The Athlete as Philosopher

Sunday, May 16, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, August 26, 2018

What Is It

For the ancient Greeks, sport was an integral part of education. Athletic programs remain in schools today, but there is a growing gap between the modern sports experience and enduring educational values such as self-discovery, responsibility, respect, and citizenship. Is there a way to bridge this gap? Can sports be a means to teach values such as these? Josh and Ken try out with Heather Reid from Morningside College, author of The Philosophical Athlete.

Listening Notes

Can sports make us better thinkers? Ken thinks so; Josh doesn’t buy it. But despite the health concerns and damage that sports can do to one’s body that Josh brings up, Ken holds that sports teach us about our own limits and force us to confront ourselves. He adds that athletic training instills important habits like focus and determination and, as the ancient Greeks saw it, help us engage in a philosophical life. Still, Josh calls Ken to admit that sports are not all good; the permanent physical and mental damage that players can get from participating in them cannot be underestimated.

Heather Reid, professor of philosophy at Morningside College and author of The Philosophical Athlete, joins Josh and Ken. Josh and Ken challenge Heather to consider whether the commercialization of sports has corrupted its practice, to which Heather responds that we cannot see sports as simply giving players and managers financial gain. She adds that while the possibility of becoming a professional and lucrative athlete are unlikely, the benefits of engaging in sports, including finding one’s place on a team, learning about oneself, and cultivating one’s own abilities, are plenty. She relates these ideas to those of the ancient Greeks who established the Olympic Games and the idea of arete, the Greek virtue of excellence.

In the next segment Heather, Josh, and Ken explore sports and its relations to society. Heather emphasizes that competition in sport can in fact promote excellence and, not just that, encourage players to recognize their opponents as fellow human beings. She notes that the Greek virtue of arete was always understood in the context of community and that the Olympic Games, a religious ritual, was meant to please the Gods and, in turn, help everyone. The philosophers conclude the discussion by discussing the unjust aspects of society that sports might help reinforce, including toxic masculinity in the locker room, social class and racial divides, and how these unjust tendencies can be mediated.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:36) → Roving Philosophical Reporter Liza Veale canvasses various sports and football/martial arts films, finding sports to be seen as teaching players to master themselves, teaching them about redemption and transcendence, and teaching them about the importance of maintaining excellence for one’s comrades. She concludes with an interview of Philippe Petit, the daring high-wire artist who famously crossed a tightrope that he ledged between the Twin Towers in 1974.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 47:38) → Ian Shoales muses the whimsical idea of a sports team of philosophers, among other things.  



Josh Landy  
Do sports cultivate virtues like discipline, self-knowledge, and wisdom?

Ken Taylor  
Or do they just cultivate vices like aggression, greed, and brutality?

Comments (4)

simka321's picture


Sunday, August 26, 2018 -- 10:47 AM

On your show today about

On your show today about athletes, I hope that you touch on the metaphysical angle. Particularly, what I have in mind is Schopenhauer's notion that the optimal connection we have with ultimate Reality and the Will is through the body.

toddwilliamsmith's picture


Sunday, August 26, 2018 -- 11:26 AM

Is the philosophy of sport

Is the philosophy of sport just a way of justifying the existence of the sport?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, March 30, 2021 -- 7:01 AM

I think I made some remark or

I think I made some remark or other about this in 2018. Reflecting now and having read the query from TWS, my idea is this: if athletes have a yen for philosophical thought, sobeit. My appreciation for philosophy did not surface until much later in life, but, i really liked playing basketball. The football quarterback's motive was not, strictly speaking, philosophy. He was demonstrating solidarity with those who were fighting for equal treatment under the law, a fourteenth amendment matter, if memory serves. Argue philosophy or human rights or both if you wish. I don't know. But, I sorta doubt that the quarterback was thinking of Aristotle, Socrates, or Davidson. Maybe, just maybe Rawls?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, April 25, 2021 -- 5:42 AM

Philosophy uber alles. The

Philosophy uber alles. The athlete as philosopher could just as easily be replaced with the construction “The ‘X’ as philosopher.” The teacher as philosopher; the artist, the parent, the soldier. Each of these activities reflects philosophy, but sport has a unique and damned role in enforcing the power structures of society and, for the greater part, limiting human potential rather than transcending it. 

Arete changed meaning from Homer to Athens to biblical times putting color to virtue, excellence, purpose, prosperity, ethics and morality. Using this term as a proxy for virtue does a great disservice to sport and the use of that term. The greeks themselves struggled to give this term meaning – which makes its fundamental worth questionable here. Heather Reid’s book on Aretism - Aretism: An Ancient Sports Philosophy for the Modern World is not a book I have read. Perhaps I should. In any case, it rubs me wrong to talk of athletic arete – when sport all too often justifies inequity in modern life. This is dangerous.

Play and sport are not the same. I wish the show had gone there. It is fundamental to understanding collegiate athletics, where the piece started with the supposed growing gap between the modern sports experience and enduring educational values. Due to SARS2, there has been less play and an unnerving premature push to continue with sport. If there are values to teach from college and professional sport, public health is not one.

The best, genuine, and fundamental values of sport – its arete if Heather would go there – are the values Ed mentioned in his call-in, stressing the long-term effects. Brain, body, and gut intertwine in a way that is uniquely human. There is no philosophy without the body. If sport can/would delineate that point alone, maybe it is less damned in my book. As it is, I’d rather my alma mater and TV were clean of anything but non-varsity sports.

I appreciate the beauty of sport. I don’t think there is much outside intramural competition to make for a better life. Professional athletes are a hollow idol of philosophy, reflecting luck and elitism more than encouraging discipline, self-knowledge, or wisdom.