Fair-play and Kant’s “Categorical Imperative”


As far as Horkheimer’s appeal to Immanuel Kant is concerned, in Kant’s conception of play sport is denied a playing character. In his comments on Kant’s views on play in his “Critique of Judgement” (“Kritik der Urteilskraft”), Danko Grlić concludes that, according to Kant, play, “in contrast to work, is a free human activity of the human body or spirit which occurs without a direct practical purpose or usage that would exist outside the activity itself. Play is played out of sheer joy of playing and everything else that from the outside wants to determine or restrict it, to direct or instruct it, spoils the very free character of play, restrained by no one and nothing. Hence, even when play is placed in the service of a particular purpose: exercising, strengthening of spirit, competition or fight for victory, it loses its authentic original sense, since it is contained in the very uncertainty, uninhibitedness, in a free motion not determined by the conditions of the actual, real life, but solely by the rules of the world of play. Therefore, play can follow only its own immanent purposefulness and not a purpose beyond itself, however “noble” or “great” it might be. Play becomes a “purposefulness without a purpose”. (15)

In Kant, the dominant world is the a priori “world of play”, which has nothing to do with reality and is bounded by its own rules. It is an apparent (idealized) opposition to the existing world and thus is a datum independent of man and society, where what is not possible in society becomes possible. Kant does not speak of the essence of play as a concrete social phenomenon, but seeks to establish a normative project of play which becomes a prism through which social relations proclaimed to be “play” should be observed. “Free play” is based on the mind which is “free” from reality and exists only in conceptual terms, that is, as the ideal of play not matched by any of the existing plays – which appeared in a given historical moment and are a playing form of the manifestation of the ruling relations and values. Play, in its essence, corresponds to Kant’s world of noumenon and accordingly is of an a priori character.

In his “Anthropology” Kant says: “Labour and play can be compared like war and peace. The former exerts a kind of force on our capacities, directing them to a given end; the latter /play/ places them in a free motion, by which the powers of the soul proportionally engaged and enlivened are precisely that which gives us pleasure; in contrast to that, the forms of labour are ends.“ (16) In Kant’s philosophy , the world is not a whole; it is divided in the world of concern and the world of happiness, the world of labour and the world of play – which are spheres independent of man, and in which man exists. Consequently, man is not a whole being which as such relates to the world; he is artificially divided in the worker and player. Labour becomes a negative foundation in relation to which the concept of play is determined: labour is compulsory – play is free; labour is a target activity which engages man one-sidedly – play offers the possibility of realizing spiritual forces and as such is a pastime. The real world of non-freedom is confronted with the abstract world of play which is proclaimed to be “freedom” – and which is only an ideological cover for the existing plays the nature of which is conditioned by the ruling relations and values. The “idea of play” becomes the ideological picture of a social phenomenon whose essence is determined by the concrete totality of the ruling relations.

In Kant, strivings for play are not an expression of man’s strivings to become free as a social being, but to experience freedom – in a world of non-freedom. Instead of freedom in society, Kant offers man a “pastime” in play; instead of a vision of a free world, Kant offers the idea of a “free play”. “Spontaneity”, “purposelessness”, and the like are determinations of play which suggest that free play in a world of non-freedom is possible. One must but immerse oneself into the “world of play” to experience freedom. Play becomes a mystical force giving man happiness in an extreme misery. Pursuing happiness involves an escape from the existing world of misery and renouncement of the right to a happy life: misery in everyday life is a conditio sine qua non of happiness in play. Play is possible only in the existing world of non-freedom and it cannot involve strivings for a world of freedom (libertarian play), nor the culmination of the world of freedom (genuine play). It is a (apparent) freedom from the existing world, but not freedom for a future world: it does not have a visionary dimension. Pursuing freedom in the illusory world of play becomes the substitute for a struggle to create a world in which man will be free. Instead of aspiring to a happy life, man should unquestioningly accept the world of sufferings and direct his aspirations to happiness towards the sphere of play which in Kant is an unrealizable ideal, while in reality it is only a playing form of the manifestation of the ruling relations and values. Kant’s conception of play is a way to obtain for the existing relations which were proclaimed “play” such a philosophical foundation which makes them apparently independent. In fact, it is not the concept of play which is determined, but the relation of man to the existing world conceived as a given fact. Play is not an illusory world of freedom, but a concrete world of non-freedom to which man should relate as if it were a world of freedom. Play becomes a “free” form of letting off the steam of non-freedom.

