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Wittgenstein References In Everything

Jordan Ellenberg takes on the big issue of the day: Are math competitions sports? Perhaps a more fruitful way of approaching this than quoting Wittgenstein is simply to point out that jocks are much more likely to beat up the math team than invite them to the big party.

July 16, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

I did chess and cross-country at school, and was more tired after a chess match. Trouble forming words and such.

Posted by: John Isbell | Jul 16, 2004 10:07:18 AM

"jocks are much more likely to beat up the math team than invite them to the big party"

Yeah, but you have to admit that we are much better at counting their punches.

Posted by: Levi | Jul 16, 2004 10:50:42 AM

I have an athletic letter for being on my high school academic team (quiz bowl)

Posted by: Lis Riba | Jul 16, 2004 10:56:19 AM

"Not that you'd mistake these kids for the campus jocks—when I competed at the Olympiad, there were plenty of skinny eccentrics, with a promiscuous hippie here and there, and not a little subclinical autism spectrum. But the math stars display the focused confidence of athletes, even, at times, adopting Deion-style swagger. Honesty compels me to confess that my high-school math team was called the 'Hell's Angles'; that we wore matching black T-shirts advertising this fact; and that we entered each match in file behind our captain, who carried on his shoulder a boombox playing 'Hip To Be Square.'"

Heh heh. Hell's Angles...

Posted by: JP | Jul 16, 2004 11:04:31 AM

"Perhaps a more fruitful way of approaching this than quoting Wittgenstein is simply to point out that jocks are much more likely to beat up the math team than invite them to the big party."

Hmm. But jocks would also be inclined to beat up, say, male figure skaters, yet that's still considered a sport.

Posted by: JP | Jul 16, 2004 11:06:10 AM

Math competitions are sports in Texas. The long arm of no-pass, no-play effects even the speech geeks. Fail Chemistry, you don't go to the show. So, yeah, they should be for that reason.


HOWEVER, that doesn't mean you should try to cheese out of your PE credit, puny human. Math team should certainly not get you out of some very basic physical fitness.

Posted by: Echo4Mike | Jul 16, 2004 11:10:23 AM

The jocks play their game, we play ours.

Posted by: Levi | Jul 16, 2004 11:13:05 AM

Despite being the proud owner of a high school letter with a capital sigma on it (math contest winner), and being a professional semi-mathematician, I must say that math is not a sport, it is an art. The best theorems, the best conjectures, the most elegant proofs should be the subject of endless art journal blather, and sold for millions to the nouveau riche, who will display them ostentatiously as symbols of wealth and good taste.

Posted by: Ken C. | Jul 16, 2004 11:16:08 AM

It's an art, a sport, a science, ...don't get me started on math.

Posted by: Levi | Jul 16, 2004 11:28:39 AM

'Wittgenstein References In Everything'

Yes, more and more every day. Even Homer Simpson referenced him.

Posted by: judson frondorf | Jul 16, 2004 11:30:50 AM

Math is no more of a sport than chess, darts or golf.

Posted by: NJorl | Jul 16, 2004 11:32:43 AM

Gone googling Huizinga

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 16, 2004 12:04:09 PM

Heart of Gameness

Paper on redefinition of "game" with the goal of including new computer varieties;some summary of previous work. Found a complete copy of "Homo Ludens" online...in Russian. When will advanced googling be in the Olympics?

Those who think chess isn't a sport have never played 2 minute chess online or off; my carpal tunnel and mouse-hand calluses testify to its sportness

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 16, 2004 12:41:09 PM

PI

"Investigations",with commentary

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 16, 2004 12:54:17 PM

"...it is a fact that sautéing zucchini isn't [a sport]."

Iron Chef, anyone?

Posted by: TJR | Jul 16, 2004 12:58:52 PM

The Wittgenstein reference wasn't even appropriate. Suits is trying to define "sports," while Wittgensteing points out the difficulty of definging "games." Suits rightly explains that in sports, the competition derives mainly from physical skills. I don't see how Wittgenstein contradicts this point.

Posted by: blah | Jul 16, 2004 1:02:37 PM

Well, Suits bases his definition of "sport" on his definition of "game", and he does disagree with Wittgenstein in that he thinks a definition of "game" is possible and desirable. In later papers, Suits changes his mind and says that some sports, like gymnastics, are not games but "judged performances"; but this doesn't affect the point that, unlike W, he thinks the word "game" has a definition.

