Monday Morning Philosophers

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Diego Maradona of Argentina scoring his ‘hand of God’ goal past Peter Shilton of England in the World Cup quarter-finals, Mexico City, June 1986

In the 1960s, when I was studying philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, we had a regular visiting professor from Yale: an energetic little man who was warm to students. There wasn’t a subject in philosophy on which he hadn’t written a tome. He was a metaphysician; Reality—capitalized—was his thing.

In 1969, a book came out called Sport: A Philosophical Inquiry. The author was Paul Weiss, our metaphysician from Yale. It was savagely torn apart by the logician and philosopher Joseph Ullian, who called it “tedious, pompous, ill-written” and summed it up as “an unbelievably tiring array of little tidbits of bad analysis.” I had never seen such a scathing review before and probably haven’t since. I liked Weiss, so I decided to read the book and form my own judgment. It immediately became clear that Ullian had a point. This was the kind of book that gives philosophy a bad name: it was pretentious and ponderous and, more disturbingly, had no eye for reality with a small r.

I am a sports junkie. I watch more than my fair share of soccer and basketball, and thank God for that. As for philosophy, that is what I do for a living, and thank God for that, too. But I am not sure that I would thank God for a philosophy of sport, any more than I would for a philosophy of changing diapers.

David Papineau is a successful philosopher and a sports enthusiast. His book Knowing the Score is frightfully well informed, full of sparkling observations, and peppered with intelligent suggestions for improving the rules and practices of various games. It is a good book partly because it is not strictly a philosophy of sport. One can easily ignore its scattered philosophical remarks and still find it informative and readable.

“Great athletes are mentally as well as physically exceptional” is Papineau’s opening line. As Yogi Berra said: “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” The actual mental maneuvers required here, however, remain maddeningly obscure. As anyone who listens to sports commentators knows, more often than not words like “determined” or “confident” are used to describe in mental terms the events unfolding rather than to actually give a sense of what might be going on in a player’s mind. An example: at one point during a soccer game between Manchester United and another English team, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Manchester’s Armenian midfielder, tried to pass the ball, but the pass was intercepted by a defender. Then came the explanation: Mkhitaryan is “not focused today.” About five minutes later, he curved the ball and struck the corner of the far post. Mkhitaryan was now deemed “very sharp,” focused, and determined.

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