Knowing the Score by David Papineau review – sport meets philosophy | Books

David Papineau is an eminent philosopher and a passionate lover of sport. For much of his life, he has kept the two spheres separate, fearing that to mix them would produce a double diminishment: philosophy robbed of its seriousness and sport of its excitement. Then, in 2012, a colleague invited him to contribute to a lecture series titled “Philosophy and Sport”, organised to coincide with that year’s Olympics. “I couldn’t really refuse,” Papineau recalls. “I had an extensive knowledge of both philosophy and sport. If I wasn’t going to say yes, who would?”

For his topic, he chose the role of conscious thought in fast-reaction sports, such as tennis, cricket and baseball. How, he wondered, does Rafael Nadal use anything other than “automatic reflexes” in the half-second (or less) he has to return Roger Federer’s serve? How does he choose to hit the ball this way or that, to apply topspin or slice? Thinking about this not only proved “great fun”, but allowed Papineau to come away with a series of “substantial philosophical conclusions” about the relationship between intentions and action.

After this, the floodgates were open. Having breached his self-imposed apartheid, Papineau set about applying his philosopher’s brain to a range of other sporting topics. Five years on, those inquiries have resulted in a book. Knowing the Score is essentially a collection of essays on whatever sporting questions happen to interest its author. It isn’t comprehensive, nor does it advance an overarching argument. The tone – informal, anecdotal, contrarian – is more bar-room than high table. What unifies the book is the consistency of its approach: he isn’t interested only in applying philosophical ideas and principles to sport. More importantly – and more originally – he wants to use arguments about sport as a launching pad into philosophy.

A good example comes in a chapter dealing with rule-breaking. Papineau begins by pointing out…

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