A lecture series turned into a book that in turn turns the reader into a satisfied conference-goer

Pam R. Sailors
Missouri State University

Anthony O’Hear (ed.)
Philosophy and Sport
246 pages, hft.
Cambridge, Cambs: Cambridge University Press 2013 (Royal Institute of Philosopy Supplement: 73 (ISSN 1358-2461))
ISBN 978-1-107-64769-5

Imagine you’re attending a philosophy conference with a focus on sports. You peruse the conference program to plan which sessions you want to attend. Some of the sessions are of great interest to you, while others hold less attraction. Almost certainly, there will be an hour when you wander in to hear a paper, just because there’s nothing else going on, only to find yourself surprisingly engaged by the presentation. Philosophy and Sport may be best approached with a similar attitude. The book is a collection of lectures from the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s 2012-2013 lecture series, which was organized in that Olympic year around issues in sport. The issues covered by the chapters run the gamut from A (Aristotle) to Z (the Zone). Still, the contributions in this collection, like the sessions in a conference, can be grouped in a few loose categories.

First, a couple of the chapters are about watching sport. Stephen Mumford’s “Ways of Watching Sport” distinguishes partisan and purist spectators and argues that they see different things when watching the same sporting event. The partisan will be intent on the goal of victory for the team he or she supports, while the purist focuses on athletic excellence. In this choice between performance versus outcome, Mumford defends the purist against several objections and concludes that neither way of seeing is superior to the other as both are valid ways of watching sport. Paul Snowden’s chapter, “Sport and Life,” similarly claims that watching sport is valuable for various things it offers the spectator, including the feeling of being part of a group (which we might associate with the partisan), witnessing skill (which we would assign to the purist), and the experience of excitement and drama (which could be shared by both). Snowden further claims that sport is valuable in itself as “an expression of the sort of animal nature—psychological, cognitive and physical—that we, human animals, have” (98).

The second category I propose is chapters about the essential nature of sport. Here I would put “Conceptual Problems with Performance Enhancing Technology in Sport” by Emily Ryall and “Is Mountaineering a Sport?” by Philip Bartlett. Ryall nicely shows that performance enhancement in sport is necessary because sport requires progress in athletic achievement. The real question is not whether to allow technological enhancement, but which enhancements to allow. This is a problem that will have to be addressed by sports’ governing bodies as they attempt to balance athleticism and innovation. For his part, Bartlett suggests that mountaineering provides (1) a return to the primitive, and (2) an expression of egocentricity. Because the greatest value is in the journey rather than the achievement, mountaineering is not suited to be an Olympic sport, and any attempt to make it one, Bartlett warns, will destroy all that is good about mountaineering.

Ryall nicely shows that performance enhancement in sport is necessary because sport requires progress in athletic achievement.

A third collection of chapters hold sport up as morally valuable in one way or another. Graham Priest examines connections between “The Martial Arts and Buddhist Philosophy” to show how training in the martial arts can lead to greater inner peace, which leads, in turn, to a decreased desire to be violent or aggressive to others. Michael W. Austin claims, in “Sport as a Moral Practice: An Aristotelian Approach,” that sport functions to foster moral and intellectual virtue. This is not the only valuable thing about sport, but it does entail that people involved with sport should be mindful of its usefulness for the development of virtue. The editor of the volume, Anthony O’Hear, also contributes a chapter, in which he asks “Not a Matter of Life and Death?” O’Hear looks at a couple of possible things people may mean when they say sport should not be treated as a matter of life and death and concludes that part of the value of sport is the escape it provides from the actual concerns of life and death: “the colour and excitement and drama of sport may be no bad thing, and in its demands on the attentiveness of the whole person it may actually be a good way of rising above the coils of self-centredness” (76). Timothy Chappell examines “Glory in Sport (and Elsewhere)” and finds that glory is a moral value and sport is a place in which that value is instantiated. Michael Brearley’s chapter, “Rivalry in Cricket and Beyond: Healthy or Unhealthy?” adds competitiveness to the list of valuable experiences to be gained from sport, and Heather L Reid closes out this category with her argument that sport provides the opportunity for athletes to be community servants. In “Olympic Sacrifice: A Modern Look at an Ancient Tradition,” Reid connects sport, service, and sacrifice, and concludes: “It’s time that athletes and sports self-consciously abandon the modern commercial paradigm and return to their ancient and venerated roles in honorable service” (209).

The remaining three pieces I put in the category of chapters that use sport to talk about other philosophical questions. In the first, “A Plea for Risk,” Philip A. Ebert and Simon Robertson provide a careful analysis of risk in general and apply it to mountaineering to argue that risks are sometimes (at least in mountaineering) worth taking. David Papineau’s “In the Zone” considers the effect of conscious thought on automatic response. Analyzing the issue by closely examining intentions, action control, and the mental fragility that underlies the phenomena of the yips and choking, leads Papineau to the view that conscious deliberation indirectly influences action through an intention resetting the action control system. This explanation holds not only for sport but also for human behavior in general. Finally, “Chess, Imagination, and Perceptual Understanding” by Paul Coates shows how seeing a chess position is akin to perceptual experience of the physical world in general; both involve a spatial structure that we often fail to appreciate.

I have been thinking of Philosophy and Sport as an academic conference organized around a general theme and into various sessions containing loosely related papers. I believe readers (whether primarily interested in philosophy or in sport) who do the same will enjoy the metaphorical experience of travelling home with a satisfied feeling of being glad they made the trip to the conference.

Copyright © Pam R. Sailors 2018


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