“It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.” (Anaxogoras)
While the above theory is clearly up for debate (which is way outside the remit of this blog post), what I like about this quote is that it takes the locus of intelligence outside of the mind and into the body. I thought it was a topic well worth pondering on so here are some of my musings about what I've learnt from using my hands, and my body more generally, to 'know'.
In an example of life coming full circle, when I was at university studying my first degree, I was lucky enough to be able to explore the concept of knowledge and came across Practice Theories which regard knowing as achievable through ‘doing’ and refers to knowing more than we can tell (Polyani, 1962). One theory is the Aesthetic Theory which draws attention to the importance of embodied knowledge, arising from physical sensations and emotions (Ewenstein and Whyte, 2007). The locus of knowledge is shifted away from the conscious mind to the sentience of the body. I remember learning about a study of roofers who talked about how the knowledge required to work with confidence in dangerous conditions was embedded within their body, such as feeling the roof with their feet. We also had a potter come in and give us a talk about her experiences with using her body to know how to shape the clay. These theories interested me and I had some success in relating them to my own experiences, for example something as simple as walking up the stairs requires knowledge held in the legs and not the brain. Has anyone else experienced that weird feeling when overthinking walking up the stairs actually makes it more challenging? I hope that’s not just me! But overall, I still felt that it was more applicable to the worlds of hands-on work and craft which seemed at that point as ‘other’ to me.
Woodturning has been a transformative experience that has allowed me to get be more in touch with my body and get out of my head (a little!). It is impossible to be a craftsperson, I believe, if you cannot listen to your body while working. When I am turning a piece of wood, I can feel when it is the right width, I know how much pressure I need to put on the chisel to achieve what I want, I can feel what is right in a way that can get clouded if I try to engage in too much cognitive thinking about it. Of course, there is a place for some rational thought, for example when I am following instructions to make something I will use measurements. However, if I rely too much on rationality, I feel that something is lost in that process and I am at my most joyful when I can just listen to how it feels. I am by no means hugely knowledgeable about wood species, in the sense of knowing all the names and grain types, however I have certainly developed a ‘feel’ for working with different woods and preference for some over the other in ways that are impossible to explain. Funnily enough, I am far prouder of this knowledge – which feels more ‘mine’ – than I am of any external rewards that I have received for explicit knowledge. If my mind takes over my bodily knowing when I’m turning, I am usually not as happy with the results as when I just let my body do the thinking.
The significance of getting in touch with my bodily knowing goes beyond woodturning and has transcended into other areas of my life. I have realised the wisdom that can come from my body and tap into that more in everyday life, whether through more structured activities like yoga or when just out for a wander. I also feel like I know myself much better and am beginning to trust my instincts (my 'gut feelings') more. Taking up a craft or any ‘hands-on’ project, is a brilliant way of getting in touch with other forms of knowing that we all have available to us.