Introducing the philosophy of soccer series

For the player in action the football field is not an “object,” that is, the ideal term which can give rise to an indefinite multiplicity of perspectival views and remain equivalent under its apparent transformations. It is pervaded with lines of force (the “yard lines”; those which demarcate the “penalty area”) and articulated in sectors (for example, the “openings” between the adversaries) which call for a certain mode of action and which initiate and guide the action as if the player were unaware of it. The field itself is not given to him, but present as the immanent term of his practical intentions; the player becomes one with it and feels the direction of the “goal,” for example, just as immediately as the vertical and the horizontal planes of his own body. It would not be sufficient to say that consciousness inhabits this milieu. At this moment consciousness is nothing other than the dialectic of milieu and action. Each maneuver undertaken by the player modifies the character of the field and establishes in it new lines of force in which the action in turn unfolds and is accomplished, again altering the phenomenal field.

— Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The structure of behavior, 1942

I’d have considered myself fortunate to be coached by Guardiola … Ibrahimovic thought he was insulting him when he called him ‘The Philosopher’, but when you think about it, that’s actually a nice compliment.

— Andrea Pirlo (with Alessandro Alciato), I think therefore I play, 2013

It may not be obvious, given the cerebral image of the armchair philosopher, and given the anti-intellectualism of many soccer players and their supporters, but soccer and philosophy have a lot to offer one another. A glance at the history of the game will confirm that many important innovations in how soccer is played occurred not by accident but through the careful application of thought. From the invention of the passing game to the of the creation of the false number 9, there is much to recommend the application of philosophy to the practice of the game. But I will concentrate here on the question in the opposite direction: what does soccer have to offer to the field of thought?

This blog is concerned with developing a non-mentalistic psychology of social and collective activity. Soccer can be a fertile source of material for thinking about what such a psychology should look like. Soccer-playing differs from the kinds of activities that psychologists have historically concerned themselves with—activities of the laboratory-based, button-pushing, form-filling variety in which there is typically one single subject whose environment is tightly controlled by the experimenter. A soccer match is not much like the typical laboratory experiment: it shares none of those properties of experimenter control that lend respectability to laboratory-based psychological studies. And yet soccer is, in its own way, a constrained domain of behaviour. The soccer player is constrained by a set of rules, and by the presence of other players, and by the physical playing space with its particular shape and markings. These constraints are what make soccer a good model for thinking about how collective behaviour works in the wild. Soccer is a tractable social phenomenon. The hope is that soccer-playing has enough in common with other kinds of social behaviour that an understanding of the behaviour of soccer players will eventually serve as a useful guide to understanding how social behaviour works in general.

Above all, thinking about soccer in psychological terms forces us to confront certain methodological assumptions that may simply go unremarked in the day-to-day practice of psychologists, because the psychologist’s task of devising experimental activities to run on individual subjects needn’t ever come into conflict with these assumptions. Here are a few of the issues that we are forced to consider when thinking about soccer:

