Sport in the Light of the Philosophy of Play


The answer to the question what is play can be reached in the following ways: by analyzing the concrete totality of the epoch, which means by determining play as a concrete social (historical) phenomenon; on the basis of the dominant ideological model; and on the basis of general human ideals which enable the creation of a vision of future and thus the establishment of a critical distance both to the social reality and to the governing normative vault. Basically, we have two principal approaches: play as the reproduction of the existing world and an (apparent) escape from it, and play as a critical, change-oriented relation to the existing world and the creation of a new world. It should be noted that the subject matter of the philosophy of play are not only the conceptions which explicitly deal with play, but also the philosophical considerations which enable the formation of its fundamental concepts.

The philosophy of play does not reach a concept of play on the basis of historical, sociological and philosophical analyses, but on the basis of the governing evaluative model which is of an ideological and propagandist character. It tries to determine the concept of play by enumerating the characteristics of the existing plays and through their synthesis, or by establishing an ideal of play which appears as the project of what should be. The concept of play becomes a suprahistorical criterion for determining play, which means that play is not a concrete social (historical) phenomenon, but a phenomenon sui generis. It becomes a means for conserving the existing world, which leads to an uncritical relation to the existing plays which are an explicit or tacit starting point for determining its essence. The characteristics attributed to play become an ideological mask for obtaining a «humanist» legitimacy for the relations which, by their nature, are a radical form of man’s dehumanization and denaturalization. In order to stop the fight for an authentic human world, human ideals are utilized in the creation of a «humanist» veil for an inhuman world – which is proclaimed «happiness». Play becomes a projection of the desired on the advertising banner of capitalism which eliminates man’s need to fight for a new world. Determination of the concept of play is conditioned by the endeavour to build a world «parallel» to the world of misery, accepted by people as the «oasis of happiness» (Fink). The philosophy of play does not search for the truth; it creates a false picture of the phenomena which, by their nature, are opposed to the proclaimed humanist ideals. Its role is similar to that of religion: to convince people that the «world of happiness» is possible on the grounds of and as opposed to the «world of concern», and to bring man into a specific mental state in which he loses interest in the fundamental existential questions and becomes the victim of his subconscious. However, play is not an illusory world, like Christian «paradise» which exists solely in people’s heads; it is a constituent part of a real world where people should find a possibility of satisfying their desires. Even those social phenomena are proclaimed «play» which, like sport and war, are a «pure» incarnation of the fundamental principles of the existing world: the Social Darwinist principle bellum omnium contra omnes and the absolutized principle of quantitatively measurable performance shaped in the Olympic maxim citius, altius, fortius. What distinguishes play from other areas of life is that man becomes involved in it «with his free will» – «spontaneously» accepting the given rules.

Two conceptions predominate in the philosophy of play. The first is monistic: play is a phenomenon in which in the real or ideal form the structure of the existing world is expressed. The second is dualistic: social reality is divided into the «world of concern», dominated by labour, and the «world of happiness», dominated by play. In both cases, play is an instrument for defending the existing world: either as preparation for the existing life or as an (apparent) escape from everyday life. The philosophy of play claims that play is purposeless and that it is an end in itself, in order to instrumentalize play as an exclusive political means of the ruling class for the protection of its strategic interests. A «purposeless» play becomes the production of the existing world. Hence the question is not raised of play as a concrete social phenomenon, nor of the origin and nature of norms which make its framework. Instead of a critical mind, apriorism, on which dogmatic-mythological conscious is based, becomes the foundation of the relation to play. This also applies to the relation to sport. Sport is highly valued as something expressing the highest human aspirations and becomes a mythological phenomenon. As far as the thesis that sport «does not have a political character» is concerned, it corresponds to the conception that sport is a «purposeless activity» which, just like play, is an «end in itself». We are dealing with an endeavour to conceal the fact that sport is the incarnation of the ruling values in a condensed ideological form, and as such is the most important means for drawing people into the spiritual orbit of capitalism. Hence the theory of the amateur («good») sport and professional («bad») sport gives rise to false dilemmas. It is precisely the amateur sport which, with its «moral dimension», most successfully integrates man into the existing world since it removes the moralistic critical distance that appears in relation to the professional sport. It destroys the critical relation to the ruling relations and values and creates a positive character and positive conscious. It becomes «normal» for children, from the early age, to be categorized according to their gender; to be divided in groups engaged in mutual struggle; to regard physical injuries and killings as a normal element of life; to adopt the ever increasing performance as the criterion for determining human value; that it is not intelligence, but physical strength, which is to secure man a position in society… Hence «spontaneity» in sport is its most harmful dimension: young people automatically adopt the ruling values which make the grounds for their human self-knowledge. That the distinction made between the amateur and professional sports is but a deception can be seen from the attribute «supreme», which is repeatedly ascribed to professional sport, thus clearly suggesting that professional sport represents the highest value-related challenge for amateur sport.

