Montessori's Philosophy of Movement

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Montessori's Philosophy of Movement

LAU Chek Wai


This essay expounds on Montessori's philosophy of movement as a rich alternative to Cartesian dualism for guiding the education of children. In Cartesian dualism, the mind is perceived to be distinct and separate from the body, raising the problem of interaction between the two—a problem that has received much philosophical attention. Traditionally, movement is seen as part of the physical body, but Montessori achieves a breakthrough by recategorising voluntary movement as the intermediary between the body and the mind. Not only does she then have a basis for mind—body interaction, she goes one step further by arguing that movement is a necessary condition for personality to form, thus putting freedom of movement as a form of freedom that should be available to all children.


In fact, it is only by movement that the personality can express itself.

Maria Montessori in The Absorbent Mind

The Montessori programme, founded by physician and educator Dr Maria Montessori in 1907, is widely acknowledged as an effective method of early childhood education and boasts prominent adherents, such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of, as well as founder Jeff Bezos of, all of whom have credited the Montessori programme as a major factor in their professional success. However, despite good reviews, the Montessori programme does not seem to enjoy an equally prominent status in the academic world, especially in the area of philosophy of education. This is in part the legacy of Professor William Kilpatrick's devastating critique in his book The Montessori System Examined, published in 1914. His main criticism was that the Montessori curriculum was based on outdated psychological theories and would not sufficiently prepare kids for life. He ended his book commenting that “they are ill advised who put Madame Montessori among the significant contributors to educational theory. Stimulating she is; a contributor to our theory, hardly, if at all” (Kilpatrick, 1914, pp. 65–66). By 1918, the Montessori method had declined in popularity, especially in America, and for the next forty years the judgment by Kilpatrick and a few others was the orthodox view in the academic world, leading to very few references to her in the literature (Lillard, 1972).

From the 1960s onwards, new psychological findings vindicated Montessori's psychological theories, and that led to renewed interest in the public domain. Nonetheless, after a hiatus of forty years, the academic world has been unwilling to receive Montessori with open arms. This treatment of Maria Montessori and her method should be rectified. It is my belief that Montessori can make a valuable contribution to philosophy of education, especially her concept of the child, of personality, of the innate mind (the absorbent mind), and of the unity between the mind and the body. To illustrate the philosophical value of her work, I wish to expound on a neglected aspect of her theories—the philosophy of movement—and show how, in guiding the education of the young, it can provide a rich alternative to Cartesian dualism, a pervasive assumption in philosophy that the mind and the body are conceptually distinct and separate entities that do not interact.

In brief, according to the father of modern philosophy, René Descartes, there are ultimately two irreducible substances in the world: mind and matter (see Descartes, 1912). The mind is immaterial and non-tangible, while matter is material and tangible. Matter, which includes the body, the physical world and animals, obeys the laws of physics; and any activity which does not use the mind, such as digestion, respiration and heart contraction, is seen as mechanical, bereft of any rationality. Thus, humans are separated from the rest of the material world by virtue of their rationality. To Descartes, dualism is vital in the clockwork universe because he cannot endorse the claim that “human nature differs only in degree of complexity from clockwork” (Ryle, 1949, p. 20). He wants to draw a sharp distinction between humans and the material world. However, Descartes does argue that the pineal gland in our brain provides the interaction between the body and the mind. While this is a possible solution in theory, empirical research has shown that the pineal gland does not have such a function (Lavine, 1984).

While Cartesian dualism goes against the common belief that there is interaction between the mind and the body, the theory nonetheless has dominated the intellectual world for the last three hundred years and the sharp separation between the mind and the body has impacted every discipline, including philosophy of education. For example, the overemphasis on the intellect and IQ in the curriculum is an outcome of Cartesian dualism. Since the late twentieth century, however, there is a philosophical consensus that we can only think of the self as an embodied self, not a self that is disconnected from the rest of the body. But long before the philosophical world rejected Cartesian dualism, Montessori had already developed a comprehensive theory to explain the unity of personality and the body.

