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The aesthetically pleasing game

Watching sport is an intellectual pursuit, contests football fan Stephen Mumford - but only if you don't mind which team wins

Every weekend, I watch football. I love the sport, especially at amateur level. Unlike most others, I choose my game practically at random. I prefer to visit someplace I have never seen before, out of the way and verging on the obscure. I stand on the touchline with the 10 or 20 regulars who have turned out, listen to their chatter, smell the grass and the ointment on the players' legs, hear the heavy breathing as they rush by just a few feet away, and watch the local drama as it unfolds. It is a deep and moving experience. I may be the only observer present who sees the sometimes inept play quite in that way. But I doubt they realise that they have a philosopher in their midst.

The worlds of philosophy and football seem so far apart that at times they look irreconcilable. There have been others who, like me, love both - Albert Camus and A.J. Ayer, for instance - but few great philosophers have ever written about sport, let alone football. I had always assumed that the two should ever be kept apart. I compartmentalised my life, afraid to admit to other football fans that I was a philosopher and to other philosophers that I was a football fan. Academics in general, and philosophers in particular, are hardly the most sporty types.

An explanation is not hard to find. Philosophers live in the world of ideas, developing their minds. Sport concerns the world of the body, where it is physique and physical excellences that are valued. It need not be that way, however.

We are likely to watch more sport during 2012 with the Olympics heading our way. But there may be academics planning to avoid the events and the coverage, preferring to remain in their studies. Do they assume that watching sport has no value? Is it just a waste of time? Playing sport may provide the benefits of health and well-being but those benefits do not seem to transfer over automatically to the watching of sport. Indeed, some who watch sport are unhealthy and unfit. But does the watching of sport do no good at all? Can it not be edifying or intellectually thought-provoking? It can, I argue, but we must learn to watch it in the right way.

There are some distinctly non-intellectual ways to view sport. Think of Homer Simpson watching the Superbowl with a beer in his hand and a large bowl of potato crisps resting on his belly. We might not be able to salvage Homer from his philistinism, but there are others for whom there is more hope.

Many who watch sport are partisans, whose main wish is to see their team win. But others are purists, looking for the finer points of the game. They watch sport for aesthetic reasons and there is no doubt that sport exhibits many aesthetic values: of the human form, of drama, and of tactics and flowing moves. The partisan and the purist can see a different game, even if they are sat next to each other in the stadium. How is that so?

An art historian told me a story, probably apocryphal, of a tourist at the Tate Modern staring at a fire extinguisher mounted on the wall. The tourist stood back, tilted their head, stroked their chin and contemplated the object. A security guard saw them and realised what was happening. The tourist was rather embarrassed when they heard it wasn't an exhibit after all. It really was just a fire extinguisher. The guard and the tourist looked at the same thing but, for a while at least, they saw it in different ways. The tourist was seeing it aesthetically. The guard saw it purposively: it was just a device for putting out fires. But did they literally see different things? Yes. Even if they had near-enough the same retinal images, there is more to seeing than meets the eye, quite literally. Perception has not occurred until the brain has done its work on what it receives from its senses, and our beliefs and desires can influence what we see. Consider a simple Necker cube. Can't two people see it in different ways, even with the same retinal images?

How is this applicable to sport? The purist and the partisan can see different games because one regards it aesthetically while the other sees the contest primarily as something to be won. The partisan would far prefer to see their team win a dull game 1-0 than to lose 3-4. And keenly contested tackles that are appreciated by the purist will for the partisan be either a show of superior strength when they win them or outrageous fouls committed by brutes when they lose them.

Should we advocate more of the aesthetic perception of sport? We should. It might be contended that the purist misses something that is essential to sport. It is all about a quest for victory, complete with all the emotional intensity, positive and negative, that accompanies it. And it might then be said that the purist loses out if they give this up. Yet there can be gains in other ways. Although we are swapping violent passions for calm ones, it can sometimes be the calm ones that are deeper. I certainly want to see both sides give it their all and aim directly for victory rather than try to put on an artistic show for me, but their all-out striving for victory is what makes it an aesthetically pleasing spectacle. I want both sides to play at the peak of their performance whereas a partisan might be quite happy to see the opposition underperform. The purist can be passionate about the game itself - wanting to see its higher excellences realised - rather than being passionate about just one of the teams.