Reduction of the existing world to an abstract «world of concern» is the starting point for reducing play to an abstract «oasis of happiness». The playing space is free from anything that comes from the «world of concern» and becomes an idealized projection of a «happy world», where anyone can fulfil their suppressed desires. The philosophy of play seeks to construct the concept of play according to an ideological model of «reality» in which play is the projection of unrealized humanism. The concept of play is reached by determining man’s position in the «world of concern» and by trying to direct his discontent not towards the elimination of the causes of misery, but towards the «satisfaction» found in the given spaces of «happiness». Play becomes the compensation for a deprived humanity and an instrument for man’s incorporation into the existing world: the relation to play is the projection of the relation to the ruling order. At the same time, «happiness» is determined by the nature of the relations and values denoted by the term «play». Thus we move in a circulus vitiosus: first, «happiness» is the essential attribute of play only for «play» to become the essential attribute of happiness. To define play means to create the ever more convincing humanist masks for social relations and values which are proclaimed «play», whereas the linguistic virtuosity expresses the unwillingness to determine the concept of play as a concrete social (historical) phenomenon. The instrumentalization of humanist ideals («freedom», «beauty», «happiness», «peace», etc.) in creating a false picture of play ultimately serves to crush the visionary conscious which strives to create a world in which these ideals will be achieved.

The question of play only apparently lies in the sphere of mind. The philosophy of play does not address the mind; it is reduced to an illusory rhetoric which directs man’s pursuit of happiness to the activities that serve to reinforce the increasingly precarious foundations of the ruling order. It creates linguistic whirls in which man’s pursuit of a clear critical attitude to the ruling order and of a guiding idea in the creation of a new world are to disappear. Today, the philosophy of play comes down to doing the snow job over the ever deeper abyss and to the mind’s (self) annihilation. Instead of philosophical argumentation, we deal with psychological manipulation: philosophy of play becomes the «art of seduction» (Nietzsche). It is mystifying and escapist, and its nature is determined by the destructive character of the ruling order which makes it not only anti-libertarian but also anti-existential. Most importantly, the relation to play predetermines man’s relation to the existing world. To accept play as the «world of happiness», where the ruling relations and values are reproduced in a «playing» form, means to accept the world of misery and renounce any fight for freedom. Hence in play (sport) the dominant upbringing is through living the existing life, to which corresponds upbringing without education, and this means that acquiring a positive character precedes the development of positive conscious. The philosophy of play crushes the idea of the world in which interpersonal relations, labour, learning, family, art and other creative activities can make man happy. The nature of the philosophy of play conditions the nature of its relation to play: it does not seek to change the existing world, but to perpetuate it by creating an «oasis of happiness» which is to enhance the illusion that in the existing world man can attain his original humanity and be happy. This is the main reason why the philosophy of play has not reached the ideal of libertarian play: the philosophy of play clashes with the philosophy of freedom. In spite of its attempts to pin man down to the existing world, the philosophy of play volens nolens indicates that the capitalist world is an incorrigible world of misery and that it cannot destroy man’s visionary conscious and his will to create a humane world. At the same time, it indicates that the only thing that can make man happy is not the present way of life and the ruling values, but the realization of true human ideals, which are opposed to the existing world.

