Talk by Mikael Karlsson: Could Rabbits Dance?

Could Rabbits Dance?

Date and time: Monday Jan. 26th. 11.30 am.
Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14
Speaker: Mikael Karlsson (U. of Iceland)
Abstract: My question (inspired by Sue Jones’ 1999 article, “Do rabbits dance?”) is threefold: could rabbits dance?, could rabbits dance? and could rabbits dance? In other words, the question invites consideration of the acquisition of abilities, the nature of dance, and the abilities, or potential abilities, of rabbits. My main focus is upon the second of these topics–the one about dance. But that, I think, cannot be well addressed without looking at topics of the other two sorts. Much of the philosophical literature concerned with dance has concentrated upon the formation and application of concepts (or, in another idiom, upon the meaning and use of words, such as the word “dance”). My perspective is rather that of the philosophy of action, although matters of meaning are unavoidably considered along the way. Actions fall into various categories, and much of my discussion will be devoted to considering how dance is to be categorized as an action type. My approach draws upon the work of Aristotle, Elizabeth Anscombe and Donald Davidson, among others, although I discuss Anscombe not at all, Davidson very little, and Aristotle only a bit more. I argue here against what I believe to be two bad arguments against the possibility that rabbits could dance. One of these takes an overly narrow view of what it is to act, which forces us to say that, while we clever humans might find reasons to view certain forms of animal or vegetable movement as action—for instance, as dancing—these lower life forms do not really have the capacity for action: we might therefore say, we some reason, that a flower “dances” in the wind, but this would not be authentic dancing. Supporting this line of thinking is a failure to distinguish between the categories of action picked out by different types of descriptions. The other sort of argument is grounded in what I believe to be an overly narrow view of dance; a view that restricts itself to artistic dance (ballet, contemporary dance, interpretive dance, and the like). An aesthetician of dance may maintain with some justification that folk jigs, social dances, and other forms of not-very-artistic dance are of little interest from the point of view of philosophical aesthetics. That may be the case (I leave it to others to argue the point), but I maintain in this paper that a restriction to artistic dance is worse than unhelpful for exploring the ontology of dance or the status of dance as a form of action. Finally, with regard to rabbits, I argue that dance characteristically involves the capacity to coordinate bodily movements to the measure of music, and this evidently requires cognitive, kinetic and affective capacities that rabbits—and other non-human animals—seem not to have. But who knows? I leave the question whether rabbits could dance as an open, empirical question.

Mike (Mikael M.) Karlsson is an Icelandic philosopher born in New York City and educated in the USA. He emigrated to Reykjavík in the early 1970s and began an academic career at the University of Iceland, where he was instrumental in building up the newly established Department of Philosophy, eventually becoming Full Professor of Philosophy in 1995 and retiring as Emeritus Professor in 2013 (although he continues to teach and write). From 2003 to 2006 he served as founding Dean of the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences at the University of Akureyri. He has been very active in fostering staff and student exchanges all over Europe. He has authored a modest corpus of articles in philosophy, with emphases in philosophy of law, moral philosophy, philosophy of mind and action, and selected areas in the history of Western (and ancient Chinese) philosophy. he is fluent in Icelandic and gets along haltingly in French.