The philosopher’s score

Eoin Kelly’s striking. Ronaldinho’s flicks. Brian O’Driscoll’s running with the ball in hand. Enjoy the aesthetic experience, says a Stanford professor of literature. Michael Moynihan found out how an eighteenth century philosopher explains the appeal of sport.

LIKE most of us, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has two lives. In the real world he’s the Albert Guerard, Professor of Literature in the departments of comparative literature, French and Italian at Stanford University, Professeur Associé à l’Université de Montréal, Professeur attaché au Collège de France, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His main working areas are the literary and cultural history of the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment and the early 20th century, media history, literary theory, modern western philosophy, and the development of a non-interpretive approach to cultural phenomena.

However, Professor Gumbrecht also has a sports life.

A season-ticket holder for Stanford football, Stanford men’s basketball, and the ice hockey’s San Jose Sharks, he’s married his two interests in a new book, ‘In Praise Of Athletic Beauty’.

“The basic thesis is that as a sports fan myself,” says Gumbrecht, “Someone with season tickets for different sports, I was asking myself what was so interesting about sport, the huge viewers and so on.

“There’s a repertoire of intellectual answers, of course — that losers identify with winners, that watching sport allows people to let off steam — but none of those convinced me.

“By training I specialise in literary studies and philosophy, and it struck me that what fascinates people when watching a game corresponds to the classical description of aesthetic experience. I asked myself — why is this not accepted? Intellectuals are always ready to liberate the oppressed but they don’t want to admit that ordinary people have aesthetic experiences — take some of the worst fans in German football, the Schalke O4 followers. Intellectuals don’t want to concede that people like that can have an aesthetic experience.”

Gumbrecht went back to Immanuel Kant to bolster that argument, saying that while the philosopher “mightn’t have experienced 21st-century sport, his definitions were very useful”. Kant said that beauty was in the form of an object “insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of an end”. Hence Gumbrecht’s argument that individual plays and feats are remembered “despite the fact of who won or lost the competition”. It turns out that winning is neither everything nor the only thing, after all.

“Hardly any football team has more nationalistic investment than the German national side,” says Gumbrecht. “But if you ask Germans of my age what the best game they ever saw was, over 70% say the 1970 World Cup semi-final — which Germany lost. My favourite sport is American football and when Stanford lose I’m crushed. Last year we lost to Notre Dame in the last game in our season, and when I had to fly back to Europe afterwards I couldn’t sleep I was so disappointed. But now I remember that as a great game.

“Also, while the investment in winning is the primary thing that draws your attention, and it‘ll keep you focused, it isn’t just about winning and losing. You want your team to win but it’s more than that. Take the teams that classically don’t win, like the Boston Red Sox or the Chicago Cubs in baseball. They have large fan bases even though they lose more often than not — it’s not just about winning.”

Focusing on the process rather than the outcome isn’t confined to spectators, either. Gumbrecht refers to an elegant phrase used by an Olympic great to back up his case.

“A few years ago at Stanford we invited the former Olympic swimmer Pablo Morales, a Standford alumnus, to a colloqium on athletics. People may remember that Morales came back eight years after his first gold medal to win two more golds at the Olympics. He’d already qualified as a lawyer but he came back, and when asked about this he said he’d watched the athletic competitions at an intervening Olympic games and cried, he wanted it so much.

“Then he said — absolutely spontaneously — that he ‘wanted to be lost in focused intensity’. Interestingly, some people said that that quotation couldn’t be from an athlete, but it was. People often refer to money in sports, but if someone like Ronaldinho thinks about money rather than the passes he’s going to make then he’ll lose focus. Those beautiful plays aren’t motivated by money, and you can see the proof in Ronaldinho, he’s the one player having great fun in the warm-up. You can see he enjoys it. I don’t think it’s an accident that Frank Rijkaard, a coach I admire greatly, has helped Barcelona enjoy their play more and been more successful as a result.”

What about sports which don’t just contain the odd sumptuous play but which are judged on an artistic basis exclusively? Gumbrecht’s answer is unexpected.

“The only sports that don’t fascinate me are explicitly aesthetic, like figure skating or gymnastics, oddly enough. They can be great but there’s a specific aesthetic appeal involved. It’s not so hidden.”

So the aesthetic enjoyment is greater if the spectator has to work harder to see it in the sport?

“I think so. I also distinguish between types of participation in sports. If you’re watching a sport like figure skating, your watching is analytical. You have to analyse what’s going on to an extent that you don’t if you’re watching team sports unless you’re a coach or manager.”

This book isn’t the first time Gumbrecht has connected sports and philosophy; he teaches a course at Stanford entitled Western Philosophy and its Blind Spot: The History of Sports.

“I get the impression I’m a relatively popular teacher but what I notice is the sports fans are suspicious about talking of philosophy and those who aren’t interested in sport don’t understand where the sport comes in! I get full enrolment usually, but then again, I did a freshman course on the pleasures of sex that was far more popular.”

The sense of cool detachment one might expect from a philosopher certainly isn’t the impression one gets from Gumbrecht on sport. For one thing he’s involved directly — as a member of the Stanford Athletic Board is no sinecure, given the status of the northern California college in US sport, and his book features an approving quote from Walt Harris, the director of football at Stanford. For another, he has the rarest academic quality — a sense of humour (“I’ve sent a copy to Jose Mourinho but I haven’t heard anything back from him yet”).

Most importantly, he confesses his own fandom: “For want of a better word, as a fan you want to get into a rapture, which is very different.

“As I say in my book, sport certainly has an intoxicating effect on me. Being on the athletic board in Stanford means I can park next to the stadium, but I don’t do that because I need a ten, fifteen-minute walk after a game to cool down after the game!”

* In Praise Of Athletic Beauty by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (Harvard University Press).

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