Montessori's Methods

Prima facie, it may appear strange to say that Montessori has significant philosophical views, especially with regard to Cartesian dualism, since she employed medical and psychological methods to arrive at her conclusions and these methods are not traditionally employed in philosophy. Philosophy tends to be dominated by logical—mathematical methods like those of Descartes and Russell. However, numerous philosophical breakthroughs in recent decades have been made by scientists such as David Chalmers, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker who have used empirical evidence to buttress their philosophical views. In fields like philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, technical knowledge is crucial to supporting new philosophical views. For example, Steven Pinker refutes John Locke's blank slate theory by using the latest neuro-science findings. Similarly, empirical evidence has often been employed to support new theories in philosophy of education—B. F. Skinner's behaviourism and Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences being prominent examples.

While some of Montessori's medical findings admittedly may be outdated, recent medical research largely supports her key claim that there is a tight connection between the mind and the body and that a sick mind can lead to physical illness and vice versa (Lemonick, 2003). The rest of this essay will detail how movement plays an important role in Montessori's philosophy of education and how underdevelopment in bodily movement can inhibit the development of one's personality.

Kinds of Movement

Movement or physical activity is Montessori's way of bridging the gap between the mind and the body. While there are many kinds of movement, the ones that she is concerned with are voluntary movements, or physical activities that use the muscles to express the self and to acquire knowledge. She acknowledges Descartes' point that there are some movements that are mechanical and involuntary. These include saliva secretion, breathing and digestion. But there are other movements that can be voluntary. These would include the use of our organs, limbs and senses. However, Montessori is careful to highlight what are considered by physiologists as crucial to the development of personality: the use of the limbs, especially the hands, and the use of the tongue (Montessori, 1966).

These bodily movements are “intimately connected with man's intelligence” (ibid., p. 80), and development of these parts of the body is more important than the development of the intellectual senses of hearing and sight if we want to grow the personality of the child. The use of the senses of hearing and sight can help us acquire knowledge and culture but, to Montessori, the acquisition of knowledge is not as important as the growth of personality. Thus, she reverses the order of importance that we attach to the development of the parts of the body. In the modern educational curriculum, we pay much more attention to the development of the senses of sight and hearing and less to physical activity. For Montessori, the development of these intellectual senses is not beneficial if the ego/personality is not developed to enjoy the fruits of civilisations (Montessori, 1966).

Montessori's concept of the self is that of a dynamic person, always in perpetual motion through the complex relationship between the body and the mind. Under the Cartesian framework, the mind is in control of the body and, through the pineal gland, it tries to manipulate the body. The self becomes the “ghost in the machine” and forms a unilateral relationship with the body. In Montessori's framework, though, the mind activates the muscles to accomplish an activity; physical activity in turn contributes to the formation of the self. It is this dynamic relationship between the body and the mind that gives rise to one's personality. It is this significant difference that distinguishes Montessori's philosophy from other schools of thought.

Recategorising Movement

In the mainstream curriculum, the development of voluntary movement is left to lessons like physical education. But in the Montessori programme, a child does not sit in the chair trying to complete worksheets and absorb the information given by the teacher. Instead, movement is part and parcel of the curriculum. This springs from Montessori's philosophy of movement. Montessori does not classify movement as “exercise”, “physical education” or “games”. That would fall into the Cartesian framework, in which movement is seen as mechanical and in contrast to the intellect. Instead, Montessori tries to recategorise movement. To her, viewing movement as merely exercise and overlooking its vital role in developing one's personality and one's mind is to have an impoverished view of movement.

As a part of school life, which gives priority to the intellect, the role of movement has always been sadly neglected. When accepted there at all, it has only been under the heading of “exercise”, “physical education” or “games”. But this is to overlook its close connection with the developing mind (Montessori, 1967, p. 136).

What Montessori has done is to introduce a new category for movement. This is not an empirical assertion but a theoretical one. Under the Cartesian framework, there are only two categories—either it is classified under the mind or it is under matter. While Montessori may agree with Descartes that involuntary motion will fall under the category of the body, the same cannot be said of voluntary movement. Voluntary movement of the limbs is produced by the body, but it is necessary for the growth of the intellect, and without these bodily movements man's rationality cannot be nurtured. Montessori makes this uncompromising claim in many of her writings, for example:

If a still growing child fails to use his organs of movement, his development is retarded and he will fall short of his goal, than if he had been deprived of either sight or hearing … Physical activity on the other hand is intimately connected with one's personality, and there is no substitute for it. One who fails in this regard hurts himself (Montessori, 1966, p. 100).

