Some time during the 5th Century BCE, just outside of the
Socrates liked to begin his philosophical investigations with a “what is” question. To explore the question “What is sport?” however, many philosophers looked back to Johan Huizinga’s 1950 Homo Ludens, an analysis of the nature of play. Huizinga claimed that play is not just prior to sport, but also to culture and civilization. He further characterized play as not serious, not necessary (i.e. for survival), and separate from ordinary life. In 1978,
It was Bernard Suits’ playful dialogue The Grasshopper, however, that laid a serious foundation for sport metaphysics. Suits defined a game as the “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” and noted as its necessary components (1) a “prelusory goal” also known as the “object of the game”; (2) constitutive rules which forbid the most efficient means toward the goal; and (3) a “lusory attitude,” that is the players’ conscious acceptance of rules which makes the game possible. In the game of basketball, then, the prelusory goal is to score points by putting the ball into the basket, the constitutive rules prohibit such useful means as ladders and running without bouncing the ball, and the lusory attitude is what makes the players see this activity as a game. Over the years, Suits’ definitions have been explored, refined, and applied directly to sport. In 2005 The Grasshopper was reissued as a sport philosophy classic.
Of course, sport is more than the games themselves, it also involves athletes, and traditional philosophical arguments about mind and body have been deftly applied to sport. In his 1990 book Philosophy of Sport, Drew Hyland considered the three positions of dualism, physicalism, and phenomenology. Although dualism has been the dominant view in Western philosophy, sports enthusiasts resisted its tendency to privilege mind over body and thereby to denigrate sport. Physicalism had more surface appeal, but tended to view the human being as a machine. Phenomenology, which focuses on the experience of the lived body, was Hyland’s preferred approach to the question for athletes. Now the view of a person as both mind and body, dubbed “holism” is the most popular metaphysical theory in the philosophy of sport.