In the philosophy of play, two anthropological views prevail. According to the first, man is an «evil» (or «the banal»/Huizinga) being while play is a means for holding his nature under control; according to the second, man is a «good» being while play is the expression of his need for «happiness» and «socializing». Both conceptions depart from play as an indisputable normative vault which must be accepted unquestioningly if play is to proceed. Instead of emphasizing man’s playing (libertarian-creative) nature, the emphasis is placed on the observance of the given rules. Play cannot be man’s authentic need; it is an enforced pattern of behaviour, which becomes a means for pinning man down to the existing world and destroying the visionary mind. Even when appealing to the «human nature», the philosophy of play does not think of man but of the ruling order: «human nature» is determined by the nature of the ruling order. Hence play is possible only as a repressive normative framework intended to defend society against man. Whatever the starting point of examination, the conclusion is always the same: the ruling order is indisputable and eternal. Just as in antiquity and Christianity, man becomes the plaything of the ruling order.

The theory of sport finds the philosophical foundation of sport in the philosophy of play: the philosophy of sport becomes the philosophy of play. It is an area which appropriated the criteria for determining the true nature of play and became a prism through which the nature of sport can be perceived. The philosophy of play «draws» sport under its wing by way of three phenomena: first is a (unhistorical) competition (anthropology); second is the repressive normative vault under which the competition proceeds (fair-play, as well as «sports esthetics» in which «perfection» becomes a substitute for freedom, the form of play corresponds to the form of life, etc.); third is «progress» based on the absolutized principle of quantitatively measurable performance («philosophy of performance») shaped in the maxim citius, altius, fortius.

For the philosophy of play sport is not a phenomenon the nature of which is determined by the nature of the concrete totality of the epoch in which it appeared, but by the nature of man as an abstract «competitive being» which is the incarnation of the ruling spirit of the existing world. It does not have a sociological, but an anthropological starting point. It is based on the conception according to which man is, by his nature, an «aggressive being» and play is a form of civilized channeling of human aggressiveness. «Good» is not a human characteristic; it is a characteristic of play which prevents the originally «evil» human nature from jeopardizing the survival of society. The philosophy of play does not regard sport as man’s authentic creative (playing) activity, and thus as an interpersonal relation, but as an institution. Sport cannot be a form of the direct creation of the community of free people; it rather lifts a barrier between people which is not to be crossed. «Brotherhood is for angels!» – claims Pierre de Coubertin, reducing man to the model of «citizen» who is more like a trained beast. Sport deals with the guiding ideas of the French Revolution on which modern humanism is based – the humanism shaped in the «rights of man» (droits de l’homme) and «rights of the citizen» (droits de citoyen). «Freedom» becomes the right to escape from reality; «equality» becomes a formal right as it is based on the «right of might»; «brotherhood» comes down to unquestioning observation of norms that are to perpetuate an order based on the principle homo homini lupus.

The dominant view in the philosophy of play is that «play» involves a repressive normative pattern and a conflict that does not question the existing world, including a conflict that involves infliction of physical injuries and killings. According to the criteria of the bourgeois theory, life-and-death struggle falls into the category of play, while war represents the supreme form of play. In that context, the ancient Olympic Games, where killing one’s opponent was legal and legitimate, represent «play». The same applies to gladiator’s fights, chivalrous tournaments, as well as to boxing (and other bloody sports) which is called a «noble art». For the bourgeois theory, sport is a “peaceful” form of warfare where war is waged not with weapons, but with bodies and combative skill. Readiness to kill and capacity for killing represent the most important features of a «player»: man’s right to life is subordinated to the right of the ruling order to survival. The philosophy of play emphasizes the «competitive» character of play, but by that it means the fight for pre-eminence and dominance, and not the fight for freedom, social justice, equality, for establishing interpersonal relations based on mutual respect and tolerance. Play is free from everything that enables man to realize his creative-libertarian nature.

The question of play has become a special part of esthetics. As far as sport is concerned, the indisputable criterion for determining «beauty» is victory through an ever better result (record). Play which, in itself, as a human skill, does not contribute to the achievement of the ultimate effect, is superfluous and thus meaningless. The bodies of sportsmen, deformed to monstrous proportions, become the highest form in which sports esthetics is realized. Sports «spectacles» are similar in that sense. They are primitive circus shows, which are highly valued in the context of glorifying victory and record, which means in the context of the Social Darwinist and progressistic principle on which the existing world is based. The task of the «beautiful» is to obtain cultural legitimacy for sport by way of «polishing», which means by way of a decorative esthetics the nature of which is conditioned by the nature of the governing relations.