Unlike Schiller, Kant does not depart from man’s playing being, but from the play as a repressive normative vault by which man’s “aggressive” nature is held under control. He is not guided by a (romantic) faith in man, but strives to oppose the “evil” human nature in order to prevent the disintegration of society. His ideal of man represents the ideal of a model citizen. Kant’s pedagogy does not insist on man’s humanization but on his “disciplining”, which means on stopping the animalistic from jeopardizing humanity; on “cultivation”, which means instruction; on “civilizing”, which means to be accepted in society and to exert influence; and on man’s “moralization”, which means to make him opt for good ends which can be universally accepted. (17) Play is a repressive estheticized model of behaviour which produces a moral consciousness. Man can be free only within the boundaries established “solely by the rules of the world of play itself” – which is a phenomenon sui generis, the meaning of which and the rules of which do not depend on man, nor on social relations. Instead of man being free as a playing being, which involves the creation of new playing forms within the creation of a new world, he is submitted to the given normative mould of play. It is not about the nature of play and the nature of its rules, the emphasis is rather on a subjective moment: “play is played out of the very joy of playing”. Since for Kant play is a phenomenon sui generis, man does not play, but is in play: the “joy of playing” is not the joy of man as a playing being, but a peculiar quality of play. The true purpose of play lies in “uncertainty, uninhibitedness, in a free motion not determined by the conditions of the actual, real life, but solely by the rules of the world of play”. Play is not only opposed to work but is a given independent of the conditions of real life. Man is abolished as a social (historical) being, and play as a concrete social (historical) phenomenon. The abstract man becomes free in the abstract play. Kant’s “world of play” is analogous to Schiller’s “esthetic state”, the difference being in that Schiller’s world of play is attained through a developed esthetic being and romantic daydreaming. Hence, for him, the prototype of genuine play is not children’s play, as it is for Kant, but the play of an emancipated man who opts for play with his free will, guided by a developed esthetic being. If Kant’s conception is consistently followed, the authentic play of adults is not possible since, on the one hand, they, burdened by labour, have lost the ability of experiencing the joy of play and, on the other hand, the ruling forms of play arise from social reality and have, just like labour, a purposeful (instrumental) character.

Kangrga’s interpretation of Kant’s notion of “spontaneity”, which is the key notion for understanding play, is interesting. According to Kangrga, in Kant, the dominant idea is that of man’s self-creation through the production and appropriation of his own imminently human world according to the principles of spontaneity and freedom. Spontaneity = intelligence = freedom = practical mind – these are the basic postulates and relations in Kant’s philosophy. The spontaneity of reason – spontaneity as intelligence suggests man’s designed, transformed, cultivated nature. Spontaneity is not an act of nature, but of reason (intelligence). According to Kangrga, the notion of spontaneity in Kant is determined “from the horizon of the already man’s world, or better: the establishment of that world”. (18) Self-consciousness of human action is a historical act. The relation between freedom and nature (impulses) is conceived from one highest point, and it is the idea, that Self, freedom – which Kant sees in revolution. Kant’s ethics draws on the following concepts: duty, moral law, freedom, categorical imperative, morality … (19) Kant’s philosophy of freedom (spontaneity) is, in fact, the philosophy of duty, of learned and unquestionably accepted restraints. A revolution is to enable the abolishment of the selfwilledness of the aristocracy and elevate the moral law, which can save society from the “evil” human nature, to the level of a universal principle which applies to all citizens and is the essence of his “categorical imperative”. Kant does not depart from man as a social being oriented towards other both existentially and essentially, but from a (petit) bourgeois who is guided by greediness: private property is the basis of “socialization”. Hence Kant attaches such importance to the repressive normative mind: moral norms become a spider’s web in people’s heads, which is to curb egoism and prevent disintegration of society.

