Aesthetics for Birds

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Circus and Philosophy: Teaching Aristotle through Juggling

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The Circus Lab at the University of Kentucky

What follows is a guest post by Meg Wallace (University of Kentucky)

The circus is ridiculous. Or: most people think it’s ridiculous. We even express our disdain for disorganized, poorly run groups by claiming, disparagingly, that such entities are “run like a circus.” (This isn’t true, of course. The amount of organization, discipline, and hard work that it takes to run a circus is mind-blowingly impressive.) But this is one reason why I teach Circus and Philosophy. I want to show students a new way into philosophy – through doing ridiculous things. 

It seems strange that philosophers often teach philosophy of art, philosophy of sport, philosophy of the performing arts, and so on, without having the students at least minimally participate in the activities or artforms that are being philosophized about. This lack of first-person engagement is especially unfortunate when the topic at hand crucially involves the perspective of the participant – the painter, the dancer, the actor, the aerialist, the clown. Circus and Philosophy is an attempt to explore this participation/theorizing gap. (Another aim is just to magic-trick undergrads into loving philosophy.)

I divide the course into two kinds of classes: the physical activity days, where guest instructors teach circus skills such as juggling, aerial arts, and acro-balancing, and the more traditional, discussion-based days, where we read, think through, and discuss philosophy. Students don’t just learn about the circus, they learn how to circus. 

Acro-balancing in Circus and Philosophy at the University of Kentucky, fall 2017

But why circus, specifically? Surely the participation/theorizing gap could be explored just as easily by having the students put a paintbrush to canvas, or putting them on stage to perform Hamlet, or by teaching them the tango, ballet, running, or yoga. Why circus

For one thing, the skills that we learn in class – juggling, aerial arts, acro-balancing – are mostly stupid human tricks. It’s just dumb balls in the air, a silly apparatus that spins, or a human pyramid shape that elementary school kids try. Nothing hangs on these activities. No one cares if you can do them or not, or if you can do them well. So unlike, say, painting, singing, or dancing, where we often encounter the attitude “if you aren’t good at it, there’s no point in doing it”, there’s very little ego or status attached to doing circus. We’re expected to suck at it. The bars are low, the activities are accessible, participation is easy.    

Juggling Day 2 in the Circus Lab at the University of Kentucky, fall 2021

For another thing, the circus is impressively multi-faceted from a pedagogical point of view. It can be characterized in a number of philosophically interesting ways: as art, as bad art, as performance, as performance art, as mere spectacle and cheap thrills, as a sport requiring expert athleticism and skill, as an artform with a complicated, sometimes dark history involving issues of social injustice, workers rights, animal rights, bodily and gender identity, at times: diversity and inclusivity, at other times: exploitation, and so on. 

The circus as a discipline also has an intriguing aesthetic evolution from the three-ringed, red-and-white tented, low-brow razzle dazzle of traditional circus, to the more intricate and provocative nuances of new and contemporary circus. These latter forms of circus can include anything from a highly produced, ridiculously slick Cirque du Soleil performance in Las Vegas, to some unassuming funambulists in a minimally lit, hidden cafe. 

Olivia Porter, juggler

More recently, the circus is used as a form of recreational exercise, as a way for anyone to achieve better health, strength, and flexibility, or as an adventurous approach to group fitness. Circus is also commonly used to promote social justice and community outreach to marginalized populations in the form of social circus

That circus is all of these things and then some makes it rich with potential for deep discussions about an array of philosophical topics in aesthetics, ethics, social and political philosophy, personal identity, mind, metaphysics, epistemology, and so on. It is also intrinsically interdisciplinary, so students with interests and majors outside of philosophy can easily find a way in.  

First day of juggling in Circus and Philosophy, fall 2021

The very first day of the course is a juggling lesson. Very few (if any) of the students come to the class already knowing how to juggle. And many can be heard, the first day, mumbling amongst themselves about how uncoordinated they are and how they will never be able to do it. Nonetheless, the juggling balls are distributed, and the lesson begins.

Our visiting instructor, Jesse AlFord, tells them to start with one ball. As the students toss (and drop) just one ball, Jesse gives some advice, comments on technique and common mistakes, and talks about the skills involved in doing something so seemingly simple. Throughout his lesson, there’s a consistent thump-thump-thud of balls falling to the ground, and students chasing them as they roll across the room. Slowly, students get more comfortable with messing up. After a while, Jesse invites the students to try two balls, with the proviso that they can always come back to one if two isn’t working for them. And then, after a while, from two, we move to three. And from three, four. By the end of the 75 minute class, all of the students have tasted at least a bit of success, and most of them leave thinking that maybe they might be able to juggle after all. All of them have been given the basic skills – and three juggling balls – to take home with them. They’ve been encouraged to practice.

