Sport Philosophy: theories, concepts, paradigms


Dr.Sc.Phil., Associate Professor V.A. Baranov
Russian State University of Physical Culture, Sport, Youth and Tourism (SCOLIPC), Moscow

Keywords: sport, sport philosophy, sport metaphysics, humanism, aesthetics, competition.

Introduction. Sport is an important sociocultural phenomenon investigated from various scientific viewpoints, but the major consideration regarding the point is received within the framework of pedagogics, theory and methodology of sport training and medicine. Philosophy builds a certain worldview, the system of knowledge concerning primal concept categories and fundamental principles of existence, although the issue of sport is rather frequently ignored, or, more precisely, sidestepped. It means that, under such conditions, the sport sector may be developed only within the limits of innovations and technologies of sport pedagogics, which does not fully capture its fundamental essence.

Sport has long been not only the scene for competition of athletes setting up world records and delivering maximum physical performance, but also the political scene, world commercial stock exchange (market) and laboratory of “pseudo-medical technologies”.

Currently, a range of unsettled political, economic and social issues is observed in modern sport, which raises the question as to whether philosophy, as a specific form of cognition, is able to provide straight and comprehensive answers to certain questions and concretize the object and subject of sport philosophy.

Methods and structure of the research. Social and philosophical interpretation of modern sport suggests giving theoretical analysis, as well as the summation of the ideas put forward in the existing social and philosophical literature by using the historical approach, structural-functional analysis, logical-deductive analysis, transition from abstract to concrete particulars for interpretation of genesis and development of sport in terms of modern conditions.

Results and discussion. Scientists suggesting considering sport from philosophical perspectives adhere to the positions that contradict one another and complicate specification of the object and subject of sport philosophy as a science. According to Russian researcher A.A. Peredelskiy, the Western and Anglo-American society takes a pragmatic position commonly recognizing sport as the activity aimed at achieving the best result, whereas the East European and post-Soviet philosophical communities tend to espouse the philosophies of materialistic dialectics, existentialism and postmodernism [4, p. 103].

Before we determine which object and subject areas of research the sport philosophy encompasses, let us give consideration to the standpoints of scientists who are, as we believe, the most recognized and distinguished in this study area. Among a wide variety of approaches to reflection of sport, the following should be highlighted: metaphysical, axiological, futuristic, humanistic, aesthetic.

Metaphysical paradigm of sport. As stated by prominent American scientist W. Morgan [3], the object of sport metaphysics is to determine: firstly, whether there are strict philosophical definitions of sport and whether they are necessary at all; secondly, what the content of cultural sport practices is in terms of formal and contextual perspectives; thirdly, whether a game is synonymous with sport and whether all sports are game-based.

In the opinion of W. Morgan, philosophers exploring the subject of sport belong to two groups. The first one argues against a precise and concise definition of sport referring to ineffectuality of such definitions, since “they turn into insipid abstractions impeding the genuine historical interpretation of the meaning of sport” [3, p. 151]. We can all pretty much agree with this statement simply because of the hypothesis asserting that reflection of sport is supposed to cover the basic fundamentals of its interpretation rather than just setting conventional definitions. According to W. Morgan, proponents of the opposite views consider an exact characterization of sport to be the way to gain a deeper cultural insight into the core essence of sport. To our reckoning, the better way to gain a cultural insight is, for instance, by determining the mission of sport in the modern society, specifics of its functioning and vector of further development.

As for the speculation on the cultural practices of sport, scientists express different viewpoints on the subject as well. Some hold to the official position based exclusively on the assumption that the framework of sport is determined only by competition rules and regulations, while others support the idea of contextual understanding of sport and claim that “sport is determined by both rules and ethos” [3, p. 152]. At that, the authors do not specify the connotations carried by the term “ethos” in this context. In our opinion, it is most likely that in this case ethos means the lifestyle of people, orientation of their culture and value hierarchy including sport values.

By hypothesis of W. Morgan, the third approach to the metaphysical explanation of sport is based on correlation of sport and game: game approximates to sport and all sports contain the game element. However, we partially disagree with the scientist on this issue in relation to approximation of games and sports. Surely, there is a certain percentage of approximation, although it is insignificantly small within the content of sports and games. These two activities vary in the main aspects (orientation of sports and games, its perception by an individual, as well as psychological experiences that these activities cause). Sport is quite a serious practice, whereas a game contributes to psychophysiological and emotional recreation and produces distinctly different result. An alternative viewpoint can be expressed. No doubt that, initially, sport involves the game element, but at the further stage as a person becomes an elite athlete these elements fade into insignificance and are substituted by strictness, pursuance of productivity, intensity and responsibility for every action and, most importantly, for the result of athletic performance.

For the purposes of discussion, another metaphysical approach to philosophical interpretation of sport can be mentioned. A.A. Peredelskiy introduced the approach [5], which states that genesis, the evolution of the world agonal-sport tradition along with various modern era facts attest to religious and political backgrounds of sport despite secular and humanistic appearance. Presumably, one can agree on the fact that sport is associated with “antique religious and mythological rites and creeds” [5, p. 5]. However, even though sport genesis indeed was once based on such rites and creeds, the present day sport, in our opinion, due to its development has long dissociated itself from religious traditions, since faith and revelation, as the cornerstones of religion, clearly contradict to utter rivalry and competition which are peculiar to sport activities.