  • Noting that soccer is a team sport, we are compelled to question what it means to be an individual actor. There’s a tendency for philosophy to look inwards to explain behaviour, assuming that action must first be planned in the head before it can be executed in the world. This assumption is sometimes called methodological individualism (though, as with practically any term in philosophy, there is disagreement about what this term actually means). Soccer may ultimately prove to be compatible with methodological individualism, but it cannot simply be assumed to be so. Playing the game is only possible when you can get a group of people together in a space, and coordinate them towards a common end. Successful teams overcome their opponents by better making use of their collective resources: it’s all very well having the most skilful players, but the team as a whole will only work if those players subordinate their actions to the collective endeavour.
  • But, recognizing that the game is played by individuals, we must also confront the nature of a team. Merely observing that soccer is a team sport does not permit us to pursue some form of methodological collectivism. We will have little success if we simply try to treat the team as an entity in its right, with its own intentions and dispositions, for this overlooks the perspective of the individual player. The individual remains, after all, the only unit to which psychological categories (perception, experience) can be applied. The game is played by teams made up of individuals each engaged in perceiving and acting upon a shared space. Soccer requires us to confront the problems of the individual in an environment that is populated with other actors. In practice, it may not be possible or necessary for players to plan moves in their head in advance, because the relevant structure in the bringing about of those moves is distributed across teammates and across the space they are playing in. An important task, for a psychology of soccer, is to identify precisely which aspects of this structure are relevant in the organization of a given behaviour.
  • Soccer forces us to attend to dynamics. You can try to understand soccer by placing magnets on a board and moving them about one at a time, as in chess. This may be a useful exercise in some circumstances but it hardly captures the true nature of the game. The spaces on a soccer field are constantly changing shape with the movements and potential movements of all of the players. If the game is characterized by movement, then any explanation of how players plan and execute their moves must take into account that what players perceive is not a static scene but a moving situation that extends in time. A player making a pass may attend not merely to the current location of their teammate but also to the space into which the teammate’s movement projects; that is, the passer may attend to where their teammate is going to be. One method for taking account of this would be to assume that the passer is able to mentally calculate the future position of the teammate. But this overlooks the richness of the perceivable dynamics, which may be complex enough in their own right that the passer is able to exploit them in controlling the pass. A serious examination of the dynamics may show that mental calculation is simply unnecessary.
  • We must also confront the nature of the individual’s environment. The player’s environment in soccer is not merely given, but is in part shaped by the player’s own actions. Soccer pundits talk, for instance, of attacking players creating space for their teammates by dragging the opposing defenders out of position. The psychologist’s traditional way of thinking—in terms of individuals reacting to changing facts in their environment—is ill-equipped to accommodate such activity. In fact, any movement that a player makes on a soccer pitch has the consequence of changing the subsequent actions that are possible for the player and for the player’s teammates and opponents. Standard methodological practice in psychology insists upon the experimenter having strict control over the subject’s environment. But perhaps this obscures something important: changing the shape of one’s own environment is a basic feature of what it is to act.
  • Soccer forces us to take seriously the problem of social facts. There is a tendency, in philosophical thought, for a crude separation to be made between the social and the physical. But things are rarely so straightforward. Merleau-Ponty notes in the quote at the top of this post (a frequently reproduced passage from his book The structure of behavior) that field markings in soccer exert a physical influence over the players—in his terms, they act as ‘lines of force’ which invite particular actions. So a line that gets its meaning purely by the agreement of the people who initially set up the rules of the game comes to be experienced as having a physical presence. The question is, how can this be?
  • Finally, we must confront the nature of intentions. In soccer, the referee has the job of judging when a foul has been committed. Many fouls require that the offence has been committed intentionally. A handball or a back-pass are only a foul if the referee judges that the player deliberately brought about the outcome; meanwhile, a player can be penalized for the offence of attempting to trip an opponent, even if that attempt was unsuccessful. The referee is thus expected to judge the player’s intentions purely from observing the player’s actions. This is odd, because, in our folk conception, intentions are a private affair, accessible only to the person whose intentions they are. Yet nobody worries that referees are engaged in a metaphysically impossible task every time they take to the field. How can it be that referees can so easily and routinely make decisions about a player’s intentions? Could it be that intentions are not private after all, but are in fact directly perceivable by a third-party observer? Might intentions be nothing more than the relations that can be observed between an actor and the structure of the actor’s surroundings? (A similar problem arises in the law, of course, where courts are expected to decide about the intentions of defendants. The court’s task is more indirect, however, involving as it does the the piecemeal reconstructing of a scenario from the available evidence.) Do we need to revise our understanding of intentions?

I intend to discuss these issues in future posts. The main aim of this series will be to develop a philosophical framework for understanding soccer-playing as a species of behaviour carried out in a shared space. I hope that this analysis will serve as a useful testing ground and model for understanding how we should approach the problems of social and collective action more generally (which is to say, the problem of how action is coordinated and executed within an environment that is populated). I may also post on related topics, such as on the historical connections between soccer and philosophy, and on other sundry bits of soccer culture that I feel worth sharing. I will not, in general, be attempting to analyse particular matches or players, except briefly to illustrate some more abstract point. The objective is to develop a thoroughgoing philosophy of soccer, and that is, after all, a serious business.

A note on terminology: I will generally use the word ‘soccer’ in this series, rather than ‘football’. The former term appears to be more commonly used in scholarly discussion of the game, and has the advantage of unambiguously referring to association football, rather than American football or any other variety of the game. It is customary for the English to balk at the use of the word ‘soccer’. ‘Soccer’ is perceived as a crassly American term, adopted through sheer ignorance (see John Cleese on the subject, for example: “Why do they have such a problem calling it football? It’s a game played with a ball that is struck with the foot. … Are you following this, America?”) In fact, the term ‘soccer’ could hardly be more English: it is a contraction, in the English upper-class fashion, of ‘association football’ (likewise, ‘rugby football’ is to this day contracted by the English to ‘rugger’). I thus use the term without apology, and will accept no charge to the effect that in doing so I become a traitor to my national culture.


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