Penetrating philosophical analysis of the beautiful game

Mats Franzén
Institute for Housing and Urban Research, Uppsala University


Steffen Borge
The Philosophy of Football
287 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Ethics and Sport)
ISBN 978-0-367-18092-8

What is football? Steffen Borge tries to find a philosophical answer to that question. We need an answer to that question, he says, because football provides the world’s greatest sports spectacle, and without understanding football, we cannot fully understand human conditions (here Borge alludes to Hannah Arendt’s classic work The Human Condition). To fully understand something philosophically means to approach it in-depth, according to Borge; and to pay attention to a single sport – in this case football ­ makes this possible in a completely different way than by, for example, trying to answer the question what is sport. His choice of philosophy is not something Borge discusses; instead, he talks about the use of (some of the) tools extracted from philosophy’s toolbox. The philosophy of football that Borge puts forward has nothing to do with the kind of football philosophy that we’re usually confronted with. The question for him is: what is football? and not: how should we play football? The question is thus not normative.

How, then, does he address this basic football issue? He does it in four steps and as many – long – chapters. In the first of these, Borge addresses a question that concerns football and the phenomenon of sport more generally. The question concerns the fictional nature of football (and sport). However physical football may be, not everyone takes it seriously. For them, football is meaningless. To be able to take it seriously, you have to make it important to you –whether you are a player or a spectator. You have to create your own fiction about football. But at the same time, it must be clear – which may appear paradoxical – that this seriousness is just for play, that it exists outside everyday life, real life. Football is unnecessary. Therefore, like other sports, for Borge football is extra-ordinary. That’s how he asserts its fictional character. You have to believe it to take it seriously.

This necessary belief – which is necessary because football is unnecessary – Borge analyses thoroughly as an alief. The term refers to a state that is simpler, more physiological, than belief in general. Borge is therefore talking about sub-doxic notions. Perhaps one could say that this necessary belief in football – a belief that it is important – derives nutrition from, is activated by, football as a destructive-constructive sport. It is important to win the match: football requires an opponent. Football has a dual character: to prevent opponents from scoring is as crucial as scoring yourself. Football is also a contact sport. Thus, the match will be an intense drama with an uncertain outcome.

But every sport is more than its constitutive rules, says Borge as he opposes Suit’s reductive formalism in favour of a pronounced social analysis, what Borge calls foundational formalism.

If Borge in the first chapter discusses what is required to get involved in the game of football, as a player and as a spectator – but without examining the question of who gets involved and who does not – he devotes the second chapter to the question of football as a sport. Since it is crucial to understand human conditions, this chapter is about what kind of social phenomenon, or social fact, sports and especially football is. Here, Bernard Suits’ works in the philosophy of sport have served as an almost obligatory starting point with his definition of games and sports events based on their constitutive rules. But every sport is more than its constitutive rules, says Borge as he opposes Suit’s reductive formalism in favour of a pronounced social analysis, what Borge calls foundational formalism. Social facts are special. With the philosopher Searle we can ask ourselves how people in conjunction can create an objective social reality where social phenomena such as property or sport do not literally exist but do so first through collective agreements or shared belief in their existence. Social phenomena presuppose a collective intentionality, which is especially true for sports activities: it is difficult, Borge says, to think of them as unintended consequences of something else. But there are also examples of impure cases of a certain sport, which Borge devotes a lot of effort to sort out. If we consider football historically, this impurity is easy to identify. From an older football-like practice both rugby and football were developed. From that development, football appeared in a pure – or transparent – form. Here Borge introduces a distinction between the surface of football – the pure form as comprised by football’s constitutive rules – and the inside of football – its function or intrinsic reason (why we engage in the sport). Furthermore, the surface becomes its (social and psychological) context. If the inside or the collective intentionality changes, it is no longer a matter of football. In short, football is about winning by scoring goals and preventing the opponent from doing so.

