Bringing renewed philosophical attention to physical education

Øyvind Førland Standal
Norges idrettshøgskole, NIH, Oslo

Steven A. Stolz The Philosophy of Physical Education: A new perspective 188 sidor, inb. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2014 (Routledge Studies in Physical Education and Youth Sport) ISBN 978-1-138-79228-9
Steven A. Stolz
The Philosophy of Physical Education: A new perspective
188 sidor, inb.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2014 (Routledge Studies in Physical Education and Youth Sport)
ISBN 978-1-138-79228-9

In Handbook of physical education (where handbook is a bit of a misnomer given the book’s volume), William Morgan (2006) writes about philosophy of physical education. Morgan claims that up until the late 1960s, philosophical approaches to physical education – as well as to games and sport more broadly – were informed by philosophy of education and had a clear pedagogical perspective. However, philosophical work dealing with physical education “has been clearly dwarfed by the work devoted to [philosophy of] sport” (p. 97). Thus, philosophy of physical education has fallen out of fashion, with psychological, sociological and/or postmodernist perspectives dominating research and theorizing about physical education. Stolz’ book on the subject is therefore an important publication.

A fundamental assumption in this book – as in many other central physical education sources – is that the subject has a low status in the educational system. Stolz sees two, perhaps interrelated, reasons for the low status. First, the subject is concerned with practical rather than theoretical knowledge and, second, it is primarily concerned with the body rather than the mind. In the first chapter, Stolz therefore asks if there are good reasons for including sport and physical education within educational institutions. His conclusion is that there are indeed good reasons for this. More specifically, his argument is that if education is concerned with development of the whole human being, then also the bodily aspects of the human person must be developed. Such a perspective implies that how the body is understood is of importance, and the following quote sums up Stolz’ perspective:

To say that physical education is inextricably linked to the body is, to some, is [sic] to state the obvious, but the philosophical position of the body and our concept of human nature will have a direct bearing on how we think human beings should behave and be educated, and in particular in this case how we think they should be educated physically (p. 84-5).

Chapter two provides a broad, historical survey of the body in philosophy and theology, from the Greeks, via Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes, to phenomenological philosophers, in particular Merleau-Ponty. As I read this chapter, Stolz is showing the historical rootedness of the dualistic ideas dominating physical education discourse (i.e. the body as a thing to be exercised). But, interestingly, he is also demonstrating that the idea of exercising the body as a way of developing the whole human being has long, historical traditions.

The third chapter seeks to establish the unique place of physical education in the educational system. Here, Stolz takes up a discussion of the epistemological status of the activities of physical education. The reader gets a detailed explication of the – predominantly British – debate about the nature and educational value of practical knowledge. In this chapter, Stolz also seeks to re-conceptualize what it means to be physically educated, something he does with reference to the phenomenological tradition. It is the emphasis put on the body and embodied experiences that makes phenomenology relevant to physical education: “we need to locate the body as a focal point in the production of lived experience, and also recognise the role corporeal movement and embodiment plays in learning, in, by, and through physical education” (p. 89).

Next, Stolz discusses the phenomenon of play and its educational significance. As in the previous chapters, the author is interested in “illuminating how physical education can benefit from using a hermeneutic-phenomenological framework” (p. 95). Given this orientation to play, it is a bit surprising that Stolz does not include Hans-Georg Gadamer’s (2004) hermeneutical theory of play (Spiel) or Shaun Gallagher’s (1992) masterful explication of the relationships between hermeneutics and education. From my perspective, both of these philosophers provide relevant insights to Stolz’ project.

In chapter 5, Stolz turns to the moral aspects of physical education. He provides an interesting historical overview of how various authors have sought to understand the role of sport and physical education in the formation of moral character. Situating himself in the neo-Aristotelean tradition, Stolz argues that physical education has the potential to “inculcate habits of virtue” (p. 145). Here, it would have been interesting to see Stolz pursue a discussion of the relation between habits of virtue and habits of the body, which is so central to the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty that elsewhere in the book plays a crucial role.

Stolz, in the sixth and concluding chapter, uses MacIntyre’s conceptual apparatus in order to argue that the rivalry between different traditions in physical education can be resolved. Stolz proposes that embodied learning, based on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy can serve as a new tradition in physical education. Even though I am in full agreement with the author concerning the usefulness of phenomenology, I find that this chapter is not sufficiently developed. The first sections of the chapter are promising, but it seems to me that Stolz moves too fast to his conclusion. Whether there actually is a rivalry and precisely what the dividing lines in that rivalry are, is not well developed. Finally, how phenomenology can resolve (the supposed) rivalry between existing traditions is not really discussed at all. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological theory of embodied learning is well explained, and as mentioned, I believe it has important implication for how physical education should be conceptualized and practiced.

The subtitle of the book is “A new perspective”. In my interpretation, the book is not so much a new perspective as it is a renewed perspective. For readers who are acquainted with the existing philosophical literature dealing with physical education, Stolz is traversing familiar grounds. Similarly, the relevance of phenomenology for the justification of physical education is also known both historically through sources such as P.J. Arnold and by the more contemporary works of Maureen Connolly and Margaret Whitehead. Clearly, Stolz is well versed in this literature. The merit of the book is therefore that it gives new readers a comprehensive overview of the main sources dealing with questions concerning justification of physical education’s place in educational institutions. In addition, a positive connotation of ‘renewed’ implies that the book may provide a renewed energy and impetus to further developing the phenomenological perspective on the philosophy of physical education. As such, the critical points I have raised in this review are not so much weaknesses as they are possibilities for further work on phenomenology for teaching and learning in physical education.


  • Gadamer, H.-G. (2004). Truth and method. (2nd, Revised ed.) London, UK: Continuum.
  • Gallagher, S. (1992). Hermeneutics and education. New York, NY: SUNY Press.
  • Morgan, W. J. (2006). Philosophy and physical education. In D.M.D.Kirk & M. O’Sullivan (Eds.), (pp. 97). London, UK: Sage.

Copyright © Øyvind Førland Standal 2015

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