William J Morgan. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.
The philosophy of sport is, like its counterparts, the history and sociology of sport, a relatively recent invention, having appeared on the intellectual scene in North America, its birthplace, only in the middle to late 1960s. These, of course, were heady times for North American colleges and universities, times of economic expansion and physical growth, of political unrest and revolt, and of intellectual experimentation and development. One important consequence of this political and intellectual agitation on college campuses was that old and revered academic disciplines found themselves under constant attack by a swelling student body of baby boomers distrustful of anything old and revered—indeed, distrustful of anybody, as the popular saying went, over the age of 35, and eager for change and alternative academic experiences. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that new academic fields like the philosophy of sport got their start during this period.
However, two developments in particular were crucial to the academic debut of sport philosophy. The first was the emergence of sports studies out of the old and staid field of physical education. Whereas the traditional field of physical education was based exclusively on the medical and pedagogical study of physical activity and sport, the new, upstart field of sports studies championed a more ambitious intellectual agenda, one that retained the medical and pedagogical study of sport but ranged them alongside the philosophical, historical and sociological study of sport. This displacement of science and pedagogy as the mainstays of the curriculum made possible, then, a more abiding study of the cultural and historical contexts of sports. In this regard, the publication of Eleanor Metheny’s Movement and Meaning (1968) and Howard Slusher’s Man, Sport, and Existence (1967) solidified the place of the philosophy of sport in these burgeoning sports studies programs.
The second development was the long overdue consideration of sport by philosophy proper. The neglect of sport by philosophy is, alas, a long-standing one. Although there was a well-established tradition within philosophy of interrogating forms of life vital to societies and peoples (to wit, the philosophy of religion, art, science and education), sport, despite its influence on cultures as diverse as ancient Greece and modern-day America, managed somehow to avoid serious philosophic scrutiny. There were, of course, exceptions. For instance, Plato and Aristotle wrote approvingly, even at times enthusiastically, of play and sport, and modern philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger used play as a metaphor to define their own distinctive world-views, and contemporary philosophers such as Sartre and Wittgenstein employed notions of sport and game to explicate their influential conceptions of human existence and language respectively. In the main, however, most philosophers simply ignored sport, convinced that it was too marginal an undertaking to warrant philosophic attention.
This dismissive regard for sport, and by implication anything having to do with the body, however, was not just a byproduct of philosophy’s past, of its close association with religion and its contemplation of matters eternal. It was also a byproduct of philosophy’s present, in particular, of fairly recent changes in its main paradigms that hindered the development of new philosophical subdisciplines like the philosophy of sport. I am speaking in this instance of the emergence and dominance of analytic philosophy in the Anglophone world, which supplanted the early twentieth-century pragmatic conception of philosophy (one that stressed the critical application of intelligence to social problems) with a scientific conception of philosophy (one that stressed rigor and precision, and so, the study of technical questions that admit of such rigor and precision). The idea that philosophy should model itself after the sciences rather than, say, the arts is what united the two different strands of analytic philosophy that developed in England and America. In its first, positivistic strand, analytic philosophers focused on the logical analysis of concepts and propositions that were thought to unlock the complex structures of reality itself. These positivistic philosophers not only aspired to scientific rigor in their logical analyses but viewed philosophy as essentially continuous with science, that is, as answering problems that arise directly out of the practice of science. In its second, post-positivistic strand, the preoccupation with, some would say fetishization of, science fell out of favor as analytic philosophers concentrated their attention instead on the concepts used by ordinary speakers, concepts that were supposed to be the keys to resolving longstanding philosophical disputes. Even in this second strand, however, analytic philosophers continued to define philosophy as a narrow technical subject that demanded a rigor approaching that of science.
What was problematic about this triumph of analytic philosophy in the Anglophone intellectual world, especially to aspiring subjects like sport philosophy, is that it narrowed the purview of philosophy and insulated its practice. This was apparent in a number of respects. To begin with, because analytic philosophers were caught up in the effort to develop an autonomous disciplinary matrix for philosophy, they not only withdrew from the rest of the Academy but from the larger public as well—content to converse with one another in a technical jargon largely unintelligible to non-specialists. Secondly, in their effort to purify philosophic enquiry, to make it suitably rigorous, they successfully marginalized alternative forms of philosophic enquiry like Continental philosophy, which kept in closer touch with public social problems and stressed interpretation over verification. Finally, analytic philosophers were sufficiently strong in number and influence to establish new forms of graduate study, fully in place by the 1960s, which made the study of logic the centerpiece of the curriculum, de-emphasized the history of philosophy, and eliminated most requirements for the study of foreign languages (on the brash and plainly chauvinistic presumption that the only philosophical work worth reading was that authored by English-speaking philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic).
