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Sport by Colin McGinn

Will Robins gets sporty with Colin McGinn.

Part of Acumen’s ‘Art of Living’ series, Sport by Colin McGinn is aimed at a level somewhere between the casual and the academic: something that the uninitiated could grapple with, but which would still be perfectly acceptable for a university professor to read on her day off.

The book takes personal experience as its starting point, beginning with the school ­yard game of ‘faggies’, moving on to gymnastics, kayaking and tennis, among many others. It analyses the author’s athletic excursions by using techniques borrowed from a range of disciplines and thinkers.

McGinn does tend to use autobiographical narrative as a crutch when he needs to finish a chapter or flesh out a smaller point. While one cannot use this to criticize too harshly a book that states on page one that it will follow the form of a memoir rather than a straight topic-by-topic analysis, one feels that the memoir theme is invoked rather too easily when there could often have been some deeper analysis of a chapter’s more interesting philosophical points. Perhaps McGinn suffers from a lack of confidence – not in his powers as a philosopher, but as a purveyor of sport. Although he repeatedly extols the virtues of competition, there is a telling story from his youth – a defeat by a known inferior gymnast – which may explain a preference for sporting activities that are best enjoyed alone. Yet I do not think he lacks confidence as a sportsman per se – in fact he explicitly challenges any reviewer who says so to a sporting showdown. McGinn is no sporting solipsist: he continually stresses the importance of others – willing rivals, coaches, team mates and training buddies. But he is an inveterate sporting polygamist: as soon as he begins to master a discipline, he moves on to another one. Is it the belief that he cannot excel which holds him back?

This is what this book is about: the phenomenology of learning a sport. The most keenly argued sections of the book are concerned with what it is like to acquire skills available to us exclusively though the family of activities we call ‘sports’. As a philosopher who has learnt a greater range of sports than most people, McGinn can speak with some authority on what it is like to progress from novice to expert. In this respect it is intriguing to read about his travails.

Sport really is an anthology of learning, and, as an educator himself, this fits McGinn as snugly as his gymnast’s leotard. Indeed, each account is retold in an honest and humorous manner which only occasionally breaks rhythm.

McGinn could have been braver in exploring more deeply some of the astute philosophical assertions he makes on a topic that really has not attracted much philosophical attention before now. Things he says about the ethics of competition, the aesthetics of movement, learning, the relationship between our bodies and the world, and value and meaning – even abortive attempts to offer a definition of ‘sport’ – stopped tantalisingly short of full blown analysis. But then there is only so much ink in the world. As a member of that very restricted set of people, the sportsman-philosopher, it is a true joy to have on my shelf a book full of tools with which to think about and philosophically discuss something which plays a huge role in my life.

© Will Robins 2009

Will Robins has a masters in philosophy and is a dedicated oarsman of ten years.

Sport by Colin McGinn, Acumen, 2008, 144 pps. pb, £9.99, ISBN: 1844651487.

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