper than the interrelated parts themselves in that it gives the full meaning to the linguistic knowledge and makes certain actions seem the relevant ones to undertake, thereby making possible the 'know how'. The 'knowledge in practice' of the practitioner is, I think, best understood as a kind of perspective on the situation that lets features and aspects of a given situation stand out as important and relevant to the activities of the practitioner. It is because of having a perspective like this that a nurse can sometimes immediately see that there is something wrong with a patient without being able to say on what she bases her judgement: With the perspective of her 'knowledge in practice' the patient simply looks to be 'in a bad condition' - this is the way he presents him- or herself to the action-directed attentiveness of the nurse. Likewise, the perspective of the skilled driver lets him adjust his driving to that of other drivers, without him necessarily noticing anything specific about the movements of their cars - the car ahead may just look to be 'about to make a left turn', even though the driver has not yet so signaled. And the 'feel for good science' that the scientist acquires through practice is, I would say, precisely this kind of perspective that lets scientific problems arise and stand out as interesting to investigate and lets the research of others present itself immediately as for example 'a breakthrough', 'superficial', or 'wrongheaded'. Be that as it may, the question arises how knowledge that is not linguistic is learned, since, obviously, it cannot be (directly) passed on in verbal communication. The obvious answer, 'through experience in practice', is insufficient, though true, in that it leaves the concepts 'experience' and 'practice' unaccounted for and in so far actually does not explain how the knowledge comes about. The purpose of this paper is to give part of the required more elaborate answer by pointing at the contribution our bodily being has in the learning of non-linguistic knowledge. I shall do this by first introducing a distinction between 'intentional learning' and 'learning as we go along', and then, with two further concepts, those of 'body schema' and of 'affordance', try to show the importance of the body at three different levels: the level of action, the level of the structuring of the way given situations present themselves to us, and the level of 'the learner'. In conclusion, I shall present the claim that the traditional epistemological dichotomy between mind and body must be rethought because our bodily being is integral to learning and to what is learned, and so is integral to a domain traditionally thought to be purely mental.
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hal-00190361 , version 1 (23-11-2007)


  • HAL Id : hal-00190361 , version 1


Nina Bonderup Dohn. Roles of the Body in Learning. Network for Non-scholastic Learn­ing, Working Papers, No. 1, Aarhus Universitet, 2002, Århus, Denmark. ⟨hal-00190361⟩


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