Kant does not depart from man’s “interior”, but from his intellect (reason). Intelligence is awareness of the necessity of accepting the repressive normative vault. The very knowledge of the good and the awareness of a need to do it induce man to perform good acts.  “Good” has an existential character, but it does not mean doing good acts departing from a free man and society as the community of free people, but from the ruling order. Kant’s “categorical imperative” does not inspire man to do good starting from his noble nature, it is meant to prevent him from doing evil. Kant does not argue for a world of free people, but seeks to build institutional barriers which will prevent the disintegration of the civil society based on private property. Kant’s subjectivism is an illusion. The nature of his “ought” (Sollen) is already determined by the nature of the ruling order, by what is: it constitutes his normative vault which is to protect him from disaster. The a priori of Kant’s moral philosophy is founded on the bourgeois society that cannot be questioned. Kant’s “categorical imperative” represents an attempt to “reconcile” man with the existing world at a formal-logical level and on the basis of the established dualism of “being” (Sein) and the “ought”. It is not the life principle of a free man, but of an atomized citizen who departs from his being by nature an “evil” being and feels that only unquestionable submission to an a priori normative order offers a possibility for the survival of society. Hence Kant’s pedagogy is not focused on man’s humanization but on his disciplining.

In spite of the fact that Kant emphasizes the active, subjective aspect of reality (Kangrga), his theory only apparently opens space for man as a playing subject. The development of play does not involve the development of man’s playing being (Eros, emotions, senses…) and interpersonal relations but of a repressive normative vault and the strengthening of the ruling order. Play is not an expression of man’s need of another man; it is not the development of interpersonal relations based on the principles of brotherhood and solidarity; in it there is no motion of man towards man… “Spontaneity” remains in the sphere of reason (awareness of a need of communal life), and not of the whole humanness, which means man’s unconditional and spontaneous need of another man. The tacit purpose of a “purposeless” play is “free” creation of the ruling relations and values, ultimately, the production of a loyal citizen and his pinning down to the existing world. The “spontaneity” does not reflect the (critical, change-aspiring) relation of man to the world, but an unquestionable acceptance of the existing world and the dominant rules. Play becomes a “spontaneous” way of the production of the world as an object by an objectivized and instrumentalized man. “Freedom” becomes an ideological and “spontaneity” a practical form of the establishment of the order of non-freedom.

Play, as a repressive normative vault, is that according to which the nature of the playing disposition is determined. It is not a product of an authentic (creative-libertarian) human nature, but is the highest form of “spontaneity”, which means the abstract transcendental subject which is the incarnation of the repressive normative vault and which becomes the carrier of play and the basis of its self-reflection. Transcendental Self replaces “God”, only this time it is not called “love” but “duty”. It is the incarnation of reason alienated from man, which appears in the form of the unquestionable ruling normative vault. The transcendental Self becomes the absolute and as such does away with the critical mind – which is not and cannot be humanly grounded. Hence the deduction from the a priori world of noumenon is the basic activity of thought. Revolution raises it to the pedestal of a universal principle that applies to all citizens, and becomes the unquestionable criterion for determining the human intention. By the very establishment of the transcendental Self the barriers of the “ought” are placed. The “humanization of nature” is not based on a respect for nature, but it is submitted (suppressed, mutilated…) to the normative model of a “citizen”. From it follows “disciplining” reduced to a physical drill which is different from animal training only in that it is “voluntarily” (reasonably) adopted. Doing “good”, which expresses the “common interest”, is of a repressive character because it is in opposition to the logic of everyday existence that induces man to treat others like enemies and because man is by his nature an “evil” being guided by greediness – which threatens the survival of society. Revolution appears as the act of a mind that will create a new (civil) order, and not a world of free people. It is not an expression and confirmation of man’s libertarian nature, it is the performance of his civil duty to abolish the order based on privileges and create a new institutional vault that will control his “evil” nature. Kant’s (revolutionary) “ought” deals with an order based on privileges, but also with aspirattions to realize the guiding principles of the French Revolution. Kant opts for (bourgeois) revolution, but not for man as a revolutionary. Revolutionary self-consciousness does not touch the original humanness: the shield of an egoistic (petit) bourgeois does not allow it to enter man’s being. In revolution, the citizen’s consciousness did not only win over the consciousness of the aristocracy, but also over the consciousness of man as a universal creative being of freedom who is capable of creating a world in his own image.

