Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

History of Philosophy of Sport

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_69


Numerous longer and more in-depth histories of the philosophy of sport have been written in the last five years. Seven articles in the 2010(2) The Journal of Philosophy of Sport were dedicated to the history of sport philosophy around the world: all of which built on Kretchmar’s earlier work on the philosophy of sport history in North America (1997). Two specific and very good short histories of philosophy of sport can be found in Torres’ The Bloomsbury Companion to the Philosophy of Sport (2014) and McNamee and Morgan’s Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Sport (2014).

The present discussion of the history of the philosophy of sport will not revisit what has already been written; rather, the focus will be an overview of the political history and concomitant culture of physical education and athletics and give perspective of how these programs and activities influenced the development of the scholarly study of philosophy of sport.

What Is Philosophy of Sport?

To do philosophy of sport is to ponder about human interaction with play, game, and sport. Typical philosophical questions pertaining to sport may lie in the nature of things (i.e., metaphysics) such as: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of sport? What relations and distinctions are apparent among play, game, and sport? Or who are we as we play a sport? A different question may have to do with the value of sport, play, and games, i.e., “Does play develop character and virtue? Does play lead one to the meaning of life? What is good about sport? What values exist through play?” Yet a different question has to do with how and what we learn as we play a game or sport (epistemology), “What do we know when we play a game?” And yet another sort of question might be what is beautiful, ugly, artistic, sensual, and good (aesthetics)? “Why and how is sport aesthetic? What is the historical basis of the philosophy of sport?” (Kretchmar 1997; Morgan and Meier 1995). Though the questions above are notably a modern interpretation of the philosophic purpose of sport, these sorts of questions or variations of them have existed as long as humans have participated in play and sport.

Philosophical discussion surrounding sport historically is linked to virtue and athleticism and is older than a Western concept of sport. Reid (2011) wrote well about the historical philosophical statements that can be found in the athletic feats of kings and pharaohs in early Egypt and Mesopotamia. Later the notion of training virtue through athletic practice can be found in the writings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and then through the Roman writings of Lucretius, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius (Reid 2011).

Sport philosophy cannot be understood in the modern age outside of the parameters of the history of physical education. Gerber (1971) wrote a seminal text and chronicled the history of physical education as well as its relationship to athletics from the Greek period, through the Renaissance, to European Influence, to the USA. She also covered important writers who discussed the meaning and importance of activity and even what and how activity should be accomplished. Throughout her writings she discusses philosophy of the body as a means of exercise, health, fitness, and preparation for war. Often these writings are dismissed as not being true philosophy in the modern sense, however, such a point of view limits our understanding of history. Gerber’s work focuses on the philosophical importance of these writers in relationship to physical education.

With this being said, there is a rich history of writers from the ancient period to the modern age. In North America, the historical beginning of modern academic sport philosophy, as we know it today, is tied to the late 1800s discussion of the purpose, principles, and philosophy of physical education and athletics, as well as a debate in the mid-1950s about the relevancy of physical education as an academic discipline in colleges and universities.

North American Physical Education

The story begins in 1861 when a physician physical educator began a professional journey to bring systematic physical education instruction to universities and colleges. Edward Hitchcock, appointed Professor of Hygiene and Physical Education at Amherst College in Massachusetts, was the first and only such professor until 1879. Hitchcock was the first doctor-physical educator in the world and the first to unite medicine and school physical education (Gerber 1971). He would not be the last – it became a trend to hire physician physical educators – and if any university or college was incorporated around the same period, its own history will note the hiring of these same credentialed individuals.

Harvard’s Dudley Allen Sargent’s pioneering work from 1879 using anthropometric measurement bluntly informed the world that young college educated men were woefully unfit; his work in curriculum development supported by measurement research became a standard for the physical development of college students. Sargent did not stop with his own students or his program at Harvard, he instituted a Harvard Summer School of Physical Education, as well as a physical education preparation program called the Sargent School for Physical Education. His work was probably the most influential and philosophical since it focused on what programs should be. Again, if one were to pursue the archives of US universities, Sargent-trained educators would be in evidence.

