Saturday, 11 June 2011

Philosophy of Football: What Insects Can Tell Us about Football

Spoiler Alert! This article makes the discussion within Bernard Suit’s book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia clearly explicit. If you do not wish to learn the contents of the book before reading this, go and buy it before coming back! Or, just read on and then go and buy it.

Now I know I promised you an article on the meaning of football, but I felt that I’d missed something out in my definition of football. There wasn’t an easy way to put what I’d written into a short sentence or two. What I’d left you with was a bit of a mess if truth be told, and I only realised this after reading The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits. What follows is part book review and part review of my philosophical ramblings so far, which can be seen here- - just click on the links.
The first thing to note about the book is that it’s utterly amazing. It is a philosophical feast of the most succulent kind and provides the finest of literary desserts to sweeten what can sometimes be the bland taste of philosophy (although not my own of course!). The main conceit of the book is that we are hearing the grasshopper’s side to Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant. In the fable the grasshopper, who has been playing games all summer, goes to the ant, who has been thrifty throughout the summer and asks for food. The ant refuses, the grasshopper dies and we’re supposed to learn that working now and saving for the winter is the clever thing to do. Suits however, gives the grasshopper a final reply, in which he defends his playing games all summer.
In doing so the grasshopper (with help from a host of other characters) proposes a definition of games, whilst having a huge amount of fun. The definition he comes up with is simple:
“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”[1]
From here he challenges his friend, the aptly named Skepticus, to come up with refutations of his definition. Over the course of ten delightful chapters Skepticus comes up with objections and counter-arguments only for the Grasshopper to refute and dismiss every single one. It is not simple argument and counter however, Suits makes his characters employ imaginative narratives and examples to get his point across. What this does is really bring the philosophy alive and makes it much easier to understand than a dry philosophical textbook normally is (believe me!). It also makes his arguments stick in your head; I’m still thinking about Ivan and Abul’s epic battle, Dr Heuschrecke curing Porphyryo Sneak and Bartholomew Drag of their philosophical ills, and many more wonderful characters besides.
The final two chapters however, change tack and produce a most fascinating view of utopia. Suits proposes that in a utopian world all there would be left to do would play games. It is a wonderfully radical view which is made to seem normal and logical by Suits’ carefully planned out arguments. It is a great crescendo to the book and leaves the reader astounded. What Suits has crafted here is a book that is not only intellectually rigorous, but also stimulates the imagination too. It is a fine achievement, and consequently a book which everyone should read whether they are interested in philosophy and games or not.
Where does Suits’ definition leave us though? If you remember I decided to split the aspects of football up into two main categories: GameFootball and SportFootball. GameFootball describes the part of football to do with the actions and emotions attached to football, the base of the game if you like, whereas SportFootball describes the superstructure of football, on which leagues, and associations and the like are built. The answer is that we are in the same place as before, but now with a much clearer understanding of the aspects of GameFootball; namely that it is a voluntary attempt to score more goals than the other team through the rule system of football.
SportFootball is largely uncovered by Suits’ definition precisely because the aspects of SportFootball are not really to do with the game, but with the money behind the game and how this money has organised the game. It is telling that in his vision of utopia the Grasshopper imagines that games would be played along the lines of Victorian amateurism, where the endeavour is much more important than anything tangible one can receive from the game. This suggests that Suits himself would (possibly) agree that the aspects of SportFootball I have described don’t really have much to do with his definition of games; I am therefore correct to split the two up in my definition of football.
This vindication of my definition leads me on nicely to produce the article I promised the last time I wrote a Philosophy of Football article; The Meaning of Football.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave any comments or questions you may have below.

[1] Suits, Bernard (2005). The Grasshopper: Life, Games and Utopia. Peterborough (Canada): Broadview Press. p54-55

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