‘Dance, like morality, is in the eye of the beholder’: Adam Smith on the role of the spectator

Adam Smith’s comments on the imitative arts contain a number of remarkable reflections on the nature of dance. Although he ranks dance among the imitative arts (and even claims that its imitative powers are “at least equal, perhaps superior, to those of any other art”), he believes it can just as well affect us without imitating anything at all (just like instrumental music affects us, not by imitating feelings, but by genuinely inducing these feelings in us).

Smith seems most intrigued, though, by the distinction between “a dancing step” and “any other step, gesture, or motion”. This distinction, according to Smith, has less to do with the physical qualities of a movement, but rather with how the spectator judges the intentions of the moving person: are her intentions aimed at the ordinary purpose of the movement, or have they been directed away from that purpose towards the gracefulness of the movement?

In this paper, I will reread Smith’s reflections on dance in light of his moral philosophy. The core notion of that philosophy, is our ability to sympathize with others. Yet rather than perceiving the feelings of the other and being induced to feel alike, Smith believes that we imagine how we would feel if we were to act like the other person. Indeed, it is precisely the potential gap between how we would feel and the actual feelings of the other, that makes possible our moral judgments.

Thus, the spectator in dance and the spectator in moral matters seem to have similar tasks. Both of them should judge the other in a delicate game of distance and identification.

Raf Geenens was educated at the Universities of Brussels, Leuven and Paris VIII Vincennes. He has held visiting positions at Columbia University, New York City, and at the Centre Raymond Aron (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales), Paris. He is currently Assistant Professor at the Institute of Philosophy, University of Leuven, Belgium. His primary research interests are in the field of political and legal theory, yet he also has a vivid interest in the history and the philosophy of dance. He is currently working on a book on the late French philosopher Claude Lefort.



Raf Geenens
Symposium Title: 
The dancer in celebrity in the long 18th-century 2014
Author affiliation: 
University of Leuven