You are going to read a review of a book about sport and philosophy. For questions 1–6,
choose the answer (A, B, C or D) which you think fits best according to the text.
William Skidelsky reviews David Papineau’s new book, in which sport meets philosophy. David Papineau is an eminent philosopher and a passionate lover of sport. For much of his life, he has kept the two spheres separate, fearing that to mix them would produce a double negative in his readers’ appreciation of his work: philosophy robbed of its seriousness and sport of its excitement. Then, in 2012, a colleague invited him to contribute to a lecture series titled ‘Philosophy and Sport’, organised to coincide with that year’s Olympics. ‘I couldn’t really refuse’, Papineau recalls. ‘I had an extensive knowledge of both philosophy and sport. If I wasn’t going to say yes, who would?’
For his topic, he chose the role of conscious thought in fast-reaction sports, such as tennis, cricket and baseball. How, he wondered, do top tennis players like Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams use anything other than ‘automatic reflexes’ in the half-second (or less) they have to return their opponent’s serve? How do they choose to hit the ball this way or that, to apply topspin or slice? Thinking about this not only proved ‘great fun’, but allowed Papineau to come away with a series of ‘substantial philosophical conclusions’ about the relationship between intentions and action.
After this, the floodgates were open. Having breached his self-imposed division, Papineau set about applying his philosopher’s brain to a range of other sporting topics. Five years on, those inquiries have resulted in a book, Knowing the Score. This is essentially a collection of essays on whatever sporting questions happen to interest
its author. It isn’t comprehensive, nor does it advance an overarching argument. The tone – informal, anecdotal, contrarian – is more popular philosophy than academic. What unifies the book is the consistency of its approach rather than of its content: he isn’t interested only in applying philosophical ideas and principles to sport. More importantly – and more originally – he wants to use arguments about sport as a launching pad into philosophy.
A good example comes in a chapter dealing with rulebreaking, in which Papineau sets off with a sporting example in order to draw parallels with broader contexts. He points out that what is acceptable in sport isn’t defined by the rules alone. Sometimes it’s usual to ignore them – as footballers do when they pull on opponents’ shirts as the ball flies towards them. Other actions stem from a sense of fair play – such as halting the game when an opponent is lying injured – rather than arising directly from rules. Rules are just one constraint on behaviour; all sports also have codes of fair play, which operate alongside the rules, and which, in some cases, override them. Complicating matters further is
the fact that official authority ultimately has a force that is greater than both. Whatever a sport’s rules or codes specify, the referee or ruling body’s decision is final.
Papineau argues that there’s a ‘remarkably close’ analogy between sport’s multi-level structure and the factors that constrain us in ordinary life. In sport, you can ignore the rules and still play fairly, or obey the law while being thought a cheat; similarly, in a society, citizens can break the law and still do the right thing, or comply with the law yet still indulge in objectionable behaviour. A sport’s codes aren’t the same as its rules; likewise, in life, we draw a distinction between virtue and legal compliance. Papineau argues that we have no general obligation to obey the law; only to do what we think is right. Yet, saying that we’re not obliged to obey the law isn’t the same as saying that we don’t have a duty to respect the state’s authority. If people didn’t accept that police officers are generally entitled to tell them what to do, society might descend into chaos. Likewise, if footballers stopped listening when referees blow their whistles, the game would become a free-for-all.
Knowing the Score covers an impressive amount ofground. At a time when data analysis dominates ‘serious’ discussion of sport, Papineau’s faith in the power of anecdote and reasoning is refreshing. The author at times gives the impression of being the sort of person who knows he’s the cleverest in the room. For the most part, however, he barely puts a foot wrong in what is a blinder of a performance.