Monday, September 14, 2009

Has the Science of Sport Outpaced Philosophy of Sport?

Last Sunday's New York Times included a very interesting essay by Alice Dreger (reprinted at this link) that accuses sport philosphers of lagging behind sport scientists. She concludes that we need to reach consensus on what sport is really all about before we can adequately address such issues as sterioid use and sex determination.

She may be right to criticize sport philosophy for our lack of new thinking on such issues, but we may also have more to contribute than first appears. First of all, there is a fairly wide consensus in the sport philosophy community that sports are sets of rules that set lusory goals (i.e. an object of the game, such as arriving at the finish line) and at the same time prohibit the most efficient means of achieving such goals (i.e. by crossing the track or riding a motorcycle).

At our recent IAPS conference in Seattle, and especially as part of Sigmund Loland's keynote address, it was noted that the bans on drugs are, first of all, a prohibited efficiency. The rationale for prohibiting these efficiencies and not others revolves around a desire to promote training activities associated with the positive holistic adaptation of human beings. Traditionally, the training activities promoted are associated with human virtues, and those prohibited are not. Although steroids may produce strength, their use is neither a form of training nor associated with virtue. Sex classes and other similar conventions are designed to exclude performance factors that are not "trainable" (such as sex). Professor Loland's arguments (which I may or may not have summarized correctly here) do provide a framework that at least begins to address Alice Dreger's very relevant concerns.

In the end, though, she is right. We sport philosophers need to communicate more clearly our ideas on "what sport is all about" and what implications this should have for how it is practiced. To be sure, we will not all agree on these questions, but we should make more of an effort to communicate with sport scientists and with the public more generally.


Emily Ryall said...

I disagree that philosophers are lagging behind 'scientists' on the issue of sport (as can be illustrated by the wealth of literature in the philsophy of sport); the problem is that sports science fits into our capitalist culture (in that it makes a lot of money and provides a lot of jobs) whilst philosophy doesn't. Until this dominant paradigm changes then debates on the value of sport will have minimal effect on the practice of sport itself.

(Incidently, I'm running a new undergraduate course starting next year entitled, 'Sport; Meaning and Value' which will cover these broader axiological questions, and I'm sure there are many other similar courses at other institutions, so it's not that we (as philosophers of sport) aren't trying!)

Carl Thomen said...

Dreger wants a universal theory of sporting value, divorced from the machinations of capital, economics, political power, individual motivations, societal norms and religious hangovers? Or, conversely, involving all of them? Seriously?

Sport is as what sport means to you, it seems to me :-)

Mike Austin said...

I think part of what Dreger claims is misguided, when she says "our philosophy of sport has remained largely static, based on vague principles like 'level playing fields' and 'natural' advantages." This puts the onus back on philosophers of sport, as Heather points out, to work at getting our ideas out there to the broader public, including the media, which is of course no easy task. And I've argued in a recent piece in the Journal of Applied Philosophy something similar about the connections between virtues and training that don't obtain between virtues and performance-enhancing substances. I like the inefficiency point as a way to further this line of argument.

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