Sport, Rules, and Values: Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Sport

Sport, Rules, and Values: Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Sport

Sport, Rules, and Values: Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Sport

Sport, Rules, and Values: Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Sport


Sport, Rules and Values presents a philosophical perspective on some issues concerning the character of sport. Discussion focuses on three broad uses commonly urged for rules: to define sport; to judge or assess sport performance; and to characterize the value of sport - especially if that value is regarded as moral value. In general, Sport, Rules and Values rejects a conception of the determinacy of rules as possible within sport (and a parallel picture of the determinacy assumed to be required by philosophy). Throughout, the presentation is rich in concrete cases from sport, including cricket, baseball, American football, soccer and ice-skating. Detailed consideration of some ideas from classics in the philosophy of sport, especially writings by Bernard Suits and William Morgan, contextualizes this discussion. Overall, this work exemplifies the dependence of philosophical considerations of sport on ideas from philosophy more generally. Thus it sketches, for example, the contrast between rules and principles, an account of the occasion-sensitivity of understanding, and the place of normative and motivating reasons within practical reasoning. Sport, Rules and Values represents a distinctive conception, both of sport and of its philosophical investigation, which will appeal to all those with an interest in philosophy and ethics of sport.


I place an ovoid ball onto the grass, and a mile down the road David Campese does the same. But he has scored a try (in rugby) and I have not. We seemed to be doing the same thing, but we were not - in the terminology of the Introduction, these were different actions. Importantly, his was a move in a sporting activity while mine was not. But how is this difference to be explained? The context of Campese's placing of the ball was important; that, say, others were trying to interpose their bodies between the ball and the ground and, had they done so, it would not have been a try. So Campese's action can go wrong, or misfire, in ways mine could not. That seems one way to invoke the rules of rugby: what marks out Campese's action from mine is the background of rules of the sport. Or so it seems. Here, then, we recognize again the importance of rules in explaining the nature of sport.

Certainly, an insight here is that the actions involved in sport only make sense against a background of rules - only within the rules of chess can one attempt to checkmate an opponent, or succeed in doing so. Similarly, therules of rugby allow one to score tries; otherwise, one would simply be putting the ball down. So those rules are logically connected to the possibility of try-scoring; that is, connected to the action of try-scoring. Moreover, to win or lose the game or match is related, in all cases, to such scoring. That there are such rules at all permits the kinds of action in which, say, winning consists.

To expand that insight: some theorists have sought to completely explain the nature of sport by appeal to such rules - in the literature, a view called formalism. Roughly, then, formalism (in this sense) is an account of sport (as for games) which urges that:

in an important sense the rules of a game are inseparable from its goal. That is, the goal of golf is not simply to put the ball in the hole, but to do so in a quite specified way - by using the fewest number of strokes possible.

(Morgan 1995:50)

We are to imagine the specification done by the rules; moreover, to see this as a complete account of sport. More explicitly, for formalism:

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