Friday, February 6, 2009

New Sport Philosophy and Reasonable Expectations

Recently, we've seen several contributions to the philosophy of sport literature from philosophers who made their names elsewhere. Three cases in point are Michael Sandel's The Case Against Perfection, Gumbrecht's In Praise of Athletic Beauty, and most recently, Colin McGinn's Sport. I always experience keen anticipation as I order, open up, and begin to read such books. The excitement comes, I suppose, from knowing the excellent work that such individuals have produced in the past and the expectation that their analyses will enlighten me in exceptional ways. Invariably, however, I end up disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were unreasonable.

One factor, however, that seems to be a constant in such first-time volumes is a lack of background research by the author. Well-known, mainline philosophers who choose to turn their attention to sport for the first time, in other words, rarely do their homework. They do not bother to see what has already been written on the topic. They do not properly cite authors who made identical (and very well-known) claims years ago. From all indications, they are not even aware of the scholarly journals that exist in the area. When they offer recommendations for future reading, their suggestions are typically pathetic.

Of course, from this it does not necessarily follow that their work is not at all worthy. Indeed, there are parts of the aforementioned books that are quite good. But this practice is bothersome. It is bothersome because it would seem that a first step for any scientist who comes upon what is, for that person, a new problem is one of finding out what is already known about that very issue.

Thus, a question: Does any philosopher who is entering a new arena have an obligation to do some homework before putting his or her name to a publication? Is that a reasonable expectation or not?

Scott Kretchmar
Penn State


Mike Austin said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. It seems to me quite clear that we have an obligation to do our homework. This is sometimes, however, professionally painful. As a case in point, I've been doing some work on sportsmanship lately, and as a critique of an early article on the topic in Ethics by James Keating started developing an Aristotelian conception of this trait. That very day, I came across a paper by Feezell that does this very thing, in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (1984). I think most are simply unaware that there is a body of work in philosophy of sport currently available. So readers of this post and this comment who want to do some work in this area would do well to begin by checking out the journals linked to in the right hand column of this blog.

Jesús Ilundáin Agurruza said...

There is an old 'stereotype", almost a bad joke, in the philosophy of art, that oftentimes many philosophers write about aesthetics when they do not know anything about the art(ist) in question. Philosophers are notorious for assuming that they can apply their wonderful skills to any phenomenon and unearth the hidden truths within...

It seems the pattern often happens to be that unless one is working in one of the mainstream areas (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic-if on an expansive mood), anything that is "applied" to a phenomenon gets shortchanged.

I agree with Scott's assessment, and if only we all could uphold such standards, which are reasonable for "professionals" we all would stand to gain. This may be "pardoned" in younger academics perhaps, as they gain traction. But established names should know better.

If anything, this call to arms and thoroughness is something I take personally, and as Mike Austin points out, using today's resources (more easily available than ever) makes it easier to follow and harder to excuse.

Emily Ryall said...

I think that this problem stems from the lack of consideration that philosophical questions and issues in sport are given in 'mainstream' philosophy departments. It is only now, having to teach such issues, that I am really aware of some of the detailed considerations and compelling arguments that have been written; despite having studied philosophy for more than 10 years. When I first came to do my PhD thesis in the philosophy of sport, I was totally oblivious to the range and depth of literature (and I think Carl is finding the same, coming from a similar background). The closest I ever got to these issues in my undergraduate degree was an essay about the ethics of boxing - and the resources we were pointed to were non-specific philosophical texts and newspaper comments. We certainly didn't have any philosophy of sport resources in our well stocked library.

So, I return to the point I make in my first post to this blog and maintain that my ultimate desire is to see philosophy departments embrace the philosophy of sport into their courses. Until then Scott, I expect you will be continually disappointed from scholars writing in this area that are from outside the field.

Mike Austin said...

I would add one more thing that might be helpful, which some sport philosophers have done- publish some work in more general philosophy journals that will publish philosophy of sport articles. This is a way to bridge the gap a bit, I think, and make people aware of the body of work that is already in existence.

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