In spite of these significant impediments, however, the tide slowly began to change and philosophers finally started to take notice of sport, play and game. Though this shift occurred ever so gradually, and, alas, with modest effect to date, it is no surprise that philosophy journals sympathetic to Continental philosophy (Philosophy Today and Man and World come immediately to mind), and that Paul Weiss, a major philosopher with ties to the American pragmatic movement who wrote the influential book Sport: a Philosophic Inquiry (1969), led the way. Weiss’s book was arguably the more important influence here given his high acclaim in the philosophic community. Indeed, that a philosopher of Weiss’s international reputation considered sport a topic worthy of his time and talents was not lost on his colleagues, even his analytically inclined colleagues.
It was not until the early 1970s, however, that the philosophy of sport got its sea legs. The crucial year here is 1972, for that is the year in which scholars from both sports studies and philosophy banded together to form the Philosophic Society for the Study of Sport (PSSS), an international scholarly organization devoted to the philosophical analysis of sport. Paul Weiss was installed as its first president in the same year. In 1974 the Society began publishing the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, which remains to this day the most important scholarly vehicle for the serious philosophic study of sport.
While historical sketches are useful for charting the intellectual development of subjects like the philosophy of sport, they shed little light on the intellectual issues that preoccupy them and that distinguish them from one another. So we need to address straightaway just what are the central questions and abiding issues that concern philosophers of sport. I should say that trying to answer this question by coming up with a tight and convincing definition of the philosophy of sport will not prove helpful for the same reason it has not proved helpful to those who have sought a similar definition of philosophy. The reason is, as is apparent even from our brief historical overview, that philosophers tend to fret more about the nature, scope and aim of their intellectual craft, about what precisely it is that they do, than other intellectual workers in the vineyard, which means that their resultant conceptions of philosophy usually end up being contested rather than accepted. But, fortunately, this dissensus regarding the definition of philosophy need not concern us here, for while there is little accord over the definition of philosophy there is almost complete accord over the sorts of questions that philosophers pose and try to answer. This suggests that the best way to convey what the philosophy of sport is all about is to first attend to these central philosophical questions and, then, to consider their implications for cultural practices like sport.
The major questions that philosophers address are three in number and correspond to the three major branches of philosophic enquiry. The first question is ‘What is reality?,’ and goes by the formal name of metaphysics. Metaphysical enquiry can assume any one of three forms depending on what is meant by ‘reality’ in the above question. Reality might refer to nature, in which case it is called cosmology; it might refer to a spiritual substratum of the material world, in which case it is called theology; finally, it might refer to some set of features of being-human, of the human condition, in which case it is called ontology. However, since the study of nature has for all intents and purposes been appropriated by the natural sciences, and theology and philosophy have gone their separate ways for roughly a century, the study of reality in philosophy today is largely an ontological matter, that is, a study of (human) being qua being.
The second major question that philosophers grapple with is ‘What is knowledge?,’ which goes by the formal name of epistemology. As in the first question, this question can also be broken down into yet more particular questions. Thus, epistemologists might ask what constitutes valid knowledge and how can it be distinguished from mere beliefs. Additionally, they might investigate how different knowledge-claims can be squared with one another and arranged in some logically coherent manner (for example, appeals to religious beliefs, scientific evidence, reasoned arguments, basic intuitions). And finally, they might enquire as to the means by which we obtain knowledge of things, whether, for example, knowledge is rooted in sense experiences and/or in abstract concepts that tell us what the world is really like and what other people who share that world with us are really like.
