Knowing the Score by David Papineau review – 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 diminishment: 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, does Rafael Nadal use anything other than “automatic reflexes” in the half-second (or less) he has to return Roger Federer’s serve? How does he 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 apartheid, 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 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 bar-room than high table. What unifies the book is the consistency of its approach: 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 rule-breaking. Papineau begins by pointing 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 steal yards on throw-ins, or tug at opponents as corners come in. Other actions are unequivocally “wrong” – such as carrying on playing when an opponent is lying injured – despite there being no rules to prohibit them. 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 stipulate, the referee’s decision – as the saying goes – is final. (Everyone knew, at the 1986 World Cup, that Maradona was a cheat who had violated one of football’s most basic rules, but because the referee didn’t blow his whistle, his “hand of God” goal still stood.)
Papineau next argues that there’s a “remarkably close” analogy between sport’s multi-tiered structure of authority and the factors that constrain us in ordinary life. Just as, in sport, you can ignore the rules and still play fairly, or obey the law while being thought a cheat, so citizens in a society can break the law and still do the right thing, or comply with the law while being immoral. A sport’s codes aren’t the same as its rules; likewise, in life, we draw a distinction between moral 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, at the same time, 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, for the most part, entitled to tell them what to do, society might well descend into chaos. Likewise, if footballers stopped listening when a referee blows his whistle, the game would degenerate into a free-for-all.
A prospective basketball player’s height is a critical factor in determining whether he makes it to the NBA. Photograph: MONICA M DAVEY/EPA
Another chapter addresses the phenomenon of sporting dynasties. In some sports, Papineau points out, excellence runs in families. Cricket is the most obvious example: dynastic surnames – the Khans, the Waughs, the Broads, the Stewarts – run through its history. The same is true of motor racing and ice hockey. Yet in soccer, basketball and American football, “sporting families are thin on the ground”. Why? You’d intuitively think, Papineau says, that the more dynastic a sport is, the more important genes would be – that there would be more of a genetic disposition, say, towards cricket than football. But that would be exactly wrong. Sports that run in families, he shows, tend to be the least gene-dependent: it is precisely because genes aren’t really important that environmental advantages come to the fore. By contrast, it is in non-dynastic sports that genes generally trump environment: you can throw all the resources you like at a prospective basketball player, but his height will remain a critical factor in determining whether he makes it to the NBA.
For a shortish book, Knowing the Score covers an impressive amount of ground. In other chapters, Papineau examines race and ethnicity (arguing, provocatively, that everyone should be free to define their ethnicities as they choose) and shows how a road-cycling peloton – the main body of racers – is a sort of testing ground for ideas about mutualism and self-interest. The book could do with a more sustained examination of gender, however. I’d have liked to have read Papineau teasing out the philosophical implications posed by a case like that of the intersex South African runner Caster Semenya.
At a time when data analysis dominates “serious” discussion of sport, Papineau’s faith in the power of pure reasoning is refreshing. Statistics clearly don’t interest him much – instead, his book is full of anecdotes. I loved learning about the 1994 Caribbean Cup football match in which one of the teams realised, with minutes to go, that it would qualify for the next round if it scored at either end. (This surreal situation came about because of an oversight by the tournament’s organisers: Papineau has fun lambasting the “incompetence” of administrators.) The author can at times seem a bit self-satisfied – the sort of person who knows he’s the cleverest in the room. And he ought to have taken greater care to double check the speed of Federer’s serve. For the most part, however, he barely puts a foot wrong in what is, as he would be unlikely to say, a blinder of a performance.
Knowing the Score is published by Constable & Robinson. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.