In Kant the esthetic and the ethical are given in unity, but they appear as a subjective principle. It is about a “taste” formed by the mind (intellect) and turned into a moral consciousness by means of which the selfish and aggressive (petit) bourgeois is “disciplined”. The “beautiful” turns into the “good” by way of a repressive normative consciousness and not by way of man’s humanization. Kant eliminates the possibility of a direct and spontaneous establishment of interpersonal relations, which proceed by way of a “moral consciousness” that becomes and ideological (self) consciousness of civil society and is based on the “awareness of one’s duties”. Kant’s “subjectivity” is a form in which appears the imposed normative pattern of a model citizen. It is not based on man’s authentic (self) consciousness, but is a transcendental “consciousness” by which a citizen must be guided in order for the society to survive. Moral (self) consciousness is a form depriving man of authentic humanity (moral being) and authentic self-consciousness, which means a critical, change-aspiring and a visionary consciousness. Kant affirms activism which appears as the creation of the world, and in that context the category of “possibility”, but his “ought” is but an abstract possibility of the creation of novum since it is a normative reflexion of the world in which man is deprived of his authentic subjectivity. In Kant there is only an apparent contradiction between “being” and the “ought”: the normative project is not the opening of a new human space and in that sense a struggle against the ruling order; it is the essence of the existing world turned into norms. His thought is not visionary, but positivistic: “ought” is not a normative projection of the future, but is an idealistic interpretation of the existing world.

Kant’s philosophy offers a formal possibility of the establishment and justification of a “moral” vault of sport which is expressed in fair-play. His “categorical imperative” shows on the example of sport its social conditioning and limitation: “the principle of universal law” in sport can be as follows “The stronger win, the weaker are eliminated!” It is the only possible principle – in order for sport to survive and for survival in sport. The alleged subjectivism (“the maxim of your own will …”) is but a form in which the ruling relations appear: it is not man’s free choice; it is the “free” choice of a “sportsman”. Man is not guided by moral principles that contain a visionary (utopian) or transcendental idea. What precedes conscious is a (positive) character – which occurs in living a life based on Social Darwinism and the absolutized principle of performance (profit) and on which the corresponding normative conscious is “spontaneously” built. In sport, there is neither civil duty nor human responsibility. It is dominated by the existential spirit of capitalism which does not tolerate any rational or moral constraints. That is why Coubertin glorifies the “passionate cry” of the winner and confronts the “meticulous rules” that can apply to “ordinary people”, but not to sportsmen who are the incarnation of the ruling order in its pure form. Sport is dominated by the “law of the stronger”, not by a moral judgment. Victory, achieved through a better result, is the only criterion according to which the “good” is assessed. According to the dominant evaluative criteria in capitalism, the “loser” occupies the lowest place on the social ladder. This term represents the nastiest insult which suggests that it is the existential logic of capitalism, and not humanist challenges, that creates the criteria for determining what is “good” and what is “bad”. In sport, sense experience is not transformed into a moral feeling; it is rather that the character of a “lazy animal” is transformed into the character of a super-beast through the principle of “greater effort” (Coubertin). It mutilates the senses that can receive only those impressions which cannot lead to the development of man’s esthetic or libertarian being. Sport is in itself a non-esthetic phenomenon and annihilation of man’s esthetic being. There are no esthetic (nor customary, moral, legal, religious) norms that can hinder “progress” based on Social Darwinism and progressism. In sport, the ideal of the right conduct is not evaluative grounded, but springs from a logic imposed by life itself, the logic reduced to a struggle for survival and such that is beyond good and evil, beautiful and ugly… The “pursuit of human perfection” is the point at which, at an ideological-propagandist level, the sports ethics and sports esthetics coincide.

