The great American philosopher, Hilary Putnam, died a few days ago (13 March) at the grand age of 89, leaving behind an amazing legacy of ideas and thoughtful inquiry (obituary here). Putnam was someone who applied philosophical ideas from the natural sciences to areas as diverse as religion, ethics and aesthetics and was a major influence on analytical philosophy in the second half of the 20th century.
One of Putnam’s most famous sayings was that “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.” Reading this again the other day made me reflect on one of the longstanding paradoxes of physiotherapy – namely the desire to pin it down; identify it so that people will (finally) know what we do; and offer a single, clear definition of the profession for all the world to buy into.
I think of this as a paradox because, whilst I understand the desire to have something easy to understand and market, physiotherapy has never ever been really just one thing. There are as many kinds of physiotherapy as there are people practicing it, because each of us inflects our practice with our own values and beliefs, ways of doing things and ways of communicating and connecting with others. So despite our professional bodies’ desire to state what physiotherapy ‘is‘ this or that, it will always defy definition.
As a counter-weight to the fetish for simplification, I thought I might suggest some exercises to test your critical muscles and practice thinking ‘otherwise’ about physiotherapy. Try these exercises for a day or two to see if they change the way you think and practice our profession:
- Try saying physiotherapy ‘might become…’ rather than physiotherapy ‘is…’ whenever you talk about it;
- Try thinking about what might be possible if we had a thousand different physiotherapies, rather than just one;
- Use language with your clients/patients that is about becoming, not being.
(Remember, ‘becoming‘ is all about movement, whereas ‘being‘ – to be a physiotherapy, to ‘be’ disabled, for example – is all about stasis and immobility, and physiotherapy should always be about movement.)
Who knows, with a bit of luck and some concerted practice, we might manage to move the profession out of its nutshell and into a wider world.