Follow by Email

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


One of the more common observations that academics make when they learn that I am professionally interested in sport and philosophy goes something like this: “Oh, that is an unusual combination”. I used to leap immediately to the defensive, starting listing the numerous fascinating philosophical issues that can be stimulated by sport: questions of ethics (Is doping fair? What’s wrong with cheating?), of politics (Should the taxpayer fund elite sport? Is talent development socially just?), and of knowledge (What type of knowing does a player have?). Nowadays, I simply feign surprise, and ask ‘What do you mean?’ This is a much more effective strategy as my questioner invariably starts stuttering and then changes the subject. Why? Because behind this initial statement is a very common prejudice, which it would be too rude to say out-loud: philosophy is for very clever people; sport isn’t.

I’ve reached that stage in my life where I no longer feel the urge to punch such inquisitors in the face. But it does seem to me a shame that such people are denying themselves a group of genuinely interesting and challenging philosophical problems, because of their apparent inability to abandon a lazy stereotype.

Therapy session over. The rest of this entry is adapted from my introduction to a new book on the Philosophy of Education. It’s aim is to present, in short form, a case for the relevance of philosophy for teachers. Personally, I think the argument works equally for a much larger group: human beings.


Here is a very old story:

A famous philosopher had to move house from one part of the city to another. His wife, knowing that her husband was extremely absent-minded, decided to train the philosopher in preparation for the move. So for weeks in advance, she reminded him that they would shortly be moving house, and that he would need to take a different bus home from the University, and get off at a different stop. She even wrote down the new address on a piece of paper and put it in his pocket. On the day of the move the philosopher forgot his training, and took his usual bus home. The house was empty, of course, as his family had moved. Then he remembered the piece of paper and found his new address. After a very indirect series of bus journeys, the philosopher finally found himself on his correct bus, and he got off at the right stop. Then he realised that he had absolutely no idea where his street was, or even what his new house looked like. He wandered around for an hour, until he saw a little girl playing in the street. “Excuse me, young lady, would you happen to know where this house is?” he asked, showing her the piece of paper. The child took his hand, and said, “Don’t worry Daddy, I’ll take you home.”

This story represents the stereotypical image of philosophers. Some people, especially in my experience those with a background in the sciences, criticise philosophy for being a never-ending series of discussions and arguments. They are, as Bertrand Russell put it, “inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible”.

The real world for many readers of this blog is likely to be the world of the classroom or the gym, and it is reasonable to ask ‘what can philosophy offer here?’

Philosophy (from the Greek for the love of knowledge or wisdom) requires thinkers to think for themselves. This is why the great philosopher Kant asserted that it is not possible to learn philosophy; it is only possible to learn how to philosophise. This does not mean that the philosopher ought to live a life of solitary contemplation (although some have done just that), but it does mean that the philosopher is compelled to think for him or herself. This is perhaps why philosophical conversations often seem characterised by ambiguity and perplexity. Important questions are rarely resolved with simple answers unless, of course, we choose to borrow uncritically the dogmas and doctrines of others. For Russell, the person who does decide to live so uncritically “goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason".

We might pause for a moment to consider Russell’s use of masculine pronouns as generic terms referring to all humans. This was common usage when he wrote, but has increasingly become replaced by gender-neutral language (his/her, abandoning pronouns, pluralising, etc.) following claims that gendered language is misleading, inappropriate or simply sexist. Is this a reasonable evolution of language use or ‘political correctness run mad’? As soon as we start to reflect on these questions we are engaging in philosophy.

It is possible to think and act without philosophising. It is certainly possible to teach without giving a moment’s thought to philosophy. But it is not possible to think for ourselves, especially to think about matters of value, without philosophising in some way. Education is a subject rich in philosophical issues:
• What should we teach?
• What experiences are most valuable / relevant / necessary for students?
• Who should pay for schooling?
• Are some ways of organising or presenting the curriculum inappropriate?
• Should schooling be compulsory?
• Should all students be taught together, or grouped according to their ability?
• Should schools prepare their students for the world of work?
• Is the ideal outcome of schooling a happy / rational / spiritual / good person?
• What type of person should teachers aim to develop?
• What should the values and ethos of the school be?
We might turn to sociology or psychology to help us gather evidence for our enquiries. For example, psychology might help us understand how children’s minds develop. But psychology can never tell the psychologist which forms of development are worth supporting. Questions of value are questions of philosophy.

There is a lot to learn from reading the works of the great thinkers. But it would be a mistake, however, to presume that memorising their words amounts to philosophising. Kant warned us that these philosophers “should not be a model of judgement, but simply an opportunity to make a judgement of them, even against them”.

If you read these works of philosophy – or even listen in to a conversation on a philosophical theme - you will note substantial disagreements. This is the life-blood of philosophy. By choosing to engage with these discussions, you are choosing to philosophise.

More articles and blog entries are available from: www.

No comments: