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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Baseball

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads. It was about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; tracks like Rose Royce’s 1976 hit ‘Car Wash’ 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.

Pardon the pun, but occasionally you have to think outside the batter’s box. Not least when you are involved in America’s favourite pastime, as this noble sport used to be known.

Baseball is mainly a North American sport – though it is also played in Japan. But it wasn’t always thus. Having originally evolved from the ancient Viking game of brännboll, it was exported to England, before it transferred to North America.

Its devotees were many, and not just the usual suspects in the form of sports mad males. No less a writer than Jane Austen (1775-1817) describes Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, as a young lady who, preferred playing “base ball […] and running about the country to books” (Northanger Abbey, Chapter One).

So much for the foreign influences. But what about the Americans?

John Rawls (1921-2002) played college football, of the American variety, for Princeton. Often regarded as the man who single-handedly resurrected the whole discipline of political philosophy, his first love was not football, nor political theory, but baseball. So what on God’s earth have his writings got to do with the sport of Joe DiMaggio – aka ‘Jolting Joe’ – and Babe Ruth? In his article ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, published in Philosophical Review in 1955, he used examples of ‘the ballgame’ to explain his general philosophy, and in a separate letter to a friend he elaborated on why baseball was, in his mind, the best of all games.

Rawls wanted everyone to have a decent chance in life, and he was big on fairness. He suggested that a fair society would be the one we’d choose to be in if we didn’t yet know whether we were going to be rich or poor, black or white, male or female. Again, baseball fitted the bill as an analogy because “the 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.” (Rawls letter to Owen Fiss, 18 April 1981). For complementary reasons, Rawls did not like basketball, because it unfairly favoured tall men – like Rawls himself, as it happens, for he was over six foot two.

Perhaps Rawls had another, unspoken motivation to single out basketball for distain, since his rival, the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002), used the example of the famous basketball player Wilt Chamberlain to justify income inequality. (If a million avid fans want to see Wilt Chamberlain play and are each willing to transfer 25c of their own money to him to do so, what business is that of ours?) Nozick didn’t mind that some enjoy advantages due to accidents of birth, such as their height. Rawls wanted equality. Nozick did not.

So, in a sense, modern political philosophy – and perhaps the differences between conservatives and liberal progressives – can be reduced to whether you are a fan of basketball or of baseball.

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2024 Matt Qvortrup’s book Great Minds on Small Things is published by Duckworth.

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