Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Philosophy of Football: Defining Football. Part 1

We have all grown up playing, watching, supporting, loving, hating and obsessing over football. By now it might seem reasonable to assume that we have a pretty good understanding of what the sport essentially is. But do we? Ask the man in the pub what he thinks it is and he might come up with the following reply; 'it’s that game where a load of blokes kick a ball about.' Is he right?

On a very basic level, perhaps, but there is a lot missing from this definition; not only does it ignore the fact that women can play the game too, but it also misses out the tactics, the fans, the money, the aesthetic, the culture and a huge amount of other important aspects of football, which help to make up the rich tapestry of the game. However, a definition can go too far and become over-inclusive; are the winding up orders taken by the HMRC against football clubs who have run into financial difficulty really part of football, or are they in fact, part of the legal system or business? It is a very difficult question. Our objective here is to decide what is part of football, and what is only on the periphery of the game. This leads me onto the first part of our inquiry rather nicely.

What is Unique about Football?
In his essay ‘Is Sport Unique? A Question of Definability’, SK Wertz claims “that sport has no autonomous features”[1] whatsoever. He thinks that “its problems and characteristics [are] all reducible to other areas”[2]. This might seem like an extreme claim, but before we dismiss the idea, we should look at his claims in more detail.
Wertz defines unique as “a feature F applies exclusively to the concept of sport”[3]. With this definition in mind, it seems as though his claim is not as strange as first thought. For example, do the ethics of cheating apply solely to football? No, it can apply to cheating on examination papers too. How about the aesthetic of football, something which is often regarded as one of the sport’s most basic attributes? Richard Galvin questions this also: “how does one argue that sport is an art or has a deep affinity to art whereas taking out the garbage does not?”[4] After all there are some similarities between them. In football there is a goal, to score (in the goal obviously), the beauty is in how the players play the game. According to Galvin, this can be extended to taking the rubbish out. There is also a goal; to put the rubbish out (in the bin obviously), so why can this not be done beautifully?
However, I think Galvin is wrong in his point. Taking out the rubbish is an everyday, standard activity. It must be done or the house will become filled with rubbish, become smelly and unhealthy. Football on the other hand is fun, not functional. No-one enjoys taking out the rubbish, and everyone can do it to an equally adequate standard. This is not true of football. We enjoy it, but realise that it is a difficult activity to master. Anyone who saw my teams right-back on Sunday will realise that not everyone can play to an adequate standard and, as a result we marvel at those who play brilliantly. This is why when we see our neighbours put the bins out, we shrug, but when we see a 30 yard volley into the top left hand corner of the net, we admire. It is extraordinary, not mundane as Galvin’s reasoning would have us believe.
Wertz’s problem, however, still remains. There are other extraordinary sights, which can have the same impact on a person as a 30 yard volley, so football does not seem to be unique in that respect. But could this view actually be a good view for thinking philosophically about football? Naturally football plays a part in our wider culture and because of that, its influence seeps into “anthropological, artistic, economic, political, religious, and social”[5] areas, all of which have philosophical questions to be asked of them. In my view it is a good idea to be being inquiring into the nature of football through the spectrum of these already established mediums. There is no need to limit the philosophy of football to that which is completely unique to it. As you can see from the examples I used above, if we did limit ourselves to the purely unique aspects of sport, we would rule out ethical and aesthetic questions about football only because they do not only concern our sport. What I am arguing for here, is using other areas of philosophy when they are useful and relevant to our inquiry into the nature of football. Not dismissing the idea that because, say, Descartes was not directly considering football, or sport in general, when he wrote The Meditations, that to use it to aid our inquiry would be useless.
So, is football actually unique, philosophically speaking in any way? I think so. Whilst Wertz certainly has a strong argument I do think there are areas of football which differentiate it from other areas of inquiry in philosophy. Topics of philosophy often merge together. Take the philosophy of science for example. Questions of ethics in science are often deemed important, but the ethics is not strictly speaking, unique to science. However, the angle at which the philosopher must come at to tackle the question is. I argue that this is the same of any Philosophy of Football. Science, despite not being a completely unique subject is deemed worthy of philosophical study (according to Steven French) because:

“as a cultural phenomenon science has had more of an impact on our lives than any other ... there is a profound way in which science has changed our understanding of our origins. Consider the further, related development of the theory of evolution and the way it has changed our understanding of our origins ... [science] has had a huge impact on human society over hundreds of years – so how does it work?”[6]
The question this poses us now is; does football have similar elements which make it worthy of philosophical study? If we were to write a similar proposal on why football is worthy of philosophical study we might also point out that, as a cultural phenomenon, football has a great impact on many people’s lives. Indeed, in the case of some people, born nine months after a World Cup win; it might even be the cause of their lives. Football has a huge impact on people across the world; the globalisation of the game in recent years is probably the best example of this. We could even argue that football has changed the understanding of our origins. Admittedly, not in the same way that science does, but in on a personal level. I imagine for many people it will be an important part of their life and will lead them to understand more about themselves then they otherwise might have.

So, football is worthy of philosophical study in the same way that science is. But how should we go about deciding what to study philosophically? And where will our unique viewpoint of football that I have been arguing exists come from, so we can then view the interrelated philosophical topics through our footballing prism? The answer will come soon, in part 2 of ‘Defining Football’. In the meantime, pack a towel and a change of underwear; we’ll be going on a trip.
Thanks very much for reading, feel free to leave any comments or questions you may have.