If we are to attribute to a man that he is “bad” because of a “bad” act, what is necessary is not only that the man is aware of his having committed a bad act, but his intention of harming another man, as well as his wish and actual need to act in that way. In sport, there are no direct and spontaneous interpersonal relations; there is a relation between “players-opponents” conditioned by the spirit and rules of sport which is dominated by an instrumentalized violence as the incarnation not only of the institutional vault of the ruling order, but, above all, of the belligerent and progressistic spirit that rules the world and is of a destructive nature. Man becomes to man a means for satisfying inhuman “needs”, which are imposed on him by the governing evaluative vault (“victory” which will bring to a sportsman “fame” and money), and as such is a necessary evil (“opponent”). To injure the opponent is not an expression of man’s “aggressive nature” and the object of moral judgment; it is of a functional character and thus is a legitimate means for preventing the opponent from realizing his intention. At the same time, there is no intention of hurting the opponent, but of preventing him from carrying out his action. Since it is a colleague from the sports show-business who shares the same destiny and tomorrow may play in the same team, there is no wish, let alone a real need, to hurt the opponent player. In boxing, it often happens that people who are friends, or even close relatives, become unscrupulous rivals in the ring trying to beat their opponent by striking such blows that can cause serious physical (mental) injuries and death. Sport is a war waged by the bodies which have a depersonalized dimension. A blow hurting one’s opponent, and thus preventing him from realizing his intention, is not a blow struck upon a man, but upon a faceless “opponent”, who appears in the form of a body with the (“objective”) dimension of a training sack. At the same time, during the training, a sportsman treats his own body in the same way he treats the body of his opponent. Guided by the logic imposed by sport, man above all becomes his own opponent. A ruthless treatment of oneself is the basic way of acquiring the capacity and readiness to be ruthless to others; the mutilation of one’s own body is the basic presupposition of an aggressive relation to one’s opponent; to harm oneself is the basic presupposition of harming other people. Hence one of the most important tasks of sports pedagogy is to create a sado-masochistic character.

Fair-play is not a moral (self) consciousness; it is a technique of relation between “sportsmen” based on a functionalist principle: “good” is that which does not jeopardize playing, which means the ruling order and “progress” (citius, altius, fortius) on which the “perfectioning” of the world is based. Instead of protecting man from an inhuman order, an order that produces evil is being protected – the evil attributed to man’s “nature” in order to justify the repressive institutions which include play. Infliction of physical injuries and killings are legal and legitimate constituent parts of sport – if they are carried out according to the given rules. The norms of fair-play are not designed to eradicate the murderous violence, but are a control mechanism intended to stop man from acting in a way that can jeopardize “play”, which means the ruling order. It means that fair-play does not stop only evil, but also that non-violent behaviour which is opposed to the logic of sport as an institutionalized violence. A boxer, who does not strive to hit his opponent but only avoids being hit himself, will be reprimanded by the referee, and if he continues to behave in the same way, he will be disqualified. In most playing sports to avoid violence means to “sabotage play”, which results in the sportsman losing his place in the team. In football, the player who deliberately hurts the opponent gains most recognition if it prevented a kick of the opponent towards the goal. What can we say of rugby, hockey and other “bloody” sports in which the infliction of physical injuries represents the most important part of “play”? It is obvious that “anthropological” demand conceals an existential imperative. To injure or kill the “opponent” does not express man’s need to hurt or kill, but is a necessary means for achieving victory, which means it is imposed by sport as an institution. The most important task of a coach is not to subdue the “aggressiveness” of his players, but to make them “attack” the opponents by threatening them with punishments, with losing their place in the team and with abuses which question their “masculinity”, which means that everything is at the ruling existential and evaluative level. What is important in a sports spectacle are not human motives, but the effect produced by a sports contest, meaning that the crowd is to experience the fight as authentic – and gain the impression that there exist consciousness, intention, desire and a genuine need to “crush” one’s opponent. The increasingly bloody sports spectacles are not only a compensation for an increasingly bloody life, but are meant to create the impression that people are by nature “evil” and that only repressive institutions of the capitalist order can protect society from “human aggression”. And finally, if people are “by nature aggressive” and if it is the “source of all evil”, why is the “civilized world” organizing increasingly bloody sports contests as public manifestations and in a spectacular form, thereby glorifying violence?

