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Knowing the Score

David Papineau, Knowing the Score, How Sport teaches us about Philosophy (and Philosophy about Sport), Constable, 2017, pp. 328

The sub-title to David Papineau’s book suggests a pair of objectives. They are, of course, open to interpretation. For example, it is eminently clear that the author is not concerning himself with the question of what contemporary philosophers say about sport. There has been something of a boom in “the philosophy of sport” in the last couple of decades though you would not know this from reading Knowing the Score. It is written by a philosopher applying his skills and only very occasionally his knowledge of what other philosophers have said to a subject which he loves. Thus it can be described as a connected series of essays rather than a scholarly work. The bibliography is light in the extreme and there are very few references.

Fair enough: nobody enjoys a “literature review” and starting from scratch without bothering very much what other people have said worked for Descartes and Wittgenstein. But it doesn’t work for most people and the quality of Papineau’s reflections seems to me to be a very mixed bag. His discussions of race and sport and of the nature-nurture distinction are as logical and sensible as anything I have read on the subject though I am comparing his fluent and open-minded writing with a mass of simplistic ideological nonsense for the most part.

On the other hand, he also managed to make me extremely cross. Chapter XV is on “Amateur Values”. There are two references, one to the novelist D.J.Taylor and one to a work on the NCAA. The eleven pages of the chapter consist entirely of the tired old cliché that amateurism is elitism in disguise. This is like saying that religion is the opiate of the people. It is, a bit, sometimes, but this isn’t what is interesting about religion. And what is interesting about amateurism is that discussing it seriously gets very close to discussing the meaning of life and the nature of ends-in-themselves. Without the legacy of amateur values we would not have “sport” at all, but forms of “entertainment” resembling the Roman arena. And, yes, I have written a book that explores the philosophical dimensions of amateurism and I am sure that if Papineau had read it he would have gone well beyond the superficial and not very philosophical thoughts found here.

In fact, there is far too much in these 300+ pages which is not philosophy, but is the kind of sporting argument and anecdote well known to the customers of Wetherspoon’s in Billingham (where my wife’s brothers and cousins can be found from time to time). I assume the general reason for this is the assumption, which is probably incorrect, that the book will be read by people who don’t know much about sport. The more particular reason is that the author unashamedly has an eye on the American market and it is certainly true that few people in the United States know much about sport outside their own country.

In short, there are certainly moments when one wants to congratulate Papineau on a sound and clear argument, but also plenty of moments when you are asking, “Why on earth is he bothering to say this?” or “Why hasn’t he read that?”

Lincoln Allison

(Reviewed for Times Higher Education 2017)