Philosophical Foundations of Physical Literacy


Physical literacy is defined as the “motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life” (IPLA, 2017). The definition can be considered the tip of a metaphorical iceberg with the main submerged part of the iceberg being the philosophical foundations. These foundations are central to the concept of physical literacy and informs how the concept has come to be and how it is brought to life in practice. The philosophical foundations include the concepts of monism; existentialism and phenomenology. Each of these concepts are expanded as follows.


Monism describes reality as a whole (without independent parts) (Stubenberg, 2011). Monism rejects Cartesian dualism which separates body from mind and person from surroundings. Although monism recognises the existence of the different dimensions of the human condition, these different dimensions cannot be understood as separate from each other. For instance, thinking, feeling, moving, and talking are interwoven and can all be considered embodied (Whitehead, 2001).


Existentialism asserts that individuals create themselves as they live and interact with the world around them (Whitehead, 2001). The richer and the more varied these interactions, the more fully the human being realises their potential (Merleau-Ponty, 1968). This view is closely related to a monist view of the human condition as being inseparable from the world. This means that actions can never be understood (and learned/taught) without a reference to the context in which they are performed. As such, interacting with the world is a continually changing phenomena, as no two contexts are ever the same (Pot, Whitehead and Durden-Myers, 2018).


Phenomenology is closely aligned to existentialism and proposes that every individual experiences’ the world from a unique perspective, as every individual has had their own unique experiences that colour their perception (Husserl, 1991; Whitehead, 2010). Phenomenologists argue that there is no objective perception, as perception is always in the eye of the beholder. In line with this thinking, interactions with the world will also be unique to the individual. Phenomenologists highlight that the embodied dimension should be understood as a perceptuomotor facility enabling the individual to gather information as well as initiate actions. This gathering of information from previous interactions, therefore, are informed by past experiences, present surroundings/contexts, and future possibilities. Thus, interactions and, moreover, the nature of those interactions, whether positive, negative, meaningful, or meaningless, will leave an imprint on an individual and colour the individual’s view of the world from his/her own unique perspective (Pot et al, 2018).


The philosophical underpinnings of physical literacy (monism, existentialism, phenomenology) are interwoven dimensions, moving through the lifeworld to create and re-create unique individual perceptions (assemblage). Physical literacy purposes that all physical activity must be understood through these lenses in order to achieve lifelong participation in physical activity.


  • Husserl, E. (1991). Cartesian meditations: An introduction to phenomenology. Berlin, Germany: Springer.
  • International Physical Literacy Association (2017) Definition of Physical Literacy. Accessed Online: 5th November 2018. Available at:
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968). Phenomenology of perception (C. Smith, Trans.) New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Pot, N., Whitehead, M.E., & Durden-Myers, E. (2018). Physical literacy from philosophy to practice. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 37. doi:10.1123/jtpe.2018-0133
  • Stubenberg, L. (2011). Neutral monism. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.
  • Whitehead, M. (2001). The concept of physical literacy. European Journal of Physical Education, 6, 127–138. doi:10.1080/1740898010060205

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