Fair-play is a “moral” mask of an immoral world based on the principles “Destroy the competition!” and “Money does not stink!”. It is not a moral code based on the observance of universal human values, but is a technical code based on the principles that make the essence of sport (capitalism) and involve the mutilation of one’s own body, infliction of serious physical injuries and killings, monstrous abuse of children, institutional degradation of women to “lower beings”, destruction of cultural (self) consciousness and man’s libertarian dignity, creation of hordes of modern barbarians… Fair-play is not an appeal to a moral conduct and sanctioning of violence; it is but a mask meant to obtain a “humanistic” legitimacy for the principle “might is right”, which on stadiums is being realized in the form of a spectacular destruction of humanity. In that context, boxing is referred to as a “noble art”. It is the highest form of hypocrisy of the thought which is found in ideologues of capitalism: if sport is by its nature “noble”, why are then noble feelings not developed in people, but the spirit of intolerance, which makes it a bastion of belligerent fanaticism? As far as the demand for a “fair fight” is concerned, it indicates that unquestioning observation of the rules on which the capitalist world is based must be above personal and group interests. It is also the basis of a “depolitization” of sport and the Olympic Games: sport (Olympic Games) must not be in the service of temporary individual or group political and material interests if its significance as a strategic political means for preserving the ruling order is not to be questioned. This is the role of “international sports associations”, headed by IOC, and this is on which their indisputable arbitrary role is based.

It is interesting that for bourgeois theorists war, just as the gladiators’ fights and “knight tournaments”, falls into the category of “sport competition”, and sport in play: sport becomes an instrument giving war a playing character. It is no accident that the principle of “chivalry”, which is a “romantic” mask by which the bloodthirsty medieval noblemen obtained an angelic look, has become the most important way of giving a “cultural” legitimacy to sports competitions. It is based on the right to kill, which means a capacity and readiness for murder: man’s right to life is submitted to the right of the order to survival. People are not brothers guided by humanity and love of freedom; they are rivals guided by ambition and pursuit of fame. Chivalrous ideals are becoming the means for crushing the guiding ideas of the French Revolution, without which there is no modern humanism, and represent the “avoidance” of democratic institutions created in the civil society and the establishment of a direct domination of the capitalist order over people.

In the contemporary professional sport, which has become part of the entertainment industry, there has been established a specific “sports ethics”. Instead of the fair play of a gentleman who is guided by “chivalrous manners”, we are dealing with professional ethics. Sportsmen approach training and matches in the same way – as a serious business. Play becomes labour. Therefore in “true professionals” there are relatively small oscillations in play. Whether they lose of win, they continue to run and play with “full steam” right through the end. We have come to an apparently paradoxical conclusion that professionals “work off their play”. Hence hardworking, discipline in performing the task, tenacity, seriousness, reliability are the characteristics which are far more appropriate for a “true professional” than spontaneity, imagination, liveliness, unpredictability, individuality… Unlike a worker, a sportsman does not temporarily let only his working ability, but sells his body and his personality. He is not only a working force, but is a working instrument and the object of work. At the same time, he is a moving advertising agent both for the club and for the sponsors, which conditions not only his behaviour on the field but also in life. An indisputable loyalty to the masters and the established order is the basic condition of survival in the sports show-business. With the fight for profit becoming increasingly tougher, the main challenge for a sportsman ceases to be his effort and the quality of the opponent, and becomes the extent to which he is to take risks, which means, how much he is to jeopardize his health and life – in order to achieve victory and record. A sportsman acquires the status of an entertaining commodity on the market of sports show-business and becomes a tool for one use only. From an injured player one does not expect a human reaction, to cry or call for help, but to behave like a robot that has discharged his duty and can be thrown on the dump of “consumer society”. Readiness to self-destruction becomes the main feature of a “good” sportsman. It is no longer a working ethics, but a (self) destructive fanaticism.

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