Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Philosophy of Football: Introduction

I imagine if you say the word 'Philosophy' to the average football fan, their mind will conjure up the image of a Greek bloke in a toga, brow furrowed in concentration, with his hand stroking his long white beard whilst working out the problems of the universe. Those 'big' questions such as: do we exist, what is good and evil, does God exist, what is the meaning of life and so on. Whilst in extremely broad terms this has an element of truth about it, it does not really do philosophy justice. This definition leaves too much emphasis on answering the questions of philosophy, whereas in reality the purpose of philosophy is more closely tied to how* you study it.

The word Philosophy itself comes from Greek and means "love of wisdom". This may seem like a rather vauge definition, but it gives a good idea of what the budding philosopher is meant to do; be interested and inquiring into that which one does not know. A philosopher must identify probelms with ideas and theories, examine them carefully, test their soundness and argue their own points clearly and coherently using reason as their tool.

The very nature of the questions that philosophy asks means that there are no definitively 'correct' answers to the questions posed. But this is the main strength of philosophy. Whereas in science or maths there is a clear way to find out the answer to a problem, in philosophy one is encouraged to seek answers only after having looked at every other possibility. As Bertrand Russell excellently puts in 'The Problems of Philosophy'

"however slight may be the hope of discovering an answer, it is part of the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of such questions,  to makes us aware of their importance, to examine all approaches to them, and to keep alive that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definatly ascertainable knowledge."**
This may seem to be rather complex and ambitious, but anyone, whether they have learnt any philosophy or not, will have had some kind of philosophical thought at one time or another***. A good example is the debate that rages over diving in football. Players, pundits and fans alike all have their opinion on it, and will inevitably examine some ethical arguments in their defence of, or attack on, diving in football. This is exactly the kind of question I will be examining in this series of articles. My aim is to look at the major philosophical issues which football brings up. Naturally, I aim to do so in a philosophically sound way, but I do not wish to overcomplicate things. My arguments will be sound, but not too concerned with the minute details and definitions which would lead the essay to become dry and boring. After all I want people to read the blog, be interested in it and discuss the issues for themselves. In a sense becoming philosophers of football too.

It is always important to remember that philosophy, by its very nature is controversial, and in the course of arguing you may think I am wrong, and I may indeed be wrong. I am not worried about this. An article which is an informative and interesting read which turns out to be wrong, is infinatly preferable to an article which is drab and dull, but ultimately correct. If you do think I'm wrong, please comment what your objection is, and I will always do my best to answer it.

Also, one must remember that (as far as I know) football has not really been philosophically examined in the same way as, say, the nature of the world has been examined. A Philosophy of Sport has existed since the 1970s, but this is in its infancy compared to the discussions regarding the nature of the world, which has been raging since the first philosopher Thales declared that everything is made of water around (very roughly) 600BC. Therefore, topics that we look at, may be being discussed for the first time. It is therefore, extremely plausible that I might miss something out. If this is the case, again feel free to comment on any of the topics I cover.

Thanks again for reading my blog and look out for the first in Philosophy of Football series 'Defining Football'.

*Saunders, Clare (2007). Doing Philosophy: A Practical Guide for Students. London: Continuum International Publishing Group. p3-5.
**Russell, Bertrand (1998). The Problems of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p92-93.
***Holowchak, M Andrew (2002). Philosophy of Sport: Critical Readings, Crucial Issues. London: Pearson Education. p1-3.


  1. Excellent stuff again Richard. I wonder if a philosophical treatment of diving could bring in the cultural differences in sport whereby sometimes it's not the offence that is frowned upon, but the getting caught.

  2. Thanks William. I was using diving as a good example of the everyday football topics that actually have a philosophical base, but I really want to look at it more detail in the future. The controversy mainly centres around does the end (the freekick) justify the means (the dive), and similarly is deliberate cheating a valid tatic in sport? Will definatly have something on this soon(ish)!

  3. Looking forward to this. Another topic that deserves philosophical analysis would be money in football (and indeed, the whole idea of whether the sport can properly be regarded as a business or not).

    I had a mad idea to try and develop a post on Aristotelian Ethics and Football but had to abandon the idea due to a the entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia's sheer density (I should probably have tried the similar volumes issued by my own company Routledge) but our blog will be returning to weightier ideas such as political science and football + a lot of economics. I also think the idea from Kuhn on paradigm shifts as far as received wisdom surrounding attitudes in the game is concerned has mileage.

  4. Thanks, I will be looking at football ethics fairly soon, but need to get the metaphysics done first! Aristotle is probably going to come in at some point, I'll probably be arguing that sportsmanship is a virtue that sportsmen and woman should try to achieve, but I don't think I'll go too far into that. I haven't read any Kuhn yet, but I think you've given me some homework to do! As for football and money, I have a very interesting lecture on money later this term, so it'll have to wait until after that I'm afriad!