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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Sport

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; a track like Van Morrison’s 1976 hit Cleaning Windows is the odd one out.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

We tend to think of philosophers as somewhat nerdy types, not the sort of folks who would indulge in vigorous exercise. Wrong!

One famous philosopher, whose real name was Aristocles, was very sporty. Indeed, he was a victorious contestant in the Isthmian Games, an athletics competition held by the Ancient Greeks. His sporting nickname was ‘Platon’, or in English, Plato, meaning ‘Broad Shoulders’, because he was a strong wrestler. He also had strong opinions on the subject, praising; “the legitimate manoeuvres of regular wrestling – extricating the neck and hands and sides from entanglement” (Plato, Laws, 281). However, Plato was not a fan of the showier type of wrestling: introducing ‘boxing devices’ was ‘absolutely useless’, and such antics, the former champion wrestler declared, “don’t merit the honour of being described.”

Most other philosophers, if they touched the subject at all, merely wrote about sport. Aristotle, in a treatise that sadly is lost, wrote about Olympic winners. René Descartes wrote a treatise on the art of fencing. And G.W.F. Hegel agreed that sport serves a social purpose, “wrestling and boxing, and… throwing the discus or javelin… express and form part of the enjoyment of social exhilaration” (Philosophy of History, p.260). But John Rawls (1921-2002) played college football for Princeton.

This foremost of American political philosophers is famous for his book A Theory of Justice (1971), which introduced the idea that the just society would be one we would choose under a ‘veil of ignorance’ where we do not know if we are rich or poor, or anything else about our identity and status in the society whose rules we are helping to pick. He thought that under such conditions it would be rational to choose a society founded on equality of opportunity. In Rawls’ view, only one sport fully lived up to this ideal: baseball. This “game does not give unusual preference or advantage to special physical types, e.g., to tall men as in basketball. All sorts of abilities can find a place somewhere, the tall and the short etc. can enjoy the game together in different positions” (Letter to Owen Fiss, April 18, 1981).

So Rawls did not favour basketball, as it unfairly favoured tall men. Perhaps there was a reason why he singled out that sport for censure: his department neighbour and intellectual rival, the neoliberal philosopher Robert Nozick, had used the example of the famous basketball player Wilt Chamberlain to justify income inequality (Anarchy, State; and Utopia, p.18, 1974).

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2022

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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