The third, and last, major question that philosophers probe is ‘What is value?,’ which goes by the formal name of axiology. This question can be put in two more particular ways. In the first way, we understand value to mean judgments of goodness and badness, of right and wrong conduct. This way of framing the question is known as ethics, and the point of ethical enquiry is to enquire as to how peopleought to treat one another, and in more collective terms, how people ought to comport themselves with regard to the common good (social and political ethics). So defined, ethics is a prescriptive rather than a descriptive form of enquiry, that is, it is concerned with how people ought to treat and relate to one another (with prescribing norms of conduct), rather than with how in fact they are treating and relating to one another (with describing prevailing norms of conduct). However, by value we also might mean judgments that have to do with matters of aesthetic worth and significance, with, for example, what qualifies a particular artifact or performance as a work of art as opposed to something else. Questions of this type involve the study of what is formally known as aesthetics.
Now if my supposition that the question ‘What is the philosophy of sport?’ can best be answered by considering what these three questions come to when asked of sport, then we should be able to make clear just what the abiding and controversial issues and concerns of this philosophical sub-field are with greater precision and effect. To begin at the beginning, then, with the metaphysics of sport, the principal question here is what makes a given physical activity a sporting activity as opposed to some other related human movement activity (play, game, dance)? In other words, what are the basic features that mark off sports from other forms of physical enterprise that ascribe value and significance to particular forms of human movement? This question gives rise to two other central questions: ‘What differences and distinctions can be drawn between sport and other related human movement phenomena?’ and, lastly, ‘What similarities and commonalities can be drawn between sport and other related human movement phenomena?’
The main controversies that attend metaphysical investigations of sport fall into three areas. The first area has to do with the kind of conceptual analysis metaphysicians employ in their efforts to define sport. Critics like MacAloon (1991), for example, have attacked the kind of clarity and precision such philosophers seek in their definitional enquiries, a precision, he argues, that glosses over the messy but subtle historical shifts that mark our cultural conceptions of sport and that signal important changes in their meanings. This quest for certainty and contempt for imprecision explains, then, according to MacAloon, why philosophical definitions of sport are virtually useless, why it is that the lifeless abstractions that pass for definitions in such metaphysically freighted discourse fail to penetrate the historically embedded meanings of sport. Defenders of philosophical definitions of sport (Morgan and Meier, 1995: 3) counter such attacks as caricatures of the kind of clarity conceptual analyses of sport aspire to. They argue that while it is true that definitional enquiry does aim to cut through the messiness and imprecision of our historical conceptions of sport, the point of doing so is to explicate and sharpen those historical meanings not to bypass or to distort them. After all, much of what is said about sport in our cultural conversations, and this is especially true of forms of popular culture, is said in confused and politically charged ways that often conceal more than they reveal. So efforts to uncover such confusions and obfuscations are best understood, when, of course, properly undertaken, as ways of getting clear about what such historical shifts in our cultural notions of sport mean and signify rather than as attempts to seek after an impossible precision.
The second area of controversy regarding conceptual analyses of sport concerns whether cultural practices like sport are best defined in formalist terms (Suits, 1973), or contextualist terms (D’Agostino, 1981; Lehman 1981). Proponents of formalist definitions of sport maintain that the purpose, meaning and significance of sport practices can be read off of their formal rules. So what counts as playing a sport, as an action in a sport, as an instance of sport, and as winning in a sport are all determined, on this view, by citing the formal rules of that sport. Proponents of contextualist accounts of sport, contrarily, maintain that sport is defined by both its rules and its ethos. The ethos of sport has to do with those social conventions that govern how the rules of a sport are to be interpreted and applied in particular instances. Contextualists argue that we need to account for these social conventions in our definitions of sport because it is these conventions, and not the rules, that determine what counts in the final analysis as a legitimate instance of sport.
