BRAIN, SET AND MATCH
As well as enjoying the odd flutter, the footballer Joey Barton has long fancied himself as something of a sporting philosopher. With his pithy epithets on Twitter and his garrulous Newsnight punditry, he has cast himself as the would-be Sartre of the sliding tackle, the Voltaire of the volley, the Heraclitus of the headed clearance. He is, he appears anxious to let us know, a bit of a Kant.
Even in No Nonsense, however, his unapologetically wordy autobiography, Barton did not come up with a sentence like this: ‘From the phenomenological perspective conscious thought only interferes with immediate reactions: “Just Do It”, the Nike slogan, perfectly encapsulates the phenomenologist’s message.’
But then, unlike the footballing wannabe, David Papineau, the author of this observation, is a real philosopher. Or a right proper brainbox, as he might be termed in Barton’s Burnley dressing room.
And here the Professor of the Philosophy of Natural Science at
King’s College London has come up with a collection of essays that purport to give us the answer to the question: what can sport teach us about philosophy (and philosophy about sport)? Though after reading it, the sports fan might wish to have a reply to a rather more pressing query: how will I ever get those five hours back? And that is just the time required to unpick the first chapter.
Because unlike some of Barton’s observations, this is not a book that can be swiftly digested.
Dense, opaque and arcane, it requires a considerable expenditure of brain cells to yomp through its more challenging passages.
Though it would be wrong to suggest there are not rewards once such a commitment has been invested. Papineau is excellent on the issues of nationhood and nationality in international sport. He writes with vigour on the collision between sport and money. And he is very good on the supposed moral superiority of the amateur (there isn’t any, he suggests – the whole precept was a myth designed to preserve the upper echelons of sporting competition for the dilettante middle classes).
I enjoyed, too, his chapter on Nature, Nurture And Sporting Families, which suggests that parental involvement is a less significant legacy to the next generation in sports of wider social reach. In other words, it helps a young cricketer reach the top far more if the old man played the game than it might assist a wannabe footballer that his dad kicked a ball, simply because access to proper coaching and competition is less democratically spread in cricket than in football.
All intelligent, plausible investigation. But – and in every philosophical work there is a but coming – Papineau endangers his entire proposition by including within the book a footnote that can lay claim to being the single most pretentious analysis of sport ever committed to print. In an examination of the choices available to a footballer, he scrutinises the options available to Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere when deciding whether to pass to his colleague Olivier Giroud. The pressing philosophical question in hand is this: will he put the ball to the Frenchman’s left or right? To resolve this conundrum the author has come up with an equation of expectation.
‘ExpectUtility (LWilshire) = (4 x Pr(L)Giroud) + (0 x Pr(R)Giroud) = 4x Pr(L)Giroud).’
And so it goes on for six lines: meaningless, affected, showy. Indeed, such is the comical scale of its idiocy it cannot be long before it is quoted in a Joey Barton tweet.
JIM WHITE SPORT/PHILOSOPHY Knowing The Score David Papineau Constable £14.99 ★★★★★