Knowing the Score: How Sport teaches us about Philosophy (and Philosophy about Sport), by David Papineau

Lincoln Allison confronts the objectives of an anecdotal and argumentative narrative

July 6, 2017
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The subtitle of David Papineau’s book suggests two objectives – and these are, of course, open to interpretation. However, it is eminently clear that the author is not so concerned with the question of what contemporary philosophers say about sport. There has been something of a boom in “the philosophy of sport” in the past couple of decades, but you would not know this from reading Knowing the Score. It is written by a philosopher applying his skills – but 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 writers and the quality of Papineau’s reflections seems to me very mixed. 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 – although 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 did manage 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 National Collegiate Athletic Association. The 11 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 opium 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 – Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a 
Defence – and I am sure that if Papineau had read it, he would have gone beyond the superficial and not very philosophical thoughts found here.

In fact, there is far too much in these pages that is not philosophy but the kind of argument and anecdote well known to any reasonably informed sports fan. 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. A more particular reason may be 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. For many non-Americans, much of his discussion of world sports will seem elementary.

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

Lincoln Allison is emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick. His latest book is Understanding International Sport Organisations: Principles, Power and Possibilities (with Alan Tomlinson, 2017).


Knowing the Score: How Sport teaches us about Philosophy (and Philosophy about Sport)
By David Papineau
Constable, 336pp, £14.99
ISBN 9781472123541
Published 4 May 2017

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Print headline: The meaning of the sporting life

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