A Chess-boxing match is a remarkable sight. Two fighters play alternate rounds of speed-chess and boxing until the end of the competition. To ensure a fair and worthwhile event, all competitors must be proficient boxers and Masters-level Chess players. Victory is won by knockout, checkmate, by judges decision or if time runs out of the speed chess game.
Philosophers, like lawyers and plumbers, are able to find work almost everywhere. We can take it for granted that Chess-boxing is a sight to behold. We might also imagine a ‘Super Championship’ in which the world Heavyweight Boxing Champion takes on the top Chess Grandmaster (and imagine the Chess player’s self-talk: ‘if I don’t get checkmate straight away I’m in big trouble!’). But the real interest of this scenario for a philosopher is that it takes to an extreme the two sides of any sporting activity: the physical and the mental. The body and the mind.
All sports by definition involve the use of physical activity and skills, and although exercise is sometimes considered a refreshing alternative to intellectual work, it is difficult to envisage any sport that does not involve at least some element of thinking, decision-making, communicating or mental preparation: sports players need to engage in an almost continual process of thinking – about their play and that of their opponent; they must select appropriate skills and techniques and decide when to use them; and, of course, they need to construct and follow a strategy that maximizes the chances of their success and minimizes that of the opponent.
Sport is a great example of an activity that involves both mental and physical engagement. As such, it offers insight into one of the oldest questions in philosophy: what is the relationship between the mind and the body? More specifically, which is the boss?
By far the most influential answer to these sorts of questions is the philosophical positions called dualism, which is made up of two claims:
§ The mind and the body are distinct types of things;
§ The mind is the boss.
Dualist ideas go back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks, and have had a huge influence on religions like Christianity, but the thinker most closely associated with the dualism is the French philosopher René Descartes. So-called ‘Cartesian Dualism’ suggests that mind and body are distinct and separate, but that they interact with each other. The mind is indivisible, invisible and immortal unlike the body. It therefore follows that the mind and body are totally different substances.
This view of human beings is sometimes labelled ‘The Ghost in the Machine’. We might equally nickname it as the ‘Mind in the Meat’ theory: we are our minds; bodies are mere transporters of those minds. The mind decides, directs and learns; it thinks and feels and reacts. The body simply carries the mind around from place to place. Of course, the body needs to be kept in order, much as a car needs to be fuelled and serviced from time to time. This image of human beings has dominated ideas of schooling for so long that most people simply take it for granted. And it has influenced the way that things like sport and physical education are understood and valued. For example, among the most commonly stated justifications for the inclusion of physical education in the school curriculum by both teachers and parents are:
- makes children fit and healthy;
- It help them ‘burn off’ excess energy;
- It offers a break from the sit-down lessons.
These seem rather flimsy justifications which hardly warrant a place on a broadly and balanced over-crowded curriculum (fortunately, there are more persuasive arguments!), but significantly from the point of view of our present discussion, they reveal the influence of the Mind in the Meat view of persons: physical education and sport help keep the meat moving.
What do you think? Are there better justifications for PE and sport?
Does it matter?