‘DO NOT ALL charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy?’ asked John Keats, displaying that contempt for how words are actually pronounced that used to be the hallmark of the serious poet.
Dismayed at Newton’s rather prosaic explanation of the rainbow as the refraction of pure light as it travels from one medium to the next, Keats was expressing his preference for a world of magical resonances and spiritual high-jinks over dull, measured, sober analysis.
But Keats was fighting a losing battle, if only because his world of mystery and arcane knowledge was also full of TB, cholera, syphilis and assorted poxes, whereas the spoddy philosophers and natural scientists ultimately got to load up on internet pornography, Wii consoles and easi-singles cheese.
Still, there are those obscurantists and fundamentalists today who will try to erect a defensive dyke [insert own gag here] between them and the tide of rationalism: zealots of all kinds who deny that logic, evidence and the scientific method can shed any light on their peculiar brand of ritualistic, superstitious behaviour.
Chief amongst them are, of course, football fans. So here and in the weeks and months to come, we will endeavour to apply the merest touch of cold philosophy to the charms of the beautiful game in an effort to spread enlightenment where once there was only darkness, barbarism and ITV sport.
Knowing that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, much like Bobby Zamora trying to spring the offside trap, we’ll make it easy on ourselves on this first outing. Rather than looking at the quantum physics of a Roberto Carlos free-kick or deciphering the syllogistic complexities of a Rio Ferdinand tweet, we’ll confine ourselves the most charmless, misshapen, lumpen specimen of football’s fascinating array of flora and fauna.
And so to Andy Gray, a man so benighted that he couldn’t even live up to the professional standards that Sky Sports had been gleefully lowering over the last two decades.
‘Can you believe that? A female linesman. Women don’t know the offside rule’
It would be easy – and fun – to heap yet more scorn and opprobrium on that high-domed bonce of his along with the rest of the media pack. Yet what all those worthy deconstructions of locker-room mores missed is that Gray, in refusing to believe that a woman could carry the task of looking and waving a flag to the same exacting standards of her male counterpart, is simply the latest in a line of great thinkers who have pondered deeply on such questions.
It is not just that the former Villa and Scotland frontman bears a striking resemblance to Socrates, right, whose ugliness was as famed throughout the ancient world as his wisdom.
By commenting ‘Can you believe that? A female linesman. Women don’t know the offside rule’, Gray unwittingly and witlessly echoed the pantheon of philosophers that have shaped our civilization. For there is scarcely a metaphysical pundit of any note who hasn’t held the sincere belief that, as Dr Dre (University of Compton) put it, “Bitches Ain’t Shit”; or as Aristotle less pithily claimed, “Women are defective by nature…a male is male in virtue of a particular ability, and a female in virtue of a particular inability” (presumably the inability to comprehend the offside rule).
In case any Athenian women found this a little obscure, he goes on to compare them to pets: ‘It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.’
Outside of certain ‘niche’ clubs and more risqué suburban parties, it’s fair to say that this attitude is not pervasive in modern Western societies. Yet before we dismiss this as a relic of the kind the kind of pre-scientific thinking that also believed that the brain was an organ for cooling the blood (perhaps not such an unlikely hypothesis in the case of Sky Sports presenters), it’s interesting to note that philosophy’s rather jaded opinion of the fairer sex endured long after John Stuart Mill wrote ‘The Subjection of Women’ in 1869 (he was against it, on the whole).
Friedrich Nietzsche, mainly famous for sporting an extraordinarily luxuriant moustache not seen again until the Liverpool teams of the 1980s, also wrote about metaphysics and etiquette for the late 19th Century German chattering classes. “You are going to women?” he asked, “Do not forget the whip!”
“There is a continuous thread linking Gray’s Neanderthal ravings and this seemingly ingrained sexism in the philosophical psyche.”
And despite the advent of the right to vote, birth control, Mary Robinson and the Pussy Cat Dolls in the intervening century or so, it’s notable that only one-fifth of philosophy professors are women according to a recent snapshot of the discipline. That’s the kind of stat that makes the cosy boys’ club of sports broadcasting with its Gaby Logans and Sue Barkers look progressive by comparison.
Breaking the rules
There is a continuous thread linking Gray’s Neanderthal ravings and this seemingly ingrained sexism in the philosophical psyche. It is that in exchanges and disputes between men there is an unhealthy obsession with rules and their observance, as any cursory glance at the football messaging boards will demonstrate. As Aristotle noted, the very essence of what it is to be male is rule-making.
The history of philosophy is a series of failed attempts to systematise the rules as to how language, knowledge, science, morality, art, law, society and the universe ought to work. This kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour contains more than a hint of hubris which anyone who has watched a man trying to construct flat-pack furniture without the aid of instructions will immediately recognise.
And it may be that it is a uniquely male quality. A famous study of children’s moral development by Carol Gilligan, a US psychologist, found that boys tend to make their moral judgements on the basis of rules and principles as opposed to the girls’ more relationship-centred ‘ethic of caring’.
Having felt the studs of Graeme Souness, Terry Butcher et al in his playing days, one can only imagine the choice epithets Gray would use for this ‘ethic of caring’. But there are some philosophical arguments that suggest that this peculiar focus on rules cannot be the whole story.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, who admittedly would have been a poor team-player and preferred John Wayne movies and comics to football, formulated the ‘rule-following paradox’. Put simply, it states that real knowledge cannot be just a matter of the application of the correct rules, because knowing how to apply any particular rule correctly itself involves the application of some prior rules, and so on until we get an infinite regress or hierarchy of rules.
Having felt the studs of Graeme Souness, Terry Butcher et al in his playing days, one can only imagine the choice epithets Gray would use for this ‘ethic of caring’
Knowing an infinite number of rules before being able to come to any correct judgement is of course impossible, although the current number of FIFA ‘clarifications’ of the offside rule comes pretty close.
If this is right then no amount of rule books, not even a kind of sanctified Rules of The Football Association as written by the Great Gaffer in the Sky, can assure us that we are on the right path to true knowledge.
We need something else like the careful, attentive weighing up of concrete relationships that Carol Gilligan observed in the young girls in her study. It may be that women are better able to assess whether some forward moving at the speed of an Olympic sprinter is level with his marker than an assistant wondering whether the benefit of the doubt should be given to the attacking player if there is more that 8mm of a clear gap between him and the…uh-oh…they’ve scored.
The ref’s looking at me now. Better look decisive. At the end of the day, as Gray might have said, maybe that’s why Sian Massey made the right call.
‘Carl Dolan is a lapsed philosopher who is agnostic about the existence of Richard Dawkins. He has played football at some of the lowest levels imaginable in Ireland, England and Belgium’.