Axiological concept of sport. C. Lasch, the renowned American researcher in the field of sport philosophy, considers sport to be among such types of activities, which facilitate the temporary escape from the routine domestic worries and tribulations of modern life. Apparently, such an escape has something to do with the well-known theory of alienation provided that it is construed as the situation when people tend to perceive the world they live in as the negative environment and become estranged from it. In addition, C. Lasch presumes that physical activity “mitigates the sense of prosaic reality routines, while consciousness itself remains clear and is raised to the new concentration level” [8, p. 109]. The scientist terms the condition “the pure escape from daily life” explaining that “one can easily find relief from exhaustive pressures of life with alcohol and drugs, but such addictive substances have emotional and psychological impact on a person” [8, p. 113].

In a manner of speaking, eminent German philosopher H. Lenk takes the same position emphasizing that certain value categories established within society, such as social values and social norms, are virtually derived from sport. Subsequently, they have acquired wider connotations and gone mainstream: fair competition, fair business, etc. According to H. Lenk, fair play stands for the cultural contribution of the sport tradition to the social culture of opposition; for the society, in some way, it has become an unspoken virtue in a conflict governed by rules [2]. 

As for ethics, H. Lenk describes it as being of twofold nature. First of all, this is due to the absolute value of sports, namely achieving success. Large medal bonuses paid to elite athletes for sport achievements undermine moral and ethical values of a person and “split them into “the behind-the-scenes moral values of success” and “moral rectitude pro forma”, which can be frequently observed among elite athletes, sponsors, managers and sports coaches” [2].

At that, H. Lenk is sensible of the fact that competition (which relates not only to sports) has reached the point, at which it gives rise to even more fierce and stiff competition, thereby eviscerating the very essence of fair play. In order to comply with the principles of fair play, the rules of fair play should be supervised more strictly, although, to our reckoning, such metaphysical gibberish falls a long way short of true competition.

Futurological approach. American philosopher and futurologist Robert Archer looks at the issue of modern sport even more critically. In his study he has made a projection for implementation of social functions in modern sport and its potential outcomes [6]. According to Archer’s predictions, in about 200-300 years the human race may voluntary give up sport. Conversely, the role of athletes competing at the stadiums might be occupied by some human-like monsters similar to those one can see in sci-fi movies. As stated by Robert Archer, the major problem resides in the fact that people are always haunted by the competitive spirit. It (competition) manifests itself in simplest ball games taking place in a schoolyard, as well as in the stock markets trading shares and currencies. Such a phenomenon detrimentally affects relationships between people. So this is one of the negative functions of sport.

Competitive spirit, occurring in sports and, in fact, being one of the basic functions of sport as part of social life, often harms the humankind, which typically tends to snobbishly show off, desperately seek public image and so on.

Humanistic theory. As if foreseeing the Archer’s futurological theory with its ominous prophecies regarding the presumable development of spot, prominent Russian philosopher V.I. Stolyarov has long been pushing forward the idea of the humanistic theory of sport [7], in which he presents its object and subject areas, goals, objectives and methodology, and in which he makes the case for this approach. According to Stolyarov, a certain set of interdependent problems can be observed in the modern-day sport; these issues can hardly be resolved in terms of the current long-standing and deeply rooted stagnant development of the sport situation. The new approaches to the implementation of the humanistic ideals and values in sport and by means of sport are urgently required. Stolyarov’s viewpoint is that one of these approaches can be the way (form, model) of the game competition organization.

Various theoretical concepts are presented within the humanistic theory of sport: humanization of modern sport, interrelationship between sport and culture, integration of sport and art, functions of sport in formation and development of universal culture, the place and role of sport in the globalization process, etc.

Aesthetic paradigm of sport. H.U. Gumbrecht complements the humanistic theory by giving sufficient consideration to the entertainment aspect of sport, which draws large crowds of sport fans to the stadiums and TV screens [1]. At the stadium, a spectator not only watches the peripeteias of sport encounters, but also sets consciousness, brainwork, psychological processes (emotions, deepest concentration on the athletic performance) in motion, undergoes inner transformation and is enriched aesthetically, “… athletic experience – and aesthetic experience in general – is not qualitatively different from our experience in other less marked situations” [1, p. 37]. Indeed, one could agree upon the aesthetic aspect of sport, if it was not for extreme fanaticism in some sports.

Conclusion. Before summing up the research results, the question of whether sport might or should be the object and subject of philosophical reflection must be resolved. At first glance, the answer appears to be negative, since it commonly pertains to sport pedagogics and the corresponding activities. Although the humanistic project by Baron Pierre de Coubertin had turned into a fiasco long ago, in the modern context, it should be systematically studied from various scientific perspectives; at that, philosophy should occupy an integrative role within the research. Currently, there is an essential need for a unified view of the given philosophical approaches to interpretation of modern sport and establishment of the integrated science of “sport philosophy”, in which the object and subject of the research should be specified.

Besides, the philosophical analysis will settle down methodological disputes among the researchers concerning modern sport, while the new fundamental studies will develop a coherent long-term strategy for substantiation of concept of sport development as a specific institutional phenomenon.


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