The machine body metaphor: From science and technology to physical education and sport, in France (1825–1935)


  • J. Gleyse

    Corresponding author
    1. STAPS, IUFM University of Montpellier 2, Montpellier Cedex 5, France
    • Corresponding author: Jacques Gleyse, Pr PhD, IUFM, Université de Montpellier II, Equipe Interdisciplinary Laboratory in Didactics, Education and Formation, E.A. 3749., ED 58 Université Paul Valéry, 2 place Marcel Godechot, BP 4152, F34092 Montpellier cedex 5, France. Tel: +33 467708187, Fax: 33 467618300, E-mail:

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The long history of the conception of physical exercise in France may be viewed as a function of a series of changes in understanding the body. Scientific concepts were used to present the body in official texts by authors specializing in the subject, or to describe them, as did Michel Foucault, as epistemic changes. A departure occurred during the 19th century that is clearly demonstrated in the writings of Gustave Adolphe Hirn. This breakthrough concerned the idea of considering the organism as an energy-generating machine. This metaphor was employed in describing the body during physical exercise from the 17th to the 19th centuries, when the body was thought of as mechanical. Such metaphors were used by the most relevant figures writing at the end of the 19th century in the rationale that is examined in this paper. It shows how Hirn, Marey, Lagrange, Demenij, Hebert, and Tissié saw the body and how they employed machine metaphors when referring to it. These machine metaphors are analyzed from the time of their scientific and technological origins up to their current use in physical and sports education. This analysis will contribute to the understanding of how a scientific metaphor comes to be in common use and may lead to particular exercise practices.