It might be pointed out that sport is a completely trivial matter, which we would do well to ignore. We intellectuals might be right not to get worked up about it. For why do people want to knock silly little balls into holes with a club, jump over the highest bar, or hit the back of the net? Wouldn't it be easier just to walk under the bar or to carry the golf ball and drop it in the hole? But that would, of course, be absurd. The sporting sceptic is right that the goals of sport are completely pointless. Getting the golf ball in the hole serves no purpose and nothing hinges on the rugby ball crossing the try line. But the very triviality of the goals in sport reveals something of its importance to us. These aims make sense only within the sport itself and their only point is so that sport can be played. In order to have sports at all, we must have aims that have to be achieved in a certain way, within the rules. And if sport has no extrinsic, instrumental value, we should see that it must be valuable in itself. We have chosen to value it not because of anything it gets us, but just because of what it is.

The successes of sport are entirely illusory and imagined. This is precisely what makes it suitable for our aesthetic pleasure. There are other areas in which there are competitions between different interests: in war or in business, for instance. The frivolity of sport makes it suitable as a hobby, pastime, or object of aesthetic appreciation. Seeing a goalkeeper flying through the air to make a save is something we can enjoy simply because it doesn't really matter. Someone might execute exactly the same move, diving for their life during wartime to avoid a sniper's bullet. How inappropriate it would be for us to find the latter aesthetically pleasurable and appreciate the bodily form of that poor soul.

Not all is frivolous, however. In another way, sport gives us an insight into something deeply profound. The competition of sport forces the athletes to push their bodies to extremes, displaying the limits of human capability. In doing so, we see beautifully extended and contorted human forms. Bodily speed, strength, balance, poise, dexterity, efficiency, coordination are all features that we find pleasing and exciting to see. The artificial contest of sport forces its participants to go faster, higher, further and longer, pushing their limitations. And this is important to us because we are embodied beings. Everything we do as causal agents, and patients, we do with our bodies.

But we cannot act with our bodies alone. Action requires the guidance of mind. The mental and the physical must be integrated and work in harmony. Sport thus shows us the excellences of embodied agency, and accordingly we find it fascinating to watch. Maurice Merleau-Ponty was one of the few philosophers to appreciate the profundity of embodiment, but even he overlooked the importance of sport. We could perhaps gain the same insights into the nature of our embodied existence through seeing others at work or having sex. Some people do indeed enjoy watching the latter. But the exercise of our mental and physical powers in these activities is almost always considered a private matter for which we do not want an audience. Sport, because of its very triviality, seems to be something we don't mind having exhibited in public for the viewer's pleasure.

I no longer compartmentalise my interests in philosophy and football. I am more than happy for the two to mix because I now see that the consumption of sport is just as legitimate as the consumption of art. Both are valid sources of aesthetic experiences and both are capable of provoking profound insights through contemplation.

Rather than having it dismissed as pure dumb entertainment, sport is something even an academic can be open about watching and enjoying. But in coming to see the significance of sport, I have also changed the way I watch it. Once a partisan, wishing to see only the win, I have given it up for the life of the aesthete purist. In taking sides, one tends to appreciate only half of the contest, ignoring the moments of beauty created by the opposing team. The partisan is happy if the opposition has a bad day while the purist wants both sides to do their best.

I have put this theory into practice. I sometimes bemuse people when I tell them I love football deeply but support no team. How can you watch a contest, they insist, without wanting a winner? I am happy to see winning, but I don't mind which of the teams I am watching achieves it. And when I look for the beauty of football, from my neutral stance, I feel I see at least twice as much as the partisan.

With the London Olympics on the horizon, now is the best of times to consider the importance of sport in our lives. And the process is under way. The philosophy of sport as a subject area is thriving and the Royal Institute of Philosophy will be running a series of public lectures on sport and philosophy during the 2011-12 academic year. There is now a British Philosophy of Sport Association, founded within the past 10 years, complete with its own journal Sport, Ethics and Philosophy.

We should watch more sport, just for the sheer joy of it. Because it has intrinsic value to us, we can see that it is something we would continue to do even in a utopian state, when all our material needs are met. This has been argued persuasively by Bernard Suits in his book The Grasshopper. Many who have read Suits' tour de force think it holds its own alongside anything produced in any area of philosophy and it remains the best place to start for anyone reading their way into the philosophy of sport.

That old division between the mental world of academia and the physical world of sport is now obsolete. We neglect physicality to our detriment for, in doing so, we miss what human existence is all about.

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