The third, and last, area of controversy dealing with conceptual analyses of sport has to do with a specific feature of definitional accounts of sport, with, that is, the particular relation between sports and games. In his seminal essay ‘The Elements of Sport,’ Bernard Suits (1973) argued that the basic elements of games are essentially, but not totally, the same as the basic elements of sports, which he summed up in the claim that all sports are games but not all games are sports. However, in later papers (1988, 1989) Suits amended his earlier view of this relation, which in the meantime had become the received view, by arguing that only some sports are games. In particular, he argued that sports come in two varieties rather than, as he earlier argued, one: what he called ‘athletic performances’ (gymnastics, diving, free-style skiing) and ‘athletic games’ (soccer, basketball, baseball). He defined athletic performances as practices that are constituted by ideals of performance rather than means-limiting rules. It is because performances lack such rules that explains, according to Suits, why they are not games, and further why they do not require referees to ensure rule compliance but judges to assess the artistry of the performance—how closely it comes to its constitutive ideals. By contrast, athletic games are rule-governed practices in just the sense specified in Suits’s earlier essay: they rule out certain useful ways of reaching their goals (it is useful, but forbidden to hand-carry the ball to the cup in golf). It is because these sports have such rules that explains, according to Suits, why they are games, and further why they require referees to check for rule observance as opposed to judges to check for excellence achieved. It was this reworking of his account of games and sports, then, that sparked a spirited debate between Suits and critics such as Kretchmar (1989) and Meier (1988, 1989), who argued that Suits had got it right the first time, that indeed all sports are games because all sports possess the requisite kind of means-limiting rules.
Turning to the epistemological study of sport, the central question here, or so the literature suggests, has to do with how one gains knowledge of human movement forms like sport. In short, must one have an actual, lived experience of sport to claim knowledge of it, or is it the case that one can gain such knowledge by other abstract, intellectual means, by reflection, for instance, on others’ first-hand experiences of sport? A related question concerns the organization of knowledge appropriate to sport. The issue here is not the psychological one of when is someone (psychologically) ready to learn sporting skills or strategies, but the logical one of how different forms of knowledge of sport can be fitted together into some sort of coherent pattern (for example, a coherent curriculum).
It is difficult to say much more about this realm of sport philosophy since its literature is not well established—one important mark of which is that there are no controversies currently raging within it that might better define and enliven its study. This dearth of literature is not easy to explain, if only because epistemology is a dominant, some would say the dominant, topic in contemporary philosophy. Two explanations, however, might account for its underdeveloped status. The first is that questions regarding the logical organization and integrity of knowledge have been largely ceded to the philosophy of education and to what remains of the field of the philosophy of physical education, a field which, unlike the philosophy of sport, has always considered itself a subsidiary of the philosophy of education. In short, questions regarding the logical basis of curriculum theory have long ceased to be, if indeed they ever were, important concerns for philosophers of sport. The second reason why epistemological investigations of sport, especially those dealing with what kinds of knowledge are crucial to participation in sports, have not fared as well as other kinds of philosophical investigations of sport is that many potential enquirers may well have been persuaded by Paul Ziff’s (1974) forceful thesis that sport poses no special or significant epistemological problems. Whatever the reason, however, it is regrettable that we do not have more studies like Steel’s (1977) and Kretchmar’s (1982), studies which have penetratingly analysed the kinds of ‘tacit’ knowledge and abstract thinking that go on in sport, and that have shown the striking parallels that obtain between these kinds of athletic knowing and, for example, those kinds of knowing particular to scientific practices.
The ethical study of sport, which, it will be remembered, is one offshoot of axiological (value) enquiry, pivots on two pressing and highly controversial questions. The first question asks how athletes should treat one another (and in the case of animal sports, how they should treat sentient beings) in a sport setting. The second question asks how athletes should comport themselves, individually and collectively, in their pursuit of athletic excellence; more specifically, it asks what forms of conduct and aids to performance are compatible with good (in the moral sense previously specified) athletic practice. The first question raises a host of issues that deal with sportsmanship, competition, cheating, gender issues, and finally, issues regarding the use of animals in sports. The second question raises a more limited set of issues that focus on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport and on the moral problems such usage poses.
The moral literature in sport, in stark contrast to its epistemological counterpart, is voluminous, and growing by leaps and bounds. This literature naturally divides into a number of clusters that correspond to the two questions just mentioned. The first cluster, which includes the work of Keating (1964), Arnold (1983), Feezell (1986) and Dixon (1992), deals with the issue of sportsmanship. In particular, it asks what sort of virtues and qualities it instantiates, and what specific forms of conduct it prescribes. The second cluster, which includes the work of Pearson (1973), Delattre (1975), Leaman (1981), Fraleigh (1982) and Hyland (1984), focuses on the competitive character and complexion of sport and the pervasive problem of cheating. More specifically, it asks what would constitute a morally defensible notion of competition; what would make for a morally corrupt form of competition; what counts as cheating; and what ought to be our moral posture toward cheating?