Other important educators of the period included individuals who championed physical education across the USA and around the world, for example, Nils Posse (introduced Swedish gymnastics), Edmund Mussey Hartwell (defined the profession), Delphine Hanna (learned from Sargent and Posse and taught Thomas Wood, Luther Halsey Gulick, Jesse Feiring William, Jay Nash, and many more), William Gilbert Anderson (invited all of the notables to start an Association for the Advancement of Physical Education), Robert Tait McKenzie (sculptor, artist, and physical educator, offered great art about the ideal man), Luther Halsey Gulick (organized the Academy of Physical Education, the prestigious invited group of physical educators, researchers, and writers of the field, still in existence today), Thomas Denison Wood (organized an academic program at Stanford that gave physical education the same standing as other subject matter), Clark Hetherington (acted as a modern philosopher of physical education), Jay Nash (took the concept of play to its broadest connotations to the life experience of children and adults), Charles McCloy (led movement for increased research, focused his work on “physical rather than educational”), and Jesse Feiring Williams (wrote more philosophically and completely about physical education since “Plato”) (Gerber 1971).

None of these curriculums existed in a vacuum and focused only on “activity.” These influential physical educators asked what should be the purpose of physical education? Is the physical separate from the mind? What is the role of physical education in the greater education experience? What principles and philosophy should guide these programs? These questions mirrored the times in which progressive reformers took aim at an educational system that was sedentary and exclusive of any physical activity (Kretchmar 1997).

Soon college educators would gather to form an organization to discuss the merits of physical education, the curriculum, and the principles to guide such a program. In 1885, the Association for the Advancement of Physical Education was formed and with it early physical educators debated the philosophy and principles that should guide and mentor curriculum within physical education and athletics and that debate continued for more than 50 years. Noted individuals mentioned above wrote passionately and extensively about what they thought physical activity should be in all educational settings.

Kretchmar (1997) has argued that these writers, though well intentioned, did not “do philosophy,” rather they “were more interested in sport, dance, exercise, play, and games as vehicles for education than as phenomena in their own right” (p. 188). Not to disagree with Kretchmar, but they did philosophy as they knew it – they addressed the pressing issues of the times and how and why physical activity should be. They also discussed and argued the link of education to physical education, i.e., education of the physical or education through the physical.

An ancillary philosophic issue throughout this period was the role of college athletics. Many did not believe athletics should be associated with physical education programs; others however believed the opposite, athletics should be a laboratory of what is learned in physical education.

Athletics in the USA began as early as 1852 as student-run activities, but it wasn’t long until colleges and universities realized the problems and potentials of such programs. It was argued that students did not have the capacity to manage such programs and universities needed to manage competition to control corruption. Perhaps it was for such ideal purposes, but Smith (2010) argued it was more to control and capture the amount of cash that ticket sales were bringing in. As is typical of universities, when athletics was subsumed into the academy it was placed into an academic unit to be managed, and that unit was the fledging department of physical education. To give credence to athletics, early philosophers of physical education noted that athletics was a laboratory for physical activity, see Jesse Feiring Williams (Organization and Administration of Physical Education, 1922) and Thomas Wood and Rosaline Cassidy (The New Physical Education, 1927). Athletics and physical education were married into a pseudo curriculum unit supported by a philosophy that argued for the benefits of competition and physical activity, i.e., sports, for students.

In these early years, large numbers of male students participated in athletics coached by men who were physical educators and coaches. Women were not necessarily in athletics, but were offered physical activity through dance programs and even play and recreational sport competitive experiences usually managed and lead by women physical educators through student organizations such as the Women’s Recreation Association. Administrators of these programs were typically educated and influenced by the major philosophic writers of the period of time including Wood and Cassidy, Hetherington (School Programs in Physical education, 1922), McCoy (Philosophical Bases for Physical Education, 1940), and Feiring Williams. For over much of 80 years, they debated whether physical education was through the body or of the body. Athletics was supported through the belief that competition builds character. The women debated whether girls and women should compete, and they generally decided it was not good form either physically or socially. These disagreements between the men and women, plus social concern about men and women studying together, resulted in separate departments of physical education with separate buildings, separate administrations, and even separate and unique philosophies that guided their curriculum and preparation. Women physical educator writers focused on principles applied to women’s issues of the times and spoke eloquently for a different model of sport competition and physical activity for women and established their own organization the Division of Girls and Women’s Sports and eventually the AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) (Stoll and VanMullen 2014).

Sometime in the late 1890s and early 1900s, academic majors in physical education appeared in colleges and universities across the USA, and those majors were directed toward developing teachers of physical education and male coaches in schools throughout the USA. The philosophy of physical education was thus also projected toward why physical education was important as well as offering principles as to how physical education and athletics should be managed and what curriculum should be offered.

