What’s it all for? Sport, Philosophy, and the Pursuit of Truth

All this philosophy, what is it good for?

After transitioning from the heady world of professional philosophy of sport (i.e. the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport conference) back into teaching undergraduates and graduate students, I am reminded about how important it is to see things from other peoples’ eyes. In Portugal at the IAPS conference, I enjoyed talking with philosophers of sport from around the world. Even though our first languages were often different, we easily took for granted a base understanding about sport, philosophy, knowledge, truth, and even what we were doing. Our positions might often lead us to conflicts, but underneath this was a desire to know. This desire was built upon the premise that knowing is better than not knowing.

With junior scholars, it is easy to see how some of these premises are not granted. Knowledge and curiosity often take a back seat to performance on exams, life obligations. The pressure to soon find a job leads many to ask about the practical benefit of learning. The patent answer that knowing is better than not knowing rightly does not satisfy people who are making many sacrifices to be at the university. But for these people who may never make philosophy of sport their career, I think I have a better answer.

Tomek caught playing mid splash

The purpose of philosophy—to understand specific aspects of our world better—is useful in that seeing distinctions can lead to changes in practice. This is clear in when we consider the landmark debate between Suits, Meier, and many others, over the distinction of sport, games, and play. To the uninitiated, this argument about what is a game and what is a sport might seem pedantic (much like using the word pedantic in a blog). We all intuitively know what they are. I know chess is a game, soccer is a sport, and watching Tomasz splash in the bath water is a very wet form of play.

But such knowledge, I would point out to my students is the difference between knowing about plants and studying biology. I could just as easily say I know it’s a tree. It has roots, leaves, a trunk, and is tall. This intuitive knowledge might suffice for my ordinary knowledge, but without a better understanding of a tree’s biology, I couldn’t understand how to help it grow (fertilizer) or why it needs light (photosynthesis). In the same way, without a clear understanding of games (artificial barriers and inefficient means defined by constitutive rules to create a desirable activity), I couldn’t say very much about them. I certainly couldn’t explain why sportsmanship matters or why physical education classes deserve funding. Even if Suits and Meier couldn’t agree on the correct relationship between games, sports, and play, their debate illuminates some fundamental points.

First, sports build off of games (sorry, but I side with Meier on this one). Suits thought some sports were not games, but let’s be honest…he was wrong. But Suits was also right about how play enters into games. Play, moving from primitive to serious, is something we desire. With primitive play, we find that it doesn’t fulfill us for long. As our intelligence and mastery grows, so does our desire for good challenges. Thus we turn to games since they are much better conductors of play. Even more, we often turn to sports, since these types of games engage us much more completely as people. Sports are games requiring physical performance to be a central part of the game test.  Now physical performance as such is often unpleasant. After nearly passing out from my training ride in the 90 degree Southern California heat, one would think that I should have stayed inside my air conditioned living room to simply play FIFA on my X-Box.

Why did I choose cycling over x-box? Because despite the physical discomfort, cycling is a much richer game. It challenges my tactical awareness and my physical fortitude and does it at the same time. X-box only accesses a fraction of that. By understanding the value of games and sports, we can begin to prioritize one form of play over the others, not just out of biased opinion but out of rational argument.

Which brings me back to my second point about students and philosophy. Many students have grown to accept a pluralistic and respectful view towards differences. This is admirable and healthy when it comes to things such as ethnicity, religion, race, or culture but detrimental when it comes to knowledge. Yet often students bring a tolerant attitude towards others into the world of knowledge by arguing that truth is “subjective” or simply “one’s own opinion.” Now I know they don’t actually believe this, even though they may say they do. I know this because when I hand back failed assignments, they try to convince me why they were right. If knowledge was simply subjective, then they would have no reason to argue; they would have to simply accept that what they thought was an A, I thought was an F.

Even in the case of Wittgenstein’s duck rabbit, we know it is not a fish.

In the case of Meier and Suits, the debate over what counts as sport and games might seem to them as a debate about opinion. Why can’t Meier and Suits just agree to disagree? They can’t because what they are talking about is something real and something worth knowing. And if sports are real, then we should be able to determine if they are entirely a subcategory of games or they are not entirely a subcategory of games. This is the same as determining whether a tree needs water or doesn’t need water to metabolize oxygen. In both cases, it is not subjective but objective. And just because there are smart people disagreeing, doesn’t mean the answer can’t be found. Lots of people might disagree over whether there is water on Mars, but we are not going to assert that the answer is a matter of opinion. If my son points to a dog and calls it a cat, I will correct him rather than believe that to him it is a cat.

So in the end, why take philosophy? It helps clarify the world and it does so in useful ways. Although the benefits may not be immediately obvious (when am I going to need to use the difference between constitutive and regulative rules?), it may turn out later that the distinction helps (oh, when I am trying to change the rules about concussions in football). In either case, philosophy done right is not about lofty ideas or arguments or opinions, it is about curiosity and knowledge. For me, sport is something I have devoted much of my life to and I would like to understand it better. For students, I know that sport is something they will come across again and again. Understanding it might help them navigate their life’s journey a little better. And surely that is worth the price of admission.

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