The third cluster examines gender issues in sport. This body of work, which includes the essays of English (1978), Belliotti (1979), Young (1979), Messner (1988), Francis (1993-4), Simon (1993-4) and Duncan (1994), takes up two main themes. The first has to do with how women’s identities, their sense of themselves as individuated and socialized bodily beings, are constructed and deconstructed in practices like sport and exercise. The second has to do with the equally vexing issue of women’s equity in sport. That is, how are women going to achieve equal opportunity in the world of sport when the very sports that dominate that world appear to privilege males (calling as they do on the typically male physical features of strength, power and speed) and to purvey distinctly masculine features of physical conduct (aggression and violence)?
The fourth cluster of essays, which includes such authors as Singer (1973), Regan (1983), King (1991) and Scherer (1991), explores the moral standing of animals (whether they have specific rights or particular properties that command our respect and regard) in order to assess the moral standing of sports that feature them as objects of athletic exploit. Three categories of animal sports come under scrutiny in this regard:
- Sports in which humans use animals in their athletic pursuits (equestrian events, horse racing, polo);
- Sports that pit humans against animals in tests of athletic mettle (hunting, fishing, bull fighting);
- Sports in which animals are pitted against other animals either in contests of deadly combat or in contests to assess superior animal athletic prowess (cock fighting, dog racing).
The fifth, and last, cluster of essays targets the use of drugs by athletes to boost their performance. This body of work, which includes the essays of Thompson (1982), Perry (1983), Brown (1984), Simon (1984), Lavin (1987) and Gardner (1989), examines three moral issues that are raised by such drug use in sports. The first issue concerns the hidden and not so hidden technical imperatives and values of high-performance sport that impel athletes to take drugs in spite of the obvious threats to physical, psychological and social well-being they involve. The second issue centers on the moral permissibility of using drugs to improve performance and of efforts to outlaw or, short of that, to carefully regulate such use. And the third and last issue looks into the moral justification of mandatory drug testing programs designed to detect, mainly for punitive purposes, the presence of both performance-enhancing and recreational drugs.
Studies of the aesthetic features of sport, which comprise the other major part of axiological enquiry, and which feature the works of Kupfer (1983), Cordner (1984, 1988), Roberts (1986) and Best (1995), focus on two main questions. The first concerns whether sports require an aesthetic reception, that is, a qualitative view of their forms of movement, grace and style, in order to understand adequately and appreciate fully what they are about. The second question asks whether certain sports might not only require an aesthetic regard but might themselves qualify as bona fide works of art. The issue here is not so much whether sports must be viewed mindful of their aesthetic properties, but rather whether sports are intentionally conceived and crafted for aesthetic effect, and whether they are, both structurally and contextually speaking, suited for such a purpose. For even though there are many objects in the universe that summon our aesthetic attention (mountains, sunsets), only a select sub-set of those objects (namely, those created precisely to elicit such an aesthetic response) qualify as works of art. The question, then, is whether it makes more sense to lump sport in with this latter, more narrowly defined, category of artifacts or with the former, much larger, category of objects and artifacts.
A Conjecture regarding the Future of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Sport
I want to close my historical and conceptual survey of the philosophy of sport with an upbeat prognosis of its future. My interest in doing so is not born of wishful thinking, of a desire to put this subject in a flattering light that belies the facts, but of contemporary developments within philosophy proper and the philosophy of sport that augur well, or so I argue, for their entwined future. Oddly enough, the first of the two developments I have in mind here actually takes a page out of philosophy’s past, to be exact, out of its pragmatic American past, and insists, as it did earlier in this century, that cultures and their signature social practices have priority over philosophy, and that, therefore, the main job of philosophy is, in Dewey’s words, to apply critical intelligence to the resolution of social problems. The second development concerns the recent upsurge of moral studies of sport, a trend apparent in our above review of its literature, which suggests further that the chief point of applying critical intelligence to the problems of social life is to get a better moral fix on these problems.
