Monday, April 14, 2008

Philosophy of Sport: A Short Introduction Part 1: History & Metaphysics


Some time during the 5th Century BCE, just outside of the Corinth on Greece’s Peloponnese, a budding young philosopher named Plato competed in wrestling at the Isthmian Games. Ancient Greece is recognized in the West as the birthplace of both philosophy and Olympic-style sport, and Plato may have been the first philosophical athlete. In the East, philosophy and martial arts have an equally ancient—though less-explored—connection. As a discrete academic field, however, Philosophy of Sport didn’t really take hold until 1969 when Paul Weiss of Yale University published Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry. Weiss was neither an expert nor a practitioner of sport, but his prominence as a philosopher caused the philosophical world at last to take a serious look at sport. Soon the Philosophical Society for the Study of Sport (now known as IAPS, the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport) was formed. The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport was launched in 1974, and a variety of books and anthologies on the subject were published in its wake. Growth in the field has accelerated in recent years with increasing interest and contributions from scholars beyond North America and Europe.


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, Amherst historian Allen Guttmann tried to define modern sport as an intersection between Huizinga’s non-serious play and the very serious contests found among ancient Greeks. He described sports as “non-utilitarian contests which include an important measure of physical as well as intellectual skill” (From Ritual to Record, 7). Guttmann also identified several distinctive qualities of modern sport such as secularism, equality of opportunity, specialization, rationalization, bureaucratic organization, quantification, the quest for records.

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.


Mike Austin said...

I like Suits' definion of a game as a “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” Something that I find very interesting and valuable about sport is the variety of excellences, so to speak, that it makes possible. The type of physical excellence and athletic skill required to play tennis on a clay court is much different that the excellence and skill displayed by figure skaters or football/soccer players. Of course, these differences are also aesthetic in nature, insofar as we find one type of beauty in a well-run 1500m race, and another in a Greco-Roman wrestling match. The presence and endurance of sport in many societies seems to reveal a lot about human nature and its quest for excellence and beauty, and our desire for new and interesting expressions of both. The obstacles are unnecessary, but what they lead to are things that we seem to need--excellence and beauty.

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Salvador D. Escobedo said...

I see a problem with the definition of sport as "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles"; there are many human activities that cannot be considered as sports, but they are "voluntary attempts to overcome unnecessary obstacles", such as chess, video games, etc. That's a good definition of a game, but sports and games are not the same.