Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry
Man, Sport and Existence: A Critical Analysis
How far can philosophy be subdivided into departmental pieces? Can there be a philosophy of anything? These questions are inspired by the books by Paul Weiss and Howard Slusher, each of which proclaims itself to be a pioneering contribution to the philosophy of sport. Not all that long ago the recognized divisions of philosophy were logic, metaphysics, and ethics, three territories whose frontiers had been authoritatively drawn by Aristotle (the subjects named in his other main treatises, physics and politics, for example, having come under new, non-philosophical management). Until the last couple of decades little had been done to elaborate this trinity of disciplines beyond dividing metaphysics into ontology and epistemology and tacking on aesthetics as a poor relation to ethics.
Nowadays the course offerings of university philosophy departments and the sub-classifications of academic libraries that have gone beyond the embarrassing inclusiveness of the Dewey decimal system, with its accommodation for works on palmistry and bed-wetting within the philosophical domain, are very much more diversified. There are philosophies of art, science, history, religion, the social sciences, action, mind, and a host of others. But these sub-philosophies generally have as their object some essentially intellectual enterprise, a kind of thinking, a distinguishable way of searching for knowledge.
No one, of course, is going to be much astonished to come across books or articles with titles like “A New Philosophy of Haybox Cookery,” “The Philosophy of Seduction,” or “My Philosophy of Interior Decoration.” But in such cases we are dealing with an accepted figurative use of the word “philosophy,” a kind of genial, unserious exaggeration like calling one’s wife “the boss.” Where we are invited to consider the philosophy of some specific, everyday, practical activity we know that we shall find general reflections about how and why the activity in question should be carried on, laying down broad principles for doing it effectively and a justification, perhaps, for doing it at all. But Weiss and Slusher are not philosophers of sport in this sense. They face the novel task they have imposed on themselves with the fullest professional solemnity.
They are both conscious of being innovators. Slusher observes, in his unforgettable prose, “In a way, this effort is representative of a ‘Model-T’ of things to come. To expect this work to be a definitive analysis of sport is to forget the present stage of relative infancy in the conceptual literature germane to this area.” And Weiss, less memorably, remarks, “On physiological and related issues there are, fortunately, a number of excellent studies. Apart from these, I have not found much knowledge or insight in the literature…. The best writings are technical. They offer hints and advice…. But they leave a place for only an occasional idea, and this is usually borrowed and rather frayed.”
Weiss attributes the neglect hitherto of the philosophy of sport, and of the so far unexplored philosophies of sex, work, play, and worldly success, to the obsession of philosophers with the genteel and respectable, prevalent since the Platonic Socrates denied that there could be forms of mud and dirt and Aristotle denied that manual laborers could have the intellectual qualifications for citizenship. Appeals of this kind to democratic reflexes are always suspect and I am inclined to think, particularly with Weiss’s and Slusher’s books behind me, that philosophers have had good reason for withholding their attention from sport.
The trouble is that sport does not pose any problems of the right kind. The problems it does present are all catered for elsewhere: psychological problems about the motivations and satisfactions of athletes, social and educational problems about the effects of sport on conduct and character, political problems about state encouragement and international rivalry. As it turns out it is problems of this sort that occupy most of Weiss’s attention. Only in a chapter on “play, sport and game” in the middle of his book and in a rather perfunctory “metaphysical excursus” at the end is he a philosopher writing philosophy rather than a philosopher having a go at psychology or educational theory or social policy. Slusher manages to keep some sort of philosophical pot on the boil throughout by wrapping somewhat nebulous psychological conjectures in a thick paste of existentialist terminology but this is, in several ways, only a verbal tour de force.
