Each chapter in Mr. Papineau’s engaging book takes a look at a philosophical problem presented by a sport, and links it to phenomena in the wider world ... Mr. Papineau also applies economic concepts, like Coase’s theorem—stating that free markets with well-defined rules lead to relative efficiency—to sports, in which the best players migrate to the best teams and earn the most money unless an artificial mechanism like a draft is devised so as to level the playing field. Another lesson that Mr. Papineau’s book imparts is that athletic contests are not just another form of play. Most people want more than just a happy existence. We want challenges to face and obstacles to overcome. Our ancestors got more of those from daily life than we do today, so we need artificial trials. Sports are, in that sense, the very embodiment of the human striving that brings meaning to life.
The early chapters of Knowing the Score veer toward the natural sciences (how is a major-league hitter able to react to a 100-mph fastball in the blink of an eye?) and psychology (what causes an aging golfer or over-thinking second basemen to choke, or develop a paralyzing case of the yips?). Happily, Papineau moves on to ever-richer ground, from which forms of gamesmanship are tolerable in a civil society, to the shades of difference between bending the rules and immoral behavior; and on to the thespians masquerading as soccer players, who act out near-death experiences for the benefit of gullible referees ... n more than a few cases, sport serves merely as an avenue to heady discussions on race, ethics, or spacetime worms. (No, we’re not talking about an alien invasion.) But in the hands of a logician like Papineau, it’s all part of the (mostly) high-minded fun. There’s something here for anyone who’s ever stared down a six-foot putt to win a two-dollar Nassau, or wondered about the men who do it every Sunday on the pro tour, with millions riding on every stroke.
It isn’t comprehensive, nor does it advance an overarching argument. The tone – informal, anecdotal, contrarian – is more bar-room than high table. What unifies the book is the consistency of its approach: he isn’t interested only in applying philosophical ideas and principles to sport. More importantly – and more originally – he wants to use arguments about sport as a launching pad into philosophy ... For a shortish book, Knowing the Score covers an impressive amount of ground. In other chapters, Papineau examines race and ethnicity (arguing, provocatively, that everyone should be free to define their ethnicities as they choose) and shows how a road-cycling peloton – the main body of racers – is a sort of testing ground for ideas about mutualism and self-interest. The book could do with a more sustained examination of gender, however. I’d have liked to have read Papineau teasing out the philosophical implications posed by a case like that of the intersex South African runner Caster Semenya ... For the most part, however, he barely puts a foot wrong in what is, as he would be unlikely to say, a blinder of a performance.