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Philosophy and Sport

Written by Chris Routledge, 7th February 2008

I am in the final stages of co-editing a book about linguistics and the philosophy of language, the second of a pair of books that my co-editor and I have been thinking about for the last six years. Naturally in the course of the project my mind has wandered; it has wandered more than once to the subject of sport.

Philosophers do not have a strong reputation for being active types. In the popular imagination philosophers spend their time in armchairs, eschewing physical pursuits in favour of the life of the mind. Athletes on the other hand seem quite happy to enter the philosophical fray. After attacking a fan who tried to direct him in no uncertain terms off the field of play, Manchester United hero Eric Cantona confounded the sports media in 1995 with his statement that “When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” No less puzzling was former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne’s statement on intentionality: “I never predict anything,” he once told an interviewer, “and I never will.”

It doesn’t help that sports stars are regularly asked to make pronouncements on subjects as diverse as the off-side rule and world religion. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich once said that football is the ballet of the masses, but this sort of thing just doesn’t happen at the ballet. She may have been a darling of the world’s media, but Margot Fonteyn never had to comment on her private life in the theatre wings while the sweat was still dripping from the end of her nose. But then, unlike Cantona, she never felt the need to launch a Kung-Fu style kick at a critic in the stalls.

In fact when they do stray into athletic pursuits professional thinkers tend to have more success with the world of sport than the other way around. Sport has proved a fertile ground for exploring ideas about ethics, rules of behaviour, and collective experience. Jerry Katz, an American philosopher of language who was prevented from becoming a professional (American) football player only by his small stature, once explained the difference between types of language rules in terms of the difference between sportsmanlike behaviour and the way the rulebook defines a touchdown. Eric Hobsbawm saw the national football team as a way of making the nation itself seem more real. In his 1990 book Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 he wrote: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”

Certain philosophers have always found sports interesting in an intellectual sense. Take Ludwig Wittgenstein for example. Wittgenstein had quite a lot to say about sports and games and even attempted a definition of sport, claiming that sports are defined not by a shared set of characteristics, but by new activities borrowing certain aspects from existing sports while retaining characteristics that other sports do not share. For example, synchronized swimming, something Wittgenstein never had the pleasure of watching, is a skill and a spectacle that became a sport when an element of competition was introduced. Wittgenstein may have revolutionized twentieth century philosophy, but he was not a dedicated sports fan. After attending a rowing regatta with Bertrand Russell he remarked that “The way in which we have spent the afternoon is so vile, we ought not to go on living.”

Using sports as a way of explaining ideas is one thing, but a surprising number of philosophers have played competitive sport, sometimes at quite a high level. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, whose name translates roughly as “broad,” is thought to have been named for his strength as a wrestler, but probably the best known sporting philosopher of the twentieth century is Albert Camus. Camus, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature at the age of 44, and whose 1942 novel L’Étranger ranks as one of the great works of Existentialism, played in goal for a professional football team in his native Algeria. He once declared “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”

For some reason football is a favourite with philosophers. The British philosopher A.J. Ayer was a dedicated Tottenham Hotspur fan and spent many Saturday afternoons at White Hart Lane, though it is not known whether his experience of watching them play had any bearing on his lack of belief in God. Jacques Derrida, another French philosopher who harboured dreams of being a professional footballer was probably not describing the feelings of highly-paid stars for their loyal supporters when he noted that “Beyond the touchline there is nothing.” But philosophy is represented in other sports too. Paul Grice, an Oxford philosopher who moved to California in the 1960s, played cricket at county level and spent the long summer vacations on tour. His biographer Siobhan Chapman notes that his Times obituary describes him as “an inelegant but extremely effective and prolific opening batsman.”

Like everyone else, philosophers are frustrated, overjoyed and at times ambivalent when it comes to sport. But like it or not, it is a backdrop to their lives, a source of inspiration, and a way of explaining life’s conundrums. And sometimes footballers get it right. As Dennis Bergkamp, former Arsenal star and Holland international once observed, “Behind every kick of the ball, there has to be a thought."

by Chris Routledge

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