The mental life of anyone who does not work at all is in grave peri l, because—although it is true that all the muscular powers cannot be used—there is a limit beneath which it is dangerous for those in use to fall. When reduced to this, the person's mental life is weakened (Montessori, 1967, p. 145).

Thus, Montessori posits movement as an intermediary between the body and the mind. While she recognises the importance of rationality in delineating the difference between an animal and a human, she argues that, just because both the animal and the human share the common feature of movement, it does not mean that movement should not be included in the defining feature of man. For certain kinds of voluntary movement are so vital to one's rationality that it is not possible for one's intellect to develop without the help of voluntary movement, and it is unlikely that animals have these kinds of movement.

Other than highlighting certain kinds of movement that differentiate us from animals, Montessori points out another difference—that humans have a “prolonged infancy” (1967, p. 60) and “a child remains helpless for so long, whereas other young mammals almost immediately, or a short time after birth, can stand, walk, look for their dam and have a language proper to their species” (1966, p. 30). This is possibly because animals are ruled by their instincts, while humans have the freedom to recreate themselves and mould their personality. Thus, in Montessori's philosophy, there are more ways to differentiate a human from an animal.

Descartes sees rationality as the only defining feature of man; his error is to group all movements as mechanical, failing to see that some movements are intimately connected with the intellect. His categorisation does not sufficiently differentiate between the effects of voluntary and involuntary movements. Involuntary movements like secretion cannot produce non-tangible qualities like courage and confidence, but voluntary movements can. As noted by Montessori below, physical activity is not only vital to our physical health, but it can also promote good character. We too see countless examples of students who gain confidence and courage through adventure training such as the Outward Bound programme.

It has been a serious error to list movement among the various functions of the body without adequately distinguishing it from those of vegetative life such as the assimilation of food, breathing, and so forth. Practically, movement is simply considered as an aid to the normal functioning of the body in its breathing, digesting and circulation of the blood. Movement, although it is characteristic of animals, does have an influence also upon the vegetative life. We can almost say that it is something that precedes, accompanies and follows all bodily activities, and yet it would be wrong to consider movement merely from the physical point of view. We can see the benefits to be derived from engaging in sports. Such physical activities are not only conducive to physical health but they also inspire courage and self-confidence. They can also have a moral influence in raising one's ideals and in arousing a tremendous enthusiasm among spectators (Montessori, 1966, p. 96).

Because of Montessori's reclassification of movement as the intermediary between the body and the mind, it is possible to have a real unity between the two entities. It thus makes sense to say that physical activities like ballet, archery and canoeing can build up the character of a person. In our daily life, we are intuitively aware that character education takes place largely in sports and other physical activities, but that goes against Cartesian dualism, in which movement is only mechanical in nature and thus cannot produce non-mechanical qualities like virtue. For we do not see machines producing non-mechanical qualities like love and hope. However, if movement is not defined purely as a physical process but also as part of the mind and will, it is then possible to see that our character can be formed through movement. This will align with much of our character education today, which believes that character cannot be taught via a lecture or a computer presentation. While other subjects can be learnt by using our intellect, character education should be taught through movement.

Looking forward, Montessori's philosophy of movement can be extended from toddlers to teenagers and to adults, so that a robust curriculum can continually activate and nurture students' ability to control their environment and mould the world to their will. Outward Bound is one programme that is in keeping with Montessori's belief in outdoor living for children in order to develop their movement (Lillard, 1972). Perhaps the co-curricular programme in the education system of countries such as Singapore can find its justification in Montessori's philosophy of movement.

