How to Circus


Edgar Degas, Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus, 1879

From AFB:

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.

“Circus and Philosophy: Teaching Aristotle through Juggling”, Meg Wallace, Aesthetics for Birds

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