Between the philosophy of play and sport the relation is established without the mediation of the «theory of physical culture», an area larger in scope than sport, which is guided by the principles which enable a critical distance to sport. Philosophers who write on sport usually do not distinguish between sport and physical culture and reach conclusions which have nothing to do either with sport or with physical culture. Huizinga, Caillois, Fink, Lasch, Horkheimer, Sartre, Bloch – do not speak of physical culture and, in that context, of sport but, departing from their philosophical conceptions, have an immediate relation to sport. Their views are similar to Coubertin’s notion that sport is physical culture in the true sense of that word and that between sport and physical culture only theoretical differences can be established. Regarding sport as physical culture leads to the sterilization of critical and change-oriented potentials of physical culture and to physical culture being turned into a veil that is to give sport a «cultural» aureole. Sport encloses man within the spiritual vault of a civilization based on Social Darwinism and progressism; physical culture offers a possibility of establishing a humanist critical distance to the existing world and of creating a new world. There is no doubt that civil society opened space for the development of free bodily activities, but that libertarian impulse, by way of sport and other forms of repressive «physical culture» and «physical education», has become its direct opposite: «free physical activism» becomes a systematic confrontation with the emancipatory legacy of physical culture which, with the Hellenic spiritual legacy, philanthropic and dancing movement, as well as with the aristocratic principles of physical culture, appeared as part of national cultures. A distinction should be made between free physical activism as an unrestrained development of man’s authentic needs and abilities – as man’s unalienable right – and sport as an institutional incarnation of the basic principles of the ruling order in its «pure» form and thus as a given pattern of behaviour. In the former case, we deal with physical activism oriented towards the creation of a world «suited» to man, through the development of his creative powers; in the latter case, we deal with the protection and development of the established order through the creation of a loyal and usable citizen (subject). In Modern Age, man has acquired self-conscious as a playing being in the context of acquiring self-conscious as the builder of society and creator of his own world: the right to play becomes the right to freedom and happiness. Play is considered as the highest form of man’s realization as a universal creative being of freedom and as the most immediate form of the creation of society as a human community: life becomes play. In view of this, the relation between sport and art, and in that context the relation between sport and artistic contests, can effectively be examined.

The philosophy of play abolishes sport as a concrete historical phenomenon and by way of humanist phrases transfers it into the mythological sphere. The attempts to proclaim sport the phenomenon sui generis result in the theory which ignores the comparative method when it comes to the analysis of modern, ancient and medieval «sport». It rather uses the linear approach according to which the conclusion is made that «modern sport» represents the «restoration of ancient sport», and that modern Olympic Games are the reincarnation of the «immortal spirit of antiquity». The philosophy of play treats the «greatest sports events» and «the most important sports personalities» in a similar way. Thus, Pierre de Coubertin, the official «father» of modern Olympism, is not a historical, but a mythological character. The same applies to the Olympic Games: they are not a concrete historical phenomenon, but are a mythological form in which the ruling values appear, and as such are a «festivity of spring». It should be noted here that only a concrete historical consideration of a phenomenon, meaning the tendency (dialectic) of its development – what it becomes, offers a possibility to grasp its essence. Sport is not a suprahistorical, but is a capitalist competition, which in its original form («Equal chances!», «Competition generates quality!») represents the ideology of liberal capitalism. In monopolistic capitalism, ruled by the principle «Destroy the competition!», sport, as the «cult of the existing world» (Coubertin), has become a means for crushing the emancipatory legacy of liberalism and destroying man as a cultural (historical) and natural being.