The one clearly philosophical issue about sport is that of identifying its place on the general map of human interests and activities. Conceived in its simplest terms this is a matter of defining it or, as philosophers say when pressed, of “analyzing the concept.” A bare defining formula is insufficient. What is needed is an account of the affinities and contrasts with other comparably large kinds of human undertaking. Schiller’s comparison of art with play is a thesis of this kind. Now, as it happens, one of the very few references to any idea in the domain of sport to be found in the most orthodox type of contemporary philosophy is what Wittgenstein has to say about the concept of a game. The point he is making, in this much quoted and often wildly overgeneralized passage, is that no single short formula will be adequate to embrace the enormous variety of human activities we call games: chess, tennis, poker, wrestling, patience, polo, and so on. Games, he says, are not linked by a single common property but by a multitude of partial similarities which amount to no more than a family resemblance. (I have often felt that the enthusiasm with which more or less Wittgensteinian philosophers return to this thought is that it is one of the very few in the great mass of his later writings, so different from the disdainfully abstract aphorisms of the Tractatus, which he is clearly committed to and not just experimenting with and which makes an entirely definite and readily intelligible point.) At any rate, if Wittgenstein is right, the project of analyzing the concept of sport is going to have its difficulties. But they are not very special difficulties since most institutional concepts, concepts, that is, of the more complicated works of man, like comedy, democracy, marriage, religion, and so forth, are of the family resemblance type.
In fact I think the problems of definition here can be overestimated. Play is any deliberate activity whose main end does not lie outside itself; a game is an organized, rule-governed form of play; and sport is any game in which substantial bodily activity plays an essential part. Weiss rejects definitions of sport as a form of play on the ground that sport is deadly serious and only very marginally diverting. This view exhibits a distortion in his approach to which I shall return, a tendency to identify sport with what is written about on the sports pages of newspapers. But he does not disown the idea of definition altogether, à la Wittgenstein. “We have to probe,” he says, “behind what drives men on, consciously or unconsciously, to get to an essential human disposition which achieves a distinctive expression in those who devote themselves to an athletic career.” I am not sure that he ever points this essential disposition out, unless it is in the rather elusive contentions of his closing metaphysical excursus.
Weiss was, I believe, a pupil of Whitehead’s (there are traces of Whiteheadian style here and there, for example this sentence, about training: “Its object is to bring men to the point at which their bodies follow the lure of the incipient future in which their vectorial minds terminate”). He is the most resolute of contemporary American metaphysicians, founder of the Review of Metaphysics, an oasis of speculation in the analytic desert, and the author of a full-blooded system in his Modes of Being which shows all the cosmic ambition of Whitehead’s Process and Reality. I therefore had to nerve myself before I read his book for what I expected to be a pretty demanding ascent into the empyrean. It was thus with a kind of disappointment that I discovered that it is in fact sensibly pedestrian, indeed to a great extent a series of glimpses into the obvious.
It begins with a discussion of the motives which call forth the dedication and self-denial characteristic of the committed athlete. Its main appeal, Weiss considers, lies in the fact that it is a field in which the young can achieve excellence fairly rapidly. This question of motivation is one of which Weiss makes conscientiously heavy weather. Is there really anything very mysterious about the dedication of some young people to sport? Is one not inclined to do things at which one has a discernible prospect of excelling? Don’t most people play games because it is the thing to do, because they have nothing much else to do, because it provides surplus physical energy with an outlet which is approved of and doesn’t get one into trouble?
From time to time an effort is made to say something memorable and compelling. The athlete’s ideal, Weiss says, is complete and permanent acceptance of the body. Is most people’s acceptance of their bodies incomplete and transitory? What is it anyway to accept one’s body? No doubt athletes are more satisfied with their bodies than other people; they do, after all, typically work at the business of improving them, and no doubt, also, they spend more time thinking about them than the rest of humanity. But the reference here should not be to the body in general but to the body as a functional instrument for a particular athletic purpose. Think of those bloated Olympic shot-putters and discus-throwers, stuffed with steroids, admirable projectile-throwers but horrible to look upon.