What do I mean by the priority of culture and its practices, and in what sense does it enjoin that philosophy be reconceived as a tool of social reform and renovation? Mainly this: that philosophy does not possess its own special stock of suprahistorical categories, categories which, while they belong to no particular culture or tradition or historical period, somehow hold the key to understanding every culture or tradition or historical period known to us. That means that in order to get a handle on these culturally laden, historically embedded categories and the language-games that enframe them, the philosopher has to get a handle on the forms of life that give them their meaning. This is what Wittgenstein (1953: 174) meant when he said that ‘understanding a language-game is sharing a form of life,’ and that concepts are best thought of as ‘patterns which recur, with different variations, in the weave of our life.’
If the concepts philosophers use to do their work derive from the forms of life they study, then it follows that the task of philosophy is the chastened one Dewey suggested above of solving social problems by critically interrogating those forms of life. For while philosophy has no special concepts, methodology, or vantage point of its own, it can respond critically to developments in society by comparing, contrasting and pointing up the internal strengths and weaknesses of the reasons, beliefs and values that inform society at any given time. All of this is anticipated in Rorty’s (1995: 199) remark that ‘philosophy is always parasitic on, always a reaction to, developments elsewhere in culture and society.’ What the moral emphasis that characterizes much of the present work that is going on in sport philosophy contributes to this pragmatic turn in philosophy is two things: first, just as there are no super concepts there are no super practices. That means that the cultural developments philosophy responds to cannot and should not be confined to one sphere of culture (for conservatives, religion; for liberals, politics; and for dyed-in-the-wool analytic philosophers, science). Second, that the problems philosophy is and ought to be responsive to are not technical ones but moral ones, problems that call into question our divergent and even conflicting conceptions of social justice and of the ‘good’ life.
However, if philosophy is to play this forceful moral role, then issues regarding its disciplinary autonomy and professional standing will have to cease to be issues. They will have to cease to be issues because in order to fulfill its task as an instrument of social reform, philosophy will have to blur the boundaries that are said to separate it off from the likes of cultural and social criticism. What goes for philosophy proper here goes as well, of course, for the philosophy of sport. For if it is to make its larger mark in society then it, too, will be obliged to go historical and sociological with its moral concerns and not worry about whether in doing so it has transgressed its disciplinary boundaries. As I see it, the only real worry that should concern philosophers of sport as they go about their critical and moral work, and the same can be said of historians and sociologists of sport insofar as we are still able to make these distinctions, is whether or not they have sufficiently tapped the full range of cultural resources that the study of sport makes available to them. In this, I concur with Gorn and Oriard’s contention that ‘the study of sport can take us to the very heart of critical issues in the study of culture and society,’ but add as a caveat: only if we let that study take us there.
A final worry. In championing the recent pragmatic turn in philosophy and the moral emphasis that turn has taken in recent work in the philosophy of sport, it might be asked if I am, wittingly or not, championing a chauvinistic agenda for future work in both of these areas. After all, pragmatism is an American movement and thus reflects a distinctly American, and so a distinctly limited, vision of what philosophic work in sport ought to look like in the future. But I think this worry is unfounded and that it need not dampen our optimism about the future of the philosophy of sport. My reasons for thinking so are three—two of which I have lifted directly from Rorty. First, whereas it is true that pragmatism is an American phenomenon closely linked to the American experiment in liberal democracy, there is no reason to think, as Rorty (1982: 70) nicely puts it, ‘that the promise of American democracy [and the pragmatic spirit that nourished it] will find its final fulfillment in America, any more than Roman law reached its fulfillment in the Roman Empire or literary culture its fulfillment in Alexandria.’ Secondly, although pragmatism is largely an American invention, I think Rorty (1995: 203) is pretty much right when he says that philosophy is not well suited to nationalist expression, to narratives of national exploit (unlike philosophy, however, sport is an especially powerful form of nationalist expression). Thirdly, and lastly, the pragmatic emphasis on cultural and social reform is already close in spirit to the public commitments that define much of continental European philosophy (it is, for example, common practice for philosophers and intellectuals on the continent to write for local newspapers and political opinion journals), and, in fact, has ignited a renewed interest in continental European philosophy. Appearances to the contrary, then, these three reasons all seem to indicate that this new pragmatic spirit of philosophy will flourish wherever it takes root, and so should boost our optimism and enthusiasm for the future of philosophy and the philosophy of sport.