The next day, we discuss Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. We explore the idea of moral virtue being more like learning a craft or an art form or: learning how to juggle. We talk about repetition and habits, generally, and students discuss how they establish habits in their own lives. Then we talk about how such things might contribute to virtue, happiness, or the good life. Quite frankly, it’s the usual run-of-the-mill introductory Aristotle stuff. There’s nothing particularly original about the philosophical content itself. But it makes all the difference to present this content directly after a juggling lesson, where students literally begin cultivating a habit and acquiring a physical skill – a skill that is initially incredibly awkward and unintuitive for nearly everyone in the class, and yet that everyone can see in just 75 minutes of trying that practicing does bring improvement.

Juggling Day 3 in Circus and Philosophy, fall 2021

That’s one of the main points of teaching philosophy in this way: to make philosophy tactile. Several students, while taking this class, have remarked to me that because they understand themselves to be kinesthetic learners, they have difficulty in traditional ‘theory-only’ classes, such as philosophy, and usually avoid them at all costs. Teaching philosophy through first-person circus not only makes the subject attractive to students who might otherwise avoid philosophy, it also helps students absorb the material differently. 

Teaching Aristotle through juggling is just one example of how we incorporate philosophy by activity. Other material is more directly integrated with circus as a performing art. In Acts: Theater, Philosophy, and the Performing Self, Tzachi Zamir proposes a theory of persons that allows participants in the theater to amplify and improve their own sense of self. According to Zamir, “a person is a cluster of possibilities, and actualizes a small portion of these.” The personal benefit of acting is that it broadens the scope of a person’s usual set of possibilities, potentially leading to a wider range of opportunities or ‘live options’ in real life for the person acting. Zamir calls this “existential amplification.” Acting (not merely observing acting) can help someone better understand themselves as they actually are, against a broadened backdrop of what’s possible for them. 

We discuss these ideas and related philosophical material on possibility and necessity, together with lessons on acting, stage presence, and character development. Most of the students have never acted before, nor have they had much experience at all in the performing arts. Nonetheless, with guidance from a guest instructor, they get up in front of each other and act or improvise, all the while reflecting on thoughts about personal identity, potential, and possibility. After they perform a particular scene, we talk about who they think they are (in everyday life) in contrast to who they think they could be, given the character they’ve just played. Certainly, these same ideas could be taught in a traditional classroom setting, where the philosophical arguments and conclusions can be introduced and analyzed a priori. Yet the activity-based approach allows students to grasp the material differently, seeing for themselves how the concepts directly apply.

Take the apparatus as it is used in circus: trapeze, silks, corde lisse, cannon, wheel of death, etc. In traditional circus, an apparatus is a mere piece of equipment that the performer aims to overcome. It is a concrete, inert object or tool used by the performer to control and show their mastery over – to showcase their dynamic athleticism, skill, and prowess against a passive prop. Contemporary circus, in contrast, challenges these assumptions. Katie Lavers, Louis Patrick Leroux, and John Burtt in Contemporary Circus explain that innovative acts that are “…using apparatus made from materials such as ice and clay, which are mutable and transform during the performance, or virtual apparatus which allows the performer and the audience to interact with invisible forces, such as infrared beams, are radically extending understandings of what circus apparatus can be.” In addition to questioning the substance and constancy of the apparatus, contemporary circus also examines the relationship between the artist and apparatus – even going so far as to propose that the identity of the circus artist literally includes the apparatus itself. This suggests an intriguing parallel between the development of ideas concerning the artist-apparatus relationship in circus and the mind-body relationship in philosophy. In fact, Lavers (et. al) explicitly reference Clark and Chalmers (1998) “The Extended Mind”, and build off of philosophical theories of extended cognition, in their explanation of contemporary departures from traditional views about circus artists and their props. Naturally, then, this leads our class to substantive discussions about the mind-body problem and consciousness, giving students an unexpected springboard into classical debates in philosophy of mind, while simultaneously allowing them to explore the artist-apparatus relationship for themselves, as they whirl around on a spinning hoop.

Aerial hoop (lyra) and silks in the Circus Lab at the University of Kentucky

As should be evident, a crucial component of this class is the first person experience that students have in doing these new-to-them (often: terrifying) activities. As circus is becoming more accessible – as more and more gyms and fitness studios are offering everyone a chance to climb the silks or get up on a lyra, and recreational flying trapeze companies are offering flight classes for any daring soul who’s willing – more people are experiencing first hand what it’s like to do circus, instead of merely taking a look. And, by most accounts, it is amazing

In Duncan Wall’s The Ordinary Acrobat, Jonathan Conant, one of the founders of Trapeze School New York describes the flying trapeze as “a machine for helping people re-evaluate what they are capable of.” He continues: “Before a flight, people are invariably uncomfortable. They’re pissed off, they’re scared, they’re sad. There’s a real fear of getting hurt.” They think that the trapeze is “…magical. It’s unattainable. It’s hugely difficult. It’s completely out of the realm of possibility for most people’s minds.” Yet after flying, “[t]here’s an evolution, an acceptance of what’s possible. The trapeze is so built up in people’s heads. And then someone says, ‘You can actually do this, too.’ That totally shifts the realm of what’s possible.” Conant continues, “People like to say that the trapeze is a metaphor for overcoming your fears. But this is wrong. A metaphor is just a symbol. The trapeze actually works.” Circus literature is rich with such accounts, especially in connection to the flying trapeze. Very often, there is talk of a great shift in perspective, of seeing the world differently, experiencing life anew, and even: becoming a whole new being. 