The academic thought took trouble to divide the relation to sport into separate fields of interest in order to «better explain» the nature of sport. It became possible only when sport developed into a complex and special (not separate) social phenomenon. The «theory of sport» became possible when sport became a field where the principles of competition (fight) and performance (record-mania) were enthroned in a «pure» form, and when their institutional (normative, organizational, functional) framework was shaped. The «sociology of sport» is developing as a positivist area, free from «value-based prejudices» (according to the theses that «sport has nothing to do with politics»), which is concerned with the «examination of social facts». The «history of sport» becomes a linear (unhistorical) way of presenting the «historical development of sport». The emergence and development of sport is not seen within a concrete historical totality, but in the context of an abstract «development of sport» which is reduced to the description of certain («sports») phenomena from the past. With sport being taken out of history, the main categories of sport, manipulated by the sports theory in order to obtain the character of universality and eternity for the principle of performance, become «objectivized» and mythologized. The «philosophy of sport» becomes the philosophical basis for the principles bellum omnium contra omnes and citius, altius, fortius – on which the ruling order is founded. In the structuralist version, sport is reduced to a «subsystem of society», and man to a «sportsman». Interpersonal relations are given by the structure and functional logic of the ruling order. Hence the basic presupposition for a «communal» life is the respect for the established (given) rules, and not the respect for man. Besides the above mentioned fields, new fields are being created (within esthetics, anthropology, pedagogy, philosophy…) which are engaged in further dividing the «field of interest», accompanied regularly by their own respective «method of investigation» (in order to obtain the legitimacy of the «scientific» and «philosophical»), leading to a further deconstruction of sport as a complex and integral phenomenon. Since the sports theory reduced man and society to the «object of investigation», this approach is clearly only completing the labyrinth where every attempt is lost to attain man’s libertarian and creative being from which comes a critical, change-oriented relation to the existing world, and man’s need to create an authentic human world. The basis of the sports theory is a conflict with the critical mind and apriorism which becomes the foundation of authoritarianism in the political and spiritual spheres. The world is conceived phenomenologically: it is a given, while the relation to the world is positivistic. An unhistorical relation is being established towards the past: the «contact» with it is being made through romanticized myths. Instead of a libertarian, reigns a dogmatic-mythological conscious.

Sport absolutizes the progressistic logic which, based on the Social Darwinist laws, becomes a fatal power alienated from man and destroys the very possibility of creating a novum. At the same time, man in sport becomes instrumentalized, by way of a fanaticized (self) destructive conscious, not only as a working force, but also as a working tool and the object of processing (raw material). The philosophy of sport (play) completely ignores the existential risk carried by the domination of the absolutized principle of competition and performance. The annihilation of interpersonal relations, which means of society as a community of emancipated people, involves the annihilation of the body and nature. Sport is not a form in which man’s playing being is manifested; it is a form in which man becomes alienated from his playing being, and a form of his degeneration.

The playing forms in the pre-capitalist period enabled the unity of man with his natural being, and man’s integration in the community by way of higher values which were of a spiritual (religious, ritual, symbolic, social, national, cultural…) character. Sport renounces the emancipatory heritage of traditional forms of physical culture and thus the bodily motion which strives to unify man and nature and develop interpersonal relations. The «development of human powers» through sport has become a systematic destruction of man’s creative powers; the «fight for freedom» through sport leads man astray and contributes to the further development of destructive processes: «activating masses» by way of sport means establishing control over people in their «free (leisure) time» and the creation of massive idiocy… The «playing technique» has become a means for man’s mutilation and the creation of hordes of modern Frankensteins; sportsmen have become gladiators («martial arts»), circus players («games») and stuntmen (car races and other sports with a «high risk»); trainers – slave drivers; instructors of «physical education» – body mechanics; sports physicians – modern Mengelles ; «mass sport» – mass bodily consumer activism; nature – consumer space, meaning commodity suited to the «consumer taste» dictated by the entertaining industry, producers of sports equipment, tourism… As far as the relation between genders is concerned, sport is one of the most important bastions of militant sexism. In sports pedagogy, women are reduced to «lower beings», and in sports practice, the most vulgar insults on women’s account have become the most important way of «motivating» sportsmen to prove their «machismo». It has become clear that all attempts to influence the developments in sport without challenging the ruling orders are meaningless. It is confirmed also by the fate of the so called «second road» («Der zweite Weg») in the development of sport in (Western) Germany – described by Bero Rigauer in his book «Sport and Labour»Sport und Arbeit») – who tried to «humanize» sport by way of a hopeless voluntarism. The movement failed to «humanize» sport, but succeeded in leading the critical mind astray. The dominant tendency in the «development» of sport indicates the dominant tendency in the «development» of contemporary world: instead of creating possibilities of «leaping from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom» (Engels), capitalism destroys the germ of novum created in the civil society and makes man increasingly dependent on the increasingly threatened living environment. Sport crushes not only culture, but life itself.