The distorted view I mentioned earlier in connection with Weiss’s remark that sport nowadays has little to do with diversion is also present in what he says about the motives of athleticism. Throughout the whole work he concentrates for the most part on players (although there are some stray observations about umpire-baiting by spectators). Yet being a spectator is, as Matthew Arnold might have said, three-fourths of sport. The casual hooliganism of sporting crowds is a more pressing social issue than anything that the players themselves do or undergo, a point forcibly made by the recent war between Salvador and Honduras. Sport, like the loves of film actors, is more important as part of the public dream than in its own nature.
Weiss’s perspective is further, and more unreasonably, narrowed, however, by being restricted to the concerns of the really serious, highly competitive, record- or championship-seeking athlete. Statistically such people are a minute fragment of the sporting population as a whole. The great host of suburban tennis-players and golfers enter the committed athlete’s frame of mind only fitfully and fancifully; their more common aims being to shake up their livers, get some value out of their club subscriptions, discharge social obligations without having to make conversation, engineer a pleasant excuse for some long, cool drinks.
Weiss makes some useful and perceptive distinctions between the qualities an athlete needs for success, ingeniously relating speed, endurance, and strength with the conquest of space, time, and causality respectively. There is also a good passage where he distinguishes three types of men who exploit chance in different ways: the athlete, who blames himself for failure, the investor, who blames his supposedly special information, and the gambler, who blames Fortune whose darling he thought, irrationally, he was. This mention of chance draws attention to a human need which sport satisfies, both for players and spectators, and which he passes over. Sport, unlike other forms of entertainment, is full of the unexpected: unpredictable reversals of form, minute but crucial bits of good or bad luck. It is thus the one major social institution that can be guaranteed to provide surprises, the one area of life in which causality and organization (bureaucratic rationality à la Max Weber) do not prevail.
Only in the brief metaphysical excursus at the end of the book does the Paul Weiss of Modes of Being put in an appearance. He offers the reader little to bite on. Some large remarks are made about athletes but they would be just as true, and just as uninformative, if they had been made about plumbers or brain-surgeons or tax-collectors or strip-tease artists. “The distinction that existentialists like to draw between men and all the other entities in this space-time world, he completely abrogates in a dynamic acknowledgment of an eternal reality which sustains all. The athlete is a man of action who tries to bring about a public result.” “The world of sport intensifies the meanings which any man in the course of his life expresses in his judgments and decisions. The athlete is sport incarnated, sport instantiated, sport located for the moment, and by that fact is man himself, incarnated, instantiated and located.” Isn’t the sanitary engineer, equally, drainage incarnated, instantiated and located?
Slusher’s book is altogether richer and less restrained fare. He comes forward under the protective auspices of a Foreword by Edgar Z. Friedenberg who, discerning repressed fear of homosexuality in the laws of basket-ball that forbid body contact, regrets Slusher’s neglect of the erotic aspects of sport, and an Introduction by Eleanor Metheny who remarks, very aptly, “In his struggle with words Dr. Slusher spares neither himself nor the reader.” The only sporting anecdote I know about Walter Pater comes at once to mind as one follows Slusher’s struggle. Watching some middle-aged people playing hockey he said to his companion, “Come away; I think we ought to go on; it seems hardly fair to look.”
The main strategy of the work is to insist that there is a great deal more to sport than discharging energy, enjoying oneself, the elementary pleasures of doing something well or defeating a competitor, by intense and unremitting recourse to the words “meaning,” “being,” “truth,” “existence,” “authenticity.” Thus the common, if slightly mysterious, conviction that one is in form gets dressed up as follows: “To ‘capture’ being, the sports performer needs to retain a unification or a feeling of oneness of personal being and the being qualities of the sport. It is this sensation that tells man that ‘today is my day.’ ” Behind it all lies an honorable conviction that sport is something of value in itself, not just a career or a profitable type of entertainment. But the means by which this conviction is inflated into a metaphysics are hard to take seriously.