Freedom of Movement

Man must construct himself, and in the end, possess himself and direct himself. Thus we see that a child is in continual motion, for he must develop the relationship between action and spirit little by little. While the adult's activity is motivated by thought, the child is impelled to construct a unity between thought and action. This is the key to personality in the process of development. Because of this, those who impede the child's movements build obstacles in the way of his construction of personality. Thought arises independent of action, and action obeys the commands of another person; motion does not respond to the proper spirit. Because of this, the character is fragile, and an interior disunity prevails that weakens every act. This is an important fact for the future of mankind and ought to be considered as a first principle in the education of the family as well as in the school (Montessori, 1989, p. 74).

A fundamental goal of education and of life itself is that a rational creature should so master his instruments of motion that his actions are not simply guided by an instinctive response to sense stimuli but also by reason itself (Montessori, 1966, p. 102).

So far, we have established that certain kinds of voluntary movement are crucial to the development of the personality. But the possession of such movements and the capacity to reason are not sufficient to develop a child's personality, for there are two ways in which the development of one's personality can be thwarted. Both have to do with the under development of the interaction between one's reason and one's movement.

The first is when movement is governed by instinctive stimulus—response. Thus, in this respect, we are not very different from an animal. And it is an important distinction, for Montessori argues that our movement is different from that of an animal because we can let it be governed by reason. For an animal, movement is instinctive. If we let our movement be dictated by stimulus—response, our reason will lie dormant. Thus, to develop our full potential, we should let our movement be directed by our reason. If our movement is directed by stimulus—response, like in the case of a pampered child, it will ultimately lead to chaos, hyperactivity or rebellion.

There is another kind of movement which is not desired. It is movement in which our children do something not out of their own will but the will of others. Through unnecessary prohibitions and rules (e.g. “Don't clear your toys, let the maid do it”), their movement is no longer free but controlled by the will of adults. Through blind obedience, our children do not have the opportunity to carry out their will to mould the world; and though they still carry out the activities, they do so mechanically and thus such movement does not contribute to their character. Thus, we have the micro-view of the struggle between paternalism and freedom.

In the liberal tradition, freedom is associated with abstract forms of liberty, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and is usually meant for adults who have reached a certain level of maturity. The great liberal J. S. Mill also mentions in On Liberty (1955) that children do not have access to these rights; but in Montessori's framework, freedom is first associated with the freedom to move and mould the world according to one's will (Montessori, 1966). Indeed, it is possible to see that freedom of movement is fundamental to the more abstract kinds of freedom; and one may argue that, in a more paternalistic society, the frustration of the inability to use movement to develop one's personality may hinder the attainment of higher forms of freedom. This is another area which is worth exploring.

All in all, Montessori has offered a rich alternative to Cartesian dualism. Her philosophical contribution lies in the recategorisation of movement as the intermediary between the body and the mind and in showing us how voluntary movement is necessary and indispensable in the development of the intellect and personality. We can possibly use her philosophy of movement to buttress the Outward Bound programme, physical education and co-curricular programmes. With a greater understanding of how movement can help develop personality, we will be able to nurture more Jeff Bezoses, Larry Pages and Sergey Brins.


Descartes, R. (1912). A Discourse on Method. Translated by J. Veitch. London: J. M. Dent.

Kilpatrick, W. (1914). The Montessori System Examined. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lavine, T. Z. (1984). From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam Books.

Lemonick, M. (2003, 20 January). Your mind, your body. Time Magazine, pp. 35–42.

Lillard, P. P. (1972). Montessori: A Modern Approach. New York: Schocken Books.

Mill, J. S. (1955). On Liberty. Chicago: Great Books Foundation.

Montessori, M. (1966). The Secret of Childhood. Translated by M. J. Costelloe. New York: Fides.

Montessori, M. (1967). The Absorbent Mind. Translated by C. A. Claremont. New York: Delta Book.

Montessori, M. (1989). The Child in the Family. Translated by N. R. Cirillo. Clarendon: Clio.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. New York: Hutchinson's University Library.

Further Reading

Chattin-McNichols, J. (1992). The Montessori Controversy. Albany, NY: Delmar.

Gross, M. J. (1978). Montessori's Concept of Personality. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate. New York: Viking.

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Montessori's Philosophy of Movement

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