Posted by: J. Ellenberg | Jul 16, 2004 1:25:20 PM

Also; Wittgenstein's point about the games isn't just a point about the word "game" it's an example designed to illustrate a broader linguistic point which seems applicable to "sports" as well.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jul 16, 2004 1:39:51 PM

Not to deny Wittgenstein's point or its applicability to this conversation, but aren't his examples (at least the ones quoted in the article) kind of lousy? Games -- including the ones he cites -- have winners and losers. You could add a requirement that games also be relatively trivial in order to exclude things like, say, the Cold War, but that seems like a matter of personal taste to me.

Posted by: Tom | Jul 16, 2004 2:29:26 PM

I still don't see how Wittgenstein contradicts Suits' point. However you define games (or even if it is desirable), sports are types of games that primarily involve physical skill. Thus, you can adequately distinguish sports from other types of games, regardless of whether you can settle on an adequate definition of a "game."

In short, even if you cannot come up with a definition "game" that will satisfy everyone, there are still good ways of distingushing sports from other types of games.

It's sort of like saying that since you cannot come up with a good defintion of "living thing," there is no adequate way of distinguishing animals from other living things.

Posted by: blah | Jul 16, 2004 2:51:53 PM

Sports are those contests to which a culture attaches quasi-epic importance. That's the only reason that most American sports fans regard golf as a sport, but find figure skating's status as a sport questionable, or even dubious. Jung, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, all would shed much more light on the "what is a sport" question than Wittgenstein.

"Sport" is hugely different from "game", which is laden with far less cultural freight. Wittgenstein's musings give a clearer picture of the relatively abstract concept of "game"; (mis)applied to sports, the essentially historical/anthropological/political nature of the distinction between what is and what isn't, is obscured.

Posted by: son volt | Jul 16, 2004 3:07:12 PM

blah-

You suggest that our practice of making distinctions between sports and non-sports doesn't depend on determinate definitions. Wittgenstein knows that too. He absolutely doesn't hold that our capacity for making such distinctions is inadequate, since we obviously do it. Also, why do you think games have to have winners and losers? How about catch? There are winners and losers in a game of catch?

Son-

As I read that thing, Wittgenstein is adduced as a counterpoint to what Suits is up to, not for sports exegesis per se. Anyway, Jung? I'm curious as to what a Jungian explication of "sport" is going to involve. Care to share?

Posted by: spacetoast | Jul 16, 2004 3:50:43 PM

Jung was a guess based on a couple of parenthetical remarks on the relation of sports to ritual in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. So one would presumably cite Jung on the latent content of ritual, and apply it to sports. That's as far as I can think it through for the moment.

Suits' definition of sport included the crucial criterion "has a wide following", which is a sort of keyhole view of the process of cultural production that elevates some game or another to the status of sport. I guess it's the counterposition of Wittgenstein by the essay's author that I have the issue with, because, again, a game and a sport are not commensurate concepts.

I realize that Ellenberg reverts to a view that more resembles Suits', but I think he misses the significance of the "wide following" criterion, which itself doesn't go nearly far enough. Bowling has a wide following (as a spectator sport), yet most people wouldn't call bowling a sport, because the pastime lacks epic stature.

Posted by: son volt | Jul 16, 2004 4:38:49 PM

You suggest that our practice of making distinctions between sports and non-sports doesn't depend on determinate definitions. Wittgenstein knows that too. He absolutely doesn't hold that our capacity for making such distinctions is inadequate, since we obviously do it.

Right, so that makes the Wittgenstein reference inappropriate. The thrust of the article was wether we could adequately distinguish sports from other games, and Wittgenstein was purportedly used to show that this was not truly possible.

Posted by: blah | Jul 16, 2004 4:45:51 PM

Actually, blah, I don't think W wants to say that we can't adequately distinguish sports from other games; I think he would say it's too naive to suppose that the means by which we make this distinction is a list of criteria. Whereas Suits not only thinks there exists such a list of criteria, he offers one.

Posted by: J. Ellenberg | Jul 16, 2004 5:09:28 PM

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