Books

The Athletic Mind: 7 Books That Explore Sports Through Philosophy

Photo by David Straight on Unsplash

What happens when sports and philosophy meet? There can be a surreal cognitive dissonance there: Monty Python mined that memorably for their “Philosophers Football” sketch, in which a pitched game of soccer featured the likes of Hegel and Socrates on opposing teams. But a small group of writers have, over the years, found a middle ground between the visceral and physical challenges of assorted sports and the heady, cerebral delights that can come from pondering the works of great philosophers.

Here’s a look at seven books that find the common ground between competitive athletic achievement and a measured, layered analysis of the world around us. They come at their subjects from a variety of perspectives – but they also offer readers a way to look at familiar things in an entirely new way.

  • The cover of the book What We Think About When We Think About Soccer

    What We Think About When We Think About Soccer

    Simon Critchley’s books to date often grapple with questions of philosophy, human existence, and narrative experimentation. He’s read an abundance of books across a host of styles and genres, and is comfortable bringing in left-field references and making them work brilliantly. Critchley is also a longtime supporter of Liverpool F.C., and in this book brings together his aesthetic concerns with a lifelong love of soccer, finding unexpected resonances and overlaps between the two.

     
  • The cover of the book Surfing with Sartre

    Surfing with Sartre

    An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning

    Aaron James’s unexpected take on sports and philosophy acts as a kind of response to a comment by Existential thinker Jean-Paul Sartre on the subject of aquatic sports. (Sartre was, apparently, an advocate for waterskiing.) James takes a contrarian approach here, using surfing as the springboard for a host of philosophical ruminations, adding questions of the purpose of leisure into the mix.

     
  • The cover of the book ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY

    ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY

    During his time living and teaching in Japan in the 1920s, German philosopher Eugen Herrigal furthered his interest in Zen Buddhism via an intense practice of archery. Herrigal then turned his observations into this book, which defies conventional expectations of what a work focusing on athletics can be. The construction of its title has also been echoed in a host of subsequent books.

     
  • The cover of the book Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind

    Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind

    Running, particularly long-distance running, may be the athletic activity best-suited to questions of philosophy. After all, it’s something that gives the mind plenty of time to consider the human body as it interacts with a changing landscape – a relationship at the heart of a lot of philosophy. This anthology collects a host of essays that use running as a way to explore big questions in tones ranging from the academic to the irreverent.

     
  • The cover of the book The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph

    The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph

    Shawn Green spent fourteen years in Major League Baseball, receiving a host of accolades for his play before his retirement in 2008. Green also has a fondness for meditation – and his love of both led him to write The Way of Baseball, which blends deep philosophical ruminations with memories of his playing days. It’s an unconventional look at one player’s evolving approach to sports and life.

     
  • The cover of the book Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint

    Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint

    Soccer isn’t the only team sport that has drawn the attention of the philosophically-minded. This anthology, with an introduction by broadcaster Dick Vitale, brings a host of writers to examine basketball and how it relates to relevant concepts of philosophy. Over the course of the book, the writers examine everything from ethics to history to unlikely resonances between philosophers and players.

     
  • The cover of the book Golf as Meaningful Play: A Philosophical Guide

    Golf as Meaningful Play: A Philosophical Guide

    Sometimes the overlap of philosophy and sports can take the form of essential, primal questions: why are we here? Why do we play these sports? What purpose do they serve? In W. Thomas Schmid’s exploration of golf, he delves into the greater meaning of the sport, and examines questions of what draws players to it and what forms of satisfaction they can take from gameplay.