1950 Conant’s Challenge

All was well until debate swelled about the place of professional programs in universities and colleges. James Conant, president of Harvard University in 1963, criticized the preparation of American teachers in his The Education of American Teachers and even though his text only had a few paragraphs about physical education, those few paragraphs had a major effect on those individuals who were teaching and writing in the field.

Some writers argue that Conant’s affect may not have been so noteworthy, but those who were in the educational system of the time know otherwise. Twietmeyer (2012) argues the “tenuous and contested nature of the discipline’s philosophy foundations” were insecure and there was no direct confrontation by Conant. Perhaps, but the profession felt in great jeopardy – perhaps because Conant’s book was generally read by administrators who also questioned the academic worth of physical education.

Whatever the case, there was a direct response from Franklin Henry, a respected professor of physical education at Southern California who argued for a discipline. The profession responded so powerfully and swiftly to Conant and Henry’s short academic piece that a major change occurred to curriculum and preparation in physical education as well as professorial expectations (Sage 2013).

Unfortunately the major change that occurred also moved athletics out of the laboratory of physical education into its own department or commercial program – without academic ties to any department in the university. In the USA, this decision has had far-reaching negative ramifications for athletes, coaches, and the institution. Women athletics left the AIAW for the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), and the women physical education fears became reality – women’s programs mirror the men’s competitive programs, and fewer and fewer women are involved in coaching and administration. Discussions about ethics, principles, and the philosophy of the organization and administration of athletics ceased. Philosophy of sport is NOT done within athletic departments, because coaches are seldom if ever professors of physical education. The discussions about philosophic issues moved elsewhere to academic disciplines such as sociology or history of sport. These discussions have affected little in the practice of athletics.

By the late 1960s, physical education professors needed an academic discipline, a body of knowledge that had theoretical roots and a research agenda. They had no choice; administrators actually forced them to either research and publish or leave to athletics or just leave. Those professionals who were focused toward writing about principles of physical education and athletics had to make a directional change in their writings as well as how they wrote and how they thought about activity. A very few did, the rest chose a different subdiscipline, sociology, literature, history of sport, or just retired from the profession.

It is important to note that the upsurge that occurred caught the physical education professionals in a catch 22 situation – they really hadn’t been trained or educated in the greater discipline. This was true for all physical educators whether they saw themselves as sport sociologists, sport historians, or in this case philosophy. Now they were calling themselves sport philosophers instead of physical educators. As a subdiscipline – what was the body of knowledge to be studied? Some writing did exist that was philosophical and directed toward sport in general, i.e., Metheny, Connotations of Movement in Sport and Dance, 1965; Harold Slusher, Man, Sport and Existence, 1967, plus a very important work by Paul Weiss, Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry, 1969.

It is at this juncture where fate and individual choice made a difference in future direction.

The year was 1970 and no organization existed for “philosophers” of sport and no specialized journal existed. Three programs did exist at universities to train sport philosophers, i.e., Illinois with Earle Zeigler, USC with Metheny and Slusher, and Seymour Kleinman at the Ohio State University. Also there was a unique program at the State University of New York, College at Brockport, where under the deanship of Warren Fraleigh, six sport philosophy-trained individuals taught six different courses exclusively devoted “to philosophic content and inquiry” (Kretchmar 1997, p. 192).

Philosophy of Sport

Kretchmar (1997) gives a play-by-play analysis of how the professionals of the period, Weiss, Fraleigh, Gerber, moved to establish a professional organization that had its first meeting in 1972 and its first conference in 1973. The society, titled Philosophic Society for the Study of Sport, immediately founded a professional scholarly publication, The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (see iaps.net). The purpose of the society was to foster interchange and scholarship among those interested in the scholarly study of sport. The Society changed its name to the International Association of the Philosophy of Sport in 2001. This organization has been the root from which scholarly organizations have bloomed throughout the world, including Europe, Asia, and South America. Though the membership of IAPS is not large, there is a determined, energetic, and scholarly group that continues writing and writing well – many of these individuals are consultants for major global sport organizations (See IAPS.net). Unfortunately, even though it is a respected disciplinary study in graduate programs around the world, philosophy of sport courses have disappeared from undergraduate physical education, sport science curriculum in the USA; and this trend is not unique to the USA. The reason is tangled, but the answer rests with convincing the greater disciplines of sport science, exercise science, and physical education of philosophy of sport’s importance to their disciplines. With that being said, the scholars continue their writing and offer important, thought-provoking scholarship concerning sport and competition.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for ETHICSUniversity of IdahoMoscowUSA