In the third chapter, Borge deepens the analysis of football by challenging Suits’ analysis of sport in The Grasshopper (1978). Not only does he rely on Suits’ eight theses or criteria for what constitutes a sport (the first four also constitute games more generally); he criticizes Suits for his reductive formalism while at the same time taking a step further in the analysis by asking not only what sports are, but what kind of sport football is. This is not the place to recapitulate Borge’s analysis in all its details (they are many and might easily lose the thread here with a less painstaking read). Instead, let me identify some of Borge’s points. If each sport is defined by its constitutive rules – rules that make that particular sport possible – and has a set of regulatory rules for how the sport may be executed, sports such as football also have a third kind of rules. Borge calls them reactive rules. Consider the penalty kick. To say that it is a regulatory rule would be easy. But the rule not only sets limits: it is indeed corrective – it creates new ways of approaching the game which cannot be seen within the framework of reductive formalism. An alternative approach here can be called an ethos view on sport. It is in line with Borge’s analysis, but he goes a step further by claiming that the ethos view does not solve the problem of rule infringements. Two teams do not need to share ethos for a match to be possible. Borge’s proposal for a solution is more crass than the ethos view: The players enter the competition under a joint social contract: they are obliged to win. That the match then is played (sufficiently) fair is up to the referee. If we can observe something similar to a shared ethos, it is not a convention, but more a convergence or congruence in the rule interpretation (it is thus situation-dependent). Borge’s view of the judiciary is telling for his non-normative analysis. Certainly, the referee is the rule interpreter during a match, but the referee is also the one responsible for the players’ attitude and for minding or managing the game so that it does not go out of control. Borge also has something interesting to say about how players can behave unsportsmanlike in football, but that it is still about football. Borges analysis of football in this chapter mainly emphasizes two things: Firstly, the players must use the format of the game of football and thereby want to win, and secondly that the referee upholds the rules of the game and manages the match at a level that keeps it alive and under control.

Not least in the chapter on football’s agonal aesthetics, its drama, he makes this clear. Football simply stands and falls with its fictitious value.

Borge devotes the fourth chapter to football as drama – to the aesthetics of football. Here we come, I would argue, closest to Borge’s credo when it comes to the philosophy of the game. For Borge, the aesthetics of football are agonal – a nearly contradictory position compared to Kant’s philosophy that aesthetics are disinterested. Football requires dedication, it is a non-theatrical drama because it lacks script, but equally a drama that evokes tension and emotion, including a certain measure of laudable ugliness. As a destructive-constructive sport, the opponent’s behaviour becomes an inherent element of football; it makes the game’s aesthetics directly dependent on both teams’ common but antagonistic actions – in other words, a committed aesthetic, not a contemplative as with Kant. At least two things deserve attention here. Without the competition momentum, football would not be the drama it is now, but perhaps more of a back-heel kick show. In addition, aesthetic values and experiences do not require art (with which football, however, shares its extra-ordinary, extra-everyday nature). Thus, if football is a kind of conflict that we arrange outside the commonplace for our pleasure – albeit often a painful pleasure – but with many parallels to our everyday life, the drama is simultaneously emphasized by the game’s small margins and unpredictability paired with the inevitability of the final result. One point that Borge makes with this theory of football’s agonal aesthetics is that questions such as which style of play, how many goals or other aspects of the game that could be the most aesthetically pleasing do not need to be decided a priori; those things are match dependent. But no match can guarantee aesthetic experiences of a certain intensity, despite all the preliminary chatter.

With Borges The Philosophy of Football, we have gained an analytically deep-drilling answer to the question of what football is. Borge really gets to the bottom of several key issues, such as football being extraordinary and requiring a certain degree of self-deception to engage practitioners and audiences, along with its fictional nature. And that we must understand its constitutive rules and its collective intentionality – its insides – to understand what makes football what it is. Therefore, it is consistent for Borge not to hang his analysis on the commercialization of football and the fantasy sums that are disbursed at the top of the food chain. On the contrary, he gives us an understanding of what it is with football particularly that fascinates us and can then be traded financially. Not least in the chapter on football’s agonal aesthetics, its drama, he makes this clear. Football simply stands and falls with its fictitious value.

The Philosophy of Football is not a difficult text. It does require some prior knowledge of the reader, but not necessarily philosophical ones. It requires reading slowly, preferably with some thoughtfulness. Borge’s willingness to turn a number of questions inside out means that the book can hardly be skimmed through. Possibly, the overly eager reader can skip the longer section of each chapter where Borge elaborately addresses possible objections – sometimes pure misunderstandings – to his arguments. Although the book is just under three hundred pages, it also requires a certain patience of its readers since the British publishing capitalism squeezes in forty-four long text lines on each page: Borge on four hundred pages would have been preferable.

I can live with that when Borge provides a penetrating analysis of a sport like football. His approach to answering the question of what football is can advantageously be used in other sports as well. Such analyses are important, not least because, as Borge shows, there is probably no lowest common denominator for what could constitute sports in general. The Philosophy of Football is more than worth the effort.

Copyright © Mats Franzén 2020

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