Knowing the Score

Today, something a bit different – a book review. Here are my thoughts on a volume that I think will interest many of tourneygeek’s readers.

David Papineau, Knowing the Score: What sports can teach us about philosophy (and what philosophy can teach us about sports). (viii + 285. Basic Books, New York. 2017.)

David Papineau is a philosophy professor at King’s College, London, and the City University of New York, and also a life-long participant and fan of an improbably wide range of sports. The volume grew out of his blog, a highly miscellaneous collection of thoughts about sports. He’s removed from his blog the material that he reworked for his book, so you’ll have to read it in its new form. But I think you’ll find it worth while.

The range of topics is impressive. There are five parts:

Focus discussing the mental aspects of athletic performance. This section harkens to a time when philosophy and psychology were considered parts of the same discipline.

Rules discusses rules and conventions of various sports. He draws a useful distinction between explicit rules and conventions – conventions are understood constraints of behavior that attend particular sports. They are akin to what I’ve called sportsmanship, but they belong to individual sports, not just to a generalized notion of proper behavior independent of any particular game. That, I think, is a distinctive improvement on my formula, and allows him room to approve the ethics of things like gamesmanship. He does acknowledge another layer of constraint that should apply to any competition, though the line between behavior that might be approved as within convention and behavior that’s simply unethical is not easy to draw.

This is a section in which I’d like to read more. He does not distinguish, as I tend to, between implicit and explicit rules, and doesn’t much discuss good games and bad games.

Teams discusses fandom, and then the problem of understanding certain kinds of cooperative play, particularly in the context of bicycle racing. Parts of this I found odd – he seems to have more difficulty than he should accepting that a competition that’s formally organized as an individual sport can be, in reality, a team sport.

Tribes discusses various social aspects of sport, including the relationship between sport and nationalism. In this section, he also treats the question nature v. nurture in the context of sporting prowess, reaching the surprising (but entirely sensible) conclusion that the sports in which excellence tends to run in families are the sports that are relatively less dependent of favorable genes.

Values mostly continues the discussion of social aspects. He begins with a scathing indictment of the concept of amateurism, briefly considers the economics of professional sport, discusses sporting traditions, and ends with a ringing affirmation of the worth of sports.

Here again, I think there’s more ground to cover. He does not, for example, give much attention to the concept of fairness. And his discussion of the growth of sporting traditions had some flaws, I think. He has an ingenious explanation (involving railways) for why there was a flurry of rule codification in the late 19th century, but then goes on to claim that no significant new sports have come in to being since that time. That would be news, I expect, the the aficionados of ultimate frisbee, mixed martial arts, and any number of others.

All in all, a few hours with Papineau is time well spent, and I recommend the book highly.



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