Book Review: Knowing the Score by David Papineau

Knowing the Score by David PapineauKineSophy exists in a lonely space. There are not many people writing about the intersection between philosophy and physical activity. Most are fitness fanatics and coaches who translate physical workouts into thoughts about motivation and attitude. But few writers move beyond personal development to explore the broader overlap between philosophy and physical activity, fitness and sports. For these reasons, philosopher David Papineau (whom I interviewed on this blog in March) stands out as a gem in this arena. In his recent book Knowing the Score: How Sports Teach Us About Philosophy (And Philosophy About Sports), Papineau, a philosophy professor at King’s College London and the City University of New York, brings a serious academic philosophy approach to a wide variety of sports.

On the whole, Papineau displays an impressive breadth of knowledge of sports in addition to his obvious philosophic expertise. He discusses major philosophical issues like philosophy of mind, decision-making, ethics, identity and political philosophy in the context of tennis, soccer, cricket, rugby, baseball, basketball and more. In one chapter, he examines how tennis, cricket and baseball players can react and hit balls in less than half a second. He then applies this planned decision-making approach to situations that demand immediate responses off the court and field. Later, he breaks down written and unwritten rules and fair play in sports and society. Further on, he discusses how sports teams maintain a consistent identity over time and what this fact says about group identities in other fields. Other chapters are devoted to choking, the yips and successful mindsets in general, cycling and cooperation, international competition and national boundaries, and the draft system, free agency and capitalism.

On the whole, Knowing the Score is a fascinating look at the crossover between philosophy and sports. In chapters like “In the Blink of an Eye,” Papineau employs scientific research to explain a variety of phenomenon in sports. He then uses those insights to make valuable contributions to philosophical questions. And chapters like “Mutualism and the Art of Road Cycle Racing” and “Game Theory and Team Reasoning” seem rich enough on their own to provide material for entire books. As someone writing in a similar space as Papineau, I’m particularly fond of the book’s final chapter. In this section, titled “Shankly, Chomsky, and the Nature of Sport,” Papineau writes:

“Where do sports stand in the overall scheme of things? From my perspective, the value of sports lies in the worth of the physical skills they involve. Hitting a home run or sinking a long putt is virtuous in itself, independently of any further benefit it may bring. Such achievements are rightfully regarded as objects of admiration and pride. Athletic prowess is something to aim for and cherish, along with other features of a good life” (p. 244).

He adds:

“Someone who devotes their life to high-jumping or baseball is no less serious a person than someone who devotes it to mathematics, say, or the ballet. There is nothing intrinsically dilettante about sports compared with other walks of life” (p.244-245).

I couldn’t agree more. If anything, the benefit of physical activity extends beyond sporting achievement and physical health. As Papineau repeatedly shows, sports and physical activity can teach us many valuable lessons about other spheres of life.

If there are negatives to Knowing the Score, they come when Papineau’s writing lists too heavily toward sports or philosophy and neglects the other field. Chapter 6, titled “Cads of the Most Unscrupulous Kidney,” lists myriad historical examples of athletes who have bent the rules of their games without much further comment on the import of rules and rule-skirting in society. And Chapter 13, titled “Race, Ethnicity, and Joining the Club,” uses non-sporting examples like Charlie Chaplin and Rachel Dolezal as much as sporting ones to explore questions of race. This chapter, in particular, does not seem to fit with the rest of the book, in which sports offer valuable philosophical insights that are difficult to observe in other fields.

Those minor complaints aside, Knowing the Score is an engaging and accessible book for sports fans and amateur philosophers alike. Papineau proves himself extremely knowledgeable and well-read in a diverse multitude of sports and branches of philosophy and excels at presenting his surprising insights clearly and concisely. For me, it’s exciting to read such a thorough contribution to a field I find endlessly compelling and rarely examined.

Rating: 4/5 stars

For more reviews of books on physical fitness, sports, philosophy and society, check out The KineSophy Library.