#physiotalk Monday 3rd/Tues 4th November with @DaveNicholls3

In a slight change to previous plans – on Monday 3rd November at 8pm(GMT)/Tuesday 4th November 9am(NZDT) we’ll be joined by Dave Nicholls for #physiotalk.  Thank you to Dave for organising this so quickly and here is an overview of the chat from Dave:

Critical physiotherapy

There are lots of physiotherapists who will tell you that they’re not that interested in philosophy. To them, it’s a bit ‘fluffy’ – one of those subjects that makes their eyes glaze over – full of unpronounceable terms like existentialism and hermeneutics, and ideas that don’t seem to relate to day-to-day practice. Right? Wrong.

Critical physioEvery practice – in fact everything we do in life – is underpinned by something: by some ideas and principles that govern it, guide it and inform it. It doesn’t matter if it’s knitting, paragliding or origami, there will be some hidden deep-seated principles that tell you when you’re doing it right and when you are way off beam.

Philosophy at its most basic level provides a guidebook on how to do things. The difference is (and the thing that probably puts people off), is that it’s a guidebook for the big things in life like love, fear, pain, sadness, greed, death and joy. Philosophy is about how we might/should live our lives and so it tackles some pretty hefty subjects.

That doesn’t mean to say that it needs to be inaccessible though. In recent years people have made a huge effort to make philosophy more accessible to people. Look at the work of Alain de Botton and the School of Life for example (http://www.theschooloflife.com/). Here you can find articles on how to build a successful business, how to make friends and find the love of your life, and how to stay calm.

Interestingly, if you go to the ‘Culture’ section of their website, you will also see a section titled ‘Philosophy as therapy’, which deals with how philosophy can help us deal with the trials and tribulations of life. Now the last time I looked, physiotherapy was also quite interested in helping people cope with the problems that life throws at them: pain, loss of independence, fear of suffering, enforced life changes…but physiotherapists don’t really think of these things as ‘philosophical’ because it’s just what we do.

The fact we don’t identify these things as philosophical, probably stems from the fact that physios have always been actively discouraged from thinking philosophically. Our preference is to train people to think of the body-as machine and leave the philosophical stuff to others. But that doesn’t mean that the philosophy isn’t there.

You hear it all the time: physiotherapists complaining that the public doesn’t know what we do, or that we need some kind of grand theory of physiotherapy that shows how we’re distinct from other professions? These are expressions of people searching for the heart of our practice. We know the heart is there, we just don’t know where it is and how to find it.

The changes taking place in health care are underpinned by philosophical changes in the way we think about things like health and wellbeing, care and cure, personal responsibility and professional power. So if physiotherapists are going to continue to make a big impact in people’s lives, they’ll need to better understand what’s going on, or we will be replaced by someone who does.

A few months ago, we set up a Critical Physiotherapy Network to bring together students, clinicians and academics who were interested in subjects like philosophy, history, culture, sociology, the arts and humanities to see if we couldn’t form our own School of (Physiotherapy) Life. So far it has nearly 150 participants across 22 countries. So clearly there are some physios who can now see that philosophy has a big part to play in philosophy and vice versa. Which has got to be an encouraging sign.

During this physiotalk session, I’d like to try to engage people in thinking about physiotherapy philosophically, and show that far from being a fluffy subject that is someone else’s business, that it is, in fact, at the heart of everything we do and worth spending time on.

Questions to think about before the chat

During the chat I want to pose some questions about day-to-day practice to challenge people to think about physiotherapy today and in the future.  There are lots of questions like this, here are a few to think about before:

Q1 – Philosophy asks ‘how we might live’?  Has physiotherapy got anything to offer here?

Q2 – Could physiotherapy teach philosophers anything about pain and suffering?

Q3 – What does it mean to move?

Q4 – Can physiotherapy actively engender hope?

Q5 – How can disability improve someone’s life?

Q6 – How will techno-medicine (robotics, gene therapy, transplantation) change how we think about what our bodies are and can do?

Q7 – What are the barriers to PTs engaging in philosophical thinking/practice?

Q8 – Are physiotherapists complicit in stigmatizing attitudes to abnormality?

Q9 – What harms do we do to people in the name of rehabilitation?

Q10 – Why aren’t physiotherapy students taught some philosophy?

Pre-chat resources

About our host

Dave is currently the Head of Physiotherapy at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand.  Originally from Staffordshire, he trained in Wolverhampton and worked in respiratory care before moving to Sheffield Hallam Uni in 1994.  He emigrated to NZ in 2000 to teach at AUT and completed a PhD in 2008 that was a social and historical analysis of where physiotherapy is at, and where it might be going.  Dave is a frustrated writer, philosopher, carpenter, gardener, cook, drummer, and midfielder for the mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers.  He has a passion to see physiotherapy reach beyond its self-imposed limits, and agitates for change whenever anyone is foolish enough to give him the time.  Dave has published and presented widely, and never fails to pour scorne on anyone who says we need more studies on hamstring stretching.

Post-chat summary

Dave has written a full summary here on the critical physiotherapy blog. We’re having some problems retrieving the transcript from Symplur so here’s a Storified summary in the meantime.


  1. Hello,
    Thank you for the article. About question 10, 26 years ago I’ve been taught some philosophy at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium and nowdays it’s always one of the subjects during the first year of the Bachelor of Physiotherapy.

  2. also interesting – How can understanding philosophy help physiotherapy understand itself? How do we construct the profession? How then do we therefore impact others/ourselves – not just though our technical skills but emotionally, socially, historically?

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