Fair play and fair thinking

Eimear Dodd explores the unlikely partnership between sport and philosophy

At first glance, philosophy and sport appear to be opposites of one another.

One is of the mind and the abstract. The other is concerned with the body and the physical world.

However, the two fields have been intertwined for a long time. The links might not always have been explicit. It seems that sport and philosophy have been playing for the same team all along.

Writing in Times Higher Education in 2011, philosopher Stephen Mumford said “That old division between the mental world of academia and the physical world of sport is now obsolete. We neglect physicality to our detriment for, in doing so, we miss what human existence is all about.”



Meaning and movement

At its core, philosophy takes a similar approach to the persistent child who asks lots of questions. In broad terms, philosophy explores big and small ideas by asking questions about who we are, how we came to be here, and what we value.

“People are motivated by meaning and driven by purpose. This is what motivates people to push themselves and their bodies, be it in the sporting arena or elsewhere,” said Shane Hanna of Philosophy Ireland in an interview by email.

The organisation seeks to promote the introduction of philosophy in schools, universities and other areas of Irish life. Its patron is Sabina Coyne Higgins, actress, activist and advocate for women’s rights, community arts and creative projects.

The word ‘philosophy’ is derived from Greek and normally translated as ‘love of wisdom’.  It has long taken an interest in physical activities. For example, the Ancient Greek thinker Plato included a physical regime for the residents of the city described in his book, The Republic.



What is it about philosophy might be of use to sportspeople?  Some might suggest that it has no relevance at all. The same information can be extracted from other disciplines within the sciences and psychology.

While it’s correct that there is some overlap, this does not mean that philosophy has nothing to offer sports. Rather, it brings a different perspective to questions about how we understand sport.

Sport involves games like football, athletics and rugby. We know it to be a competitive activity with rules to help decide who wins or loses.

Somehow, this definition is not enough. Sport also has cultural value and social importance.

After all, sporting events are occasions that bring people together as participants or spectators. Might something be missing?

And it’s here that philosophy can work. Through critical thinking, philosophers can try and get closer to understanding and explaining this essential quality of sport.


Critical thinking and training

Secondary school students will soon get to explore these questions in the philosophy of sport as part of the new short course in philosophy.

The optional 100 hour programme will be available as part of the new Junior Certificate cycle.  Its aims are “to engage students in….dialogue about life’s big questions and to develop critical, creative, collaborative, caring thinkers who can participate in informed discourse and act in the world in a more reflective manner.”

In September 2016, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment published the curriculum description for the new short course. It gives a list of philosophical questions to guide the debate. For the philosophy of sport, these questions include:

  •         What does sport mean?
  •         Who does a competition bring the most pleasure to?
  •         Is it ever okay to break the rules to win?


Sport and academia

While philosophy is among the oldest intellectual pursuits in the world, it would be misleading to describe it as a cohesive discipline. There are disputes and fractures.

One criticism is particularly relevant here. Western philosophy has often been criticised for its lack of engagement with other traditions, particularly those of Eastern and Islamic philosophy.

For example, Japan has a long tradition of intellectual work in the areas of sport and physical activity.  The Japan Society of Physical Education, Health and Sports Sciences was founded in 1950 with 60 members.The society encourages research in 15 sub-disciplines including philosophy, history and coaching techniques.

As a separate area of study within the academic discipline of Western philosophy, sport is a relatively recent development. It began to evolve in the 1960s and early 1970s. There are now several international organisations that promote the philosophy of sport through conferences and other gatherings.

They also publish academic writing about the philosophy of sport. The Journal for the Philosophy of Sport has been publishing academic papers about sports, games, dance and other physical activities for over 40 years.

In Wales, Cardiff Metropolitan University’s School of Sport offers sports ethics courses as part of its undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

In 2015, The Critique, an online philosophy magazine, did a series of articles about sport and philosophy.  Contributors discussed topics such as gender in sport, the use of technology, and the 2014 World Cup wins by Germany. The country secured the trophies in separate competitions in football and philosophy.


Play fair?

Philosophy can particularly useful as a way for sportspeople to think about ethical questions, according to Philosophy Ireland’s Shane Hanna, who is also a PE teacher.

“For younger participants in sport, particularly if they move towards high performance where small margins can prove significant, questions of ethics arise all the time,” he says.

Ethics is an area of applied philosophy. It has universal relevance because it looks at how our choices can affect other people and our environment. There are many ethical dilemmas – for example can murder ever be justified? Is it ever okay to tell a lie?

Sport has its own ethical problems to ponder. These may include questions about performance enhancement, technology and the expectations of both management and supporters.

It is here that philosophy can give sport a place to reflect on itself and its practices.

“If you look at research into decision-making, when faced with ‘hot’ moments, we are inclined to react more impulsively.  Philosophy helps us to develop psychological, hypothetical and even temporal distance from ‘hot’ impulsive cues,” says Hanna.

“We’re all human and give in to temptation etc. but if we don’t develop this particular skill to ‘cool’ our impulsive reactions, then we will be forever inclined to react impulsively.  This flies in the face of the ‘problem-solving’ necessary in many sporting situations.”

“It should be noted that what I’m referring to here has parallels to physical training, which must begin in a space where we consciously focus on the task/skill and develop it to the point at where it becomes automatic.”


Let’s talk

There is another parallel between philosophy and sport.

They both encourage dialogue. Professionals, amateurs and enthusiasts can all take part in the conversation. Those who may not be bothered about the topic might find it all rather boring.

However, others become engaged and animated. In my experience, these types of passionate discussions of philosophy or sport (or both) tend to happen in the pub.

It all starts calmly. Then, someone says something unexpected. A polite chat turns into a heated debate. A loud argument might follow.

I’ve seen people get as passionate about how to define “the good” as they did about their team’s wins in the Premier League.

And while philosophy and sport might strike many as an odd pair, this might be their most interesting similarity.

Both disciplines have the space to generate never-ending conversations about big and small questions. This has proven to be the foundation for a beautiful friendship.

Has that been a positive thing?

Well, that’s a different conversation altogether.






Feature Image by brent flanders via Flickr Creative Commons


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