[1] Wertz, SK (2002). ‘Is Sport Unique? A Question of Definability’. In: Holowchak, M Andrew Philosophy of Sport: Critical Readings, Crucial Issues. New Jersey: Pearson Education. pp86-95. p86
[2] Wertz (2002). p86
[3] Wertz (2002). p87
[4] Galvin, Richard F (1991). ‘Nonsense on Stilts: A Sceptical View’. In: Rethinking College Athletics. Edited by Judith Andre and David N James. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp87-99
[5] Wertz (2002). p89
[6] French, Steven (2007). Science. Key Concepts in Philosophy. London: Continuum. p1


  1. When Galvin can take the rubbish out with the same amount of genius as Diego Maradona displayed during his second goal against England in the '86 World Cup, I might, just might, acknowledge his point. That's what elevates football above the mundane (as you point out in your response to Wertz). As someone recently said: when Dimitar Berbatov controls the ball, that's where babies come from.

  2. Thanks for the comment Michael. Glad you agree with me, and that's a fine example you've given too. The idea behind Galvin's point is that most definitions of sport as art tend to emphasise the mastery of the technical skills of sport as what is most beautiful. If this is so, then what would be the difference between mastering controlling a ball and mastering taking out the rubbish? Nothing. However, I don't agree with the kind of definition Galvin refutes, and I don't agree with Galvin's refutation of it. Next time I'll put forward my own thesis on what football is, just need to read a bit more first!

  3. Another really good piece, I'll be honest I used to find Philosophy quite dull but applying it to football makes it all very interesting! Couldn't agree more with Michael's point. Football and everyday tasks that we can all do are pretty much incomparable in my book!

  4. I'm very glad you're enjoying it James!

  5. Some of Reading's play under Terry Bullivant was less impressive than the meanderings of my local bin men for sure.

    Football is certainly worthy of philosophical study and has as much of a claim as science in this respect. Simon Kuper's recent piece on the changes in Dutch football in the new magazine the Blizzard argues that a change has taken place that might be likened to Kuhn's paradigm shift.

  6. Thanks for the comment. Erudite as ever. If my memory serves (I read that article over a week ago now!) Dutch football is roughly mirroring the politics of the nation. Now, I agree there does seem to be a pattern there, but I don't think it's a paradigm shift.

    A paradigm shift refers to the scientific world in a state of revolution. For example the shift from Newtonian to Relativistic Physics. Or the shift from a Creationist view of the world to a Darwinian view. In both cases the old theory was thrown out as an explaination of how the universe/world works and replaced by the new theory (well not quite with Newtonian physics but you get the idea). Of course, this normally takes a few years while old professors who have built their careers on the old science die off, but the shift becomes apparent to any observer.

    Changes in football are more like a series of competing theories as in the humanities. In history for example Mao Zedong was seen as a great leader by some historians, now the more popular (and more accurate) view is that he was a complete monster who was detremental to the development of China after it was unified. However, there are still historians who apologise for Mao, it's just a less fashionable view. There is not a complete shift in opinion as there is in the sciences.

    If we look at football, the best example I can think of regards football tactics. Consider the debate over whether last year's Inter Milan side or Baracelona side was greater. It's an open debate, rather than a shift to one side, so is more like the historical debate I mentioned above.

  7. The "science" that I spend most of my day job dealing with is economics - methodologists cite Kuhn and other thinkers like Lakatos in order to try and explain why a free market orthodoxy has become dominant and replaced the Keynesian thought of the Sixties and Seventies. I am in agreement with dissenting economists in that the world should not be as simple as that and I would therefore regard economics as a humanities subject and not a proper science at all - hence, I'm pretty much in agreement with you.

    Kuper doesn't mention Kuhn of course but he does seem to regard the influence of Guus Hiddink in fostering a new regard for winning as being at the start of a sea change - although he spoils his argument a bit by explaining away the 1988 Euro win as anomalous in the previous era of glorious failure. It's a good piece but quite an easy one to pick holes in.

  8. Economics is a social science isn't it? Social being the key word there! I know you end up with a Bsc in it, but it won't work in the same way as science as it doesn't verify its claims in the same way. Also, I seem to remember, during the economic crisis, old fashioned Keynesian economic policies were used (ie Brown propping up the banks etc). Might be wrong on that one though!

    The problem with Kuper's piece is that he's too dogmatic in his definition of the four periods of Dutch football. Because of this it seems as though what he's describing is a paradigm shift, when in fact it's not. That's why he sees 1988 as an anomaly. The change in Dutch football might be broadly set out in four periods, but the 1988 Euro win will have had an effect on the influence Gus Hiddink had rather than having been an isolated event.

  9. You can get either a BA or BSc in Economics. You are quite right: the debate as to whether economics is a science or not is at the core of the discipline - but like you, I would argue it isn't because its basic concepts are not truly measurable and it is not subject to laws in the same way that physics is.

    Kuper also suggests that the actually pretty miserable hiding the Dutch received from Russia in Euro 2008 was a "glorious failure" as well as positing the frankly ridiculous idea that Marc van Bommel could be part of a more "moral" Dutch midfield - De Jong may have provided the physical crimes in that World Cup Final but van Bommel was just as much the panto villain on the day. Still a fascinating piece though.

  10. I agree with both your points there!