10
Sep
10

Federer, competition, and philosophy

This is a really wonderful article by David Foster Wallace, titled “Federer as Religion,” though it might as well be called “Roger Federer as philosophy.”

This article interacts with a large number of philosophical topics, including the nature of subjective experience as well as the value of competition.

I’ll just be brief, since I’ve talked about these issues many times on this blog.

First, Wallace focuses for a time on the nature of competition, and he puts his interpretation of sports with characteristic craftsmanship. He says that sports is the reconciliation of human beings with their body which results in beauty. I don’t agree, but I think this is close. The claim of beauty I think is right on, and the focus on the body is appropriate but not the last word. As I’ve said before, the value of sports is parasitic on the value of competition, which I think is the social creation of excellence or beauty. So on that score, I agree. Tennis is a competitive sport in which beauty is created out of the opposing movements of the players. However, the body is important simply because sports is a type of bodily activity. Chess would involve beauty too I believe, thought the emphasis would be on the mind, which again, is the location of the competitive spirit.

Wallace talks about how subjectively, tennis for a really good player must feel very different than it can be physically described. In terms of physics, shit’s moving really fast in really unpredictable directions. For the player though, a type of pattern and rhythm is more appropriate. Skills are worlds unto themselves, and of course its hyperbole to say that the laws of physics are suspended, because they are not. Nonetheless, they seem strangely irrelevant.

And this leads to another philosophical point, which is that the world as seen from the point of view of a person may not be comprehensible to physics or science. And I mean in this a very simple way: take ethics, religion, morality, etiquette, or whatever you want. These things involve NORMS of conduct, which science has no place for. This is because daily life is regulated by oughts. You ought to have helped me, I ought to have held the door for you. The teacher isn’t required to do that. I am obligated to pay the rent. These are part and parcel of our daily experience, yet science can say nothing about them.

The goal of the ethicist is to show how obligation can be made consistent with science AFTER ALL, but at the start the beauty and the mystery of ethics is similar to Foster Wallace’s point about Federer and Michale Jordan, who are both symbols of the way that subjective experience re-enchants the world to us, and that this, like ethics, is a religions experience or sorts. I think its primarily a philosophical experience (which doesn’t exclude it being religious also).

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