The attempts of bourgeois theorists to justify the atrocious massacres on sports fields with the help of statistical data on the mortality rate in other social fields, suggest that sport is not the space of «freedom and happiness», as they claim it to be, but is the constituent element of the increasingly cruel everyday life.  If we bear in mind that the basic aim of the ideologues of capitalism is to preserve sport as a means for preserving the established order, it becomes clearer why they continue to glorify sport. The increasing level of violence and the ever bigger risk of losing life in sports «offer an opportunity» for man to «get used» to the growing violence and death in society. The ever bloodier and riskier sport is man’s compensation for the ever bloodier and riskier life in a world where everything is in the service of profit. Having in view the prevailing tendency in the development of society and sport, it is clear that the bourgeois criticism of sport, as well as its proposals for changes, are a futile activity the ultimate aim of which is not to deal with «negative sides» of sport, but with the critical mind that strives to deal with the causes of man’s manipulation and destruction – which means the protection of the established order. The way in which bourgeois theorists discuss Olympism serves to provide a «scientific» and «philosophical» foundation of the Olympic myth, which becomes the basis for establishing a «critical» distance to «negative phenomena» in sport, and not to sport as an institution: the criteria for determining the «true sport» are the original principles of capitalism. The established «development of sport» has finally made the bourgeois theory of sport meaningless, as well as the criticism of sport that seeks to «humanize» it or in some other ways preserve it as an institution. Sport has become the driving engine of capitalist reproduction in a «pure» sense and as such the industry of death.

The governing «theory of physical culture» gives a distorted picture of sport in its attempt to give it a «humanist» aureole. It departs from an idealized picture of a «good sport» in its criticism of a «bad sport» (professionalism). Instead of becoming the starting point for a criticism of sport as anticulture, “physical culture” is obtaining «cultural» legitimacy for sport and creating a mythological picture of an «genuine sport». In that context appears the thesis that sport «has lost the playing content» it used to have as the carrier of «cultural tradition» (Lasch). An impression is being made that sport in its original sense is a superb humanist activity. At the same time, every possibility is abolished of the confrontation between the emancipatory legacy of modern society, based on Rousseau’s pedagogical doctrine (homo homini homo) and humanist Hellenistic legacy (above all, the principle of kalokagathia), and sport, based on Hobbes’ philosophy (homo homini lupus) and the positivist idea of progress which is of a mechanicistic and quantitative character (citius, altius, fortius). The «pacifistic tendency» of sport is reduced to averting «human aggressiveness» from the political (class, libertarian) space to the sporting space and «civilizing» sport by way of the ruling (repressive) evaluative vault (disciplining of man). Instead of fighting for a genuine physical culture, developed on the bases of the development of man’s playing being, the «theory of physical culture» creates an idealized picture of the ruling principles on which sport, as a concrete historical (social) phenomenon, is based.

The relation of the philosophy of play to sport should be seen in the context of the current tendency in the development of the world, which means in the context of the globalizing and totalizing process of man’s dehumanization (decultivation) and technicization (denaturalization). In that context, the question arises as to the philosophy of play being «outdated», and thus also the theory of sport based on it. The philosophy of play is reduced to the creation of a «humanist» mask for the destructive capitalist barbarism, while the theory of sport has become the camera obscura in which philosophical postulates are turned into the tools for obtaining a «philosophical» legitimacy for the sports theory and practice. Discussion about play serves as a means for creating such a form of mediation between man and world, which ultimately means between people, which annihilates every possibility of overcoming the existing order. The philosophy of play (sport) is one of the «distorting mirrors» of the ruling ideology, in which man can see only «his» distorted image. The point is in destroying the «distorting mirrors» and in man becoming a mirror of humanness to another man.

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