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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Football

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. Tracks like George Harrison’s Taxman, written in response to a marginal tax-rate of 96 percent introduced by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the Sixties, are the exception.

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.

The existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus fell out in the 1950s. There are different theories as to their disagreement: politics, women, or other small matters, but few have suggested that the real cause could be football. Albert Camus, famously himself a talented goalkeeper, is cited for the insight that, “What I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” Jean-Paul Sartre was not quite so sure, hence, perhaps, their disagreement. The author of Being and Nothingness observed that “In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the other team” (quoted in Le Monde, ‘L’autre planéte foot’, 31 May 2002).

It seems that existentialists have a thing for football. Martin Heidegger might be best known for his dense work Being and Time, but he was also passionate about Fußball. His biographer wrote how the great philosopher became obsessed with the game around the time West Germany won the FIFA World Cup, in 1974:

“Heidegger by then was a venerable old gentleman, and his former brusqueness and severity had mellowed with the years. He would go to a neighbour’s house to watch European Cup matches on television. His particular favourite [player] was Franz Beckenbauer. [Heidegger] was full of admiration for this player’s delicate ball control – and actually tried to demonstrate some of Beckenbauer’s finesses to his astonished interlocutor. He called Beckenbauer an ‘inspired player’ and praised his ‘invulnerability’ in duels on the field.”
(R. Safranski, Martin Heidegger, 1998, p.428).

Sometimes the inspiration goes the other way. Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (known as Le Prof) was philosophical when he spoke about Le foot, concluding that different playing styles were a result of different philosophies: “If you think about it, the culture of a country is dictated by what they learn in school. We in France have Descartes. His rationalism is the basis for all French thought and culture. In Italy you have Machiavelli, who is also about being rational and calculating” (Daily Mail, 10 Nov 2010). He went on to say that “in England, maybe because they are an island, they are more warlike.” Certainly that impression chimes with Thomas Hobbes’ observation that his English compatriots “are continually in competition for honour, and consequently amongst men ariseth on that ground, envy and hatred, and finally war.” (Leviathan, 1651, p.111)

So you need to look at the whole picture. As another philosophical football manager, José Mourinho, said, “Did you read any philosopher? You spent time reading Hegel. Just as an example Hegel says: ‘The truth is in the whole, is always in the whole’.” (Guardian, 31 Aug 2018)

Maybe the ‘special one’ (as Mourinho calls himself) should have been a philosophy professor? And maybe some philosophers should have chosen different careers? Jacques Derrida thought so, and confessed he “would rather have been known as an international footballer than a philosopher.” (Palgrave Advances in Continental Political Thought, ed. T. Carver & J. Martin, 2005, p.260).

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2023

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University. His book Great Minds on Small Things is out now.

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