Philosopher L. A. Paul might characterize such perspective-shifting events as transformative experiences – experiences that both epistemically and personally dramatically transform us. According to Paul, given the utter newness of such experiences, and the personal changes that occur because of it, we may lack the epistemic means needed to make a fully rational decision about whether to undergo the experience in the first place. 

Alas, it is not in my (current) course budget to arrange for my students to go whooshing about on the flying trapeze. But for many, dangling on a dance trapeze several feet above the ground or climbing a rope or inverting in aerial fabric or spinning in a metal ring can be just as intimidating, just as terrifying, and just as exhilarating as the grand sweep of a trapeze flight. Consequently, this class not only offers an opportunity for students to learn about transformative experiences, it has the potential to provide them with one. (Although, if Paul is right, none of them can rationally choose to undergo it.)

Apart from the vast array of topics that a class such as circus and philosophy can cover (only a small fraction of which I’ve yet been able to cover in a single semester), let me turn to two other benefits of teaching philosophy this way. 

I’ve taught this class in person only twice (once remotely during fall 2020). Both times the classroom atmosphere was unlike my traditional philosophy classes. It’s not that my students don’t trust each other or help each other out or aren’t respectful of each other in, say, my advanced symbolic logic course. They do and they are. But the level of interaction and trust needed to have some students physically lift up another above their heads goes beyond merely respecting another classmate’s point of view. Moreover, the philosophical discussions after acro-balancing sessions are markedly different in tone than they usually are in traditional philosophy classrooms. The students appear to listen to each other more earnestly and interpret differing views more charitably. 

Acro-balancing in Circus and Philosophy at the University of Kentucky, fall 2017

I suppose this should be expected. If, during a philosophical discussion, you are thinking “oh hey, that person over there literally lifted me up the other day and held me, safely and securely, off of the ground”, you probably will be inclined to listen a bit more graciously when they share their thoughts on life, the universe, and our place in it. Physically trusting in (and being trusted by) fellow classmates easily transfers over to being more intellectually trusting with new and different ideas. This lends to a general classroom environment of cooperation and respect. (Incidentally, this outcome is likely connected to the overwhelming success of social circus to build networks of community support, instill confidence, independence, adaptability and communication skills to youth or otherwise underserved populations.) 

Another difference between this class and other traditional philosophy classes is that it attracts a notably wider range of students than my usual classes. This won’t be surprising to those familiar with circus culture. The circus has a reputation and record of being a welcoming place for an incredibly diverse population. People of all types, identities, ages, backgrounds, shapes and sizes, talents, and beliefs are embraced and celebrated in the circus. The impressive variety of acts and activities that are (and have been) constitutive of the circus has helped to create the most inclusive community around.


Meg Wallace is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Kentucky. She likes to think about ontology, composition, possibility, and circus.

6 Comments

  1. Wow. This sounds like an amazing course as an example of the power of interdisciplinary approach to trigger personal growth with unexpected new skills and thoughts. Like the ying/yang synergy of art/science, mind/body, work/home, male/female —I will now always think of circus when pondering philosophical gem about life or philosophy when seeing or better yet, doing a bit of circus!

  2. I love this! Thanks for describing your course in such detail. I included one day of “contact improv” dance lessons in a philosophy of language course (pre-pandemic), and even that little bit of physical contact noticeably improved my students’ listening to each other. Your class sounds wonderful!

  3. I double-majored in math and philosophy back in the ’70s. I wish that my first philosophy course had been something like this.

    Well done.

  4. A fascinating article. If you’re not already aware of him, you might want to look up Claude Shannon, the most important thinker of the 20th century that no one except tech folk has heard of. As well as inventing information theory (among other things) Shannon was an accomplished juggler and unicyclist who wrote papers on juggling and invented his own juggling machine as well as other playful machines of all kinds. He was the perfect example of a profound thinker who was also fascinated by practical mind-body matters.

  5. Sounds like the US senate could use some of this training, such as lifting each other overhead to develop some trust in each other and willingness to listen to others viewpoints.

  6. Pingback: “Damn everything but the circus!”*… | (Roughly) Daily

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