Soccer: The Philosophy Of

The Philosophy Of Soccer

 The Ways To Watch Soccer

Soccer fans screamingWalk into a soccer stadium, search for a seat of preference, sit-down, and begin to watch the soccer match: how to watch a soccer game. But, though the simple explanation is satisfactory, there is yet a different explanation, of which be wedded to sophistication and counterintuitive intuitions. Think about walking into the soccer stadium, and then think about how to gain entry into the stadium, and then execute on these thoughts; think about which seat is optimal for the set of personal preferences held in mind, think about a strategy to reach the seat without interrupting other soccer fans, and then execute a the plan of action; think about the teams on the field, think about the score, and then evaluate the current state of the game. This is also how one can go about attending a sporting event. The same outcome, but a different phenomenal analysis.

The source of the primary differences between both the simple and sophisticated approach depends entirely upon the position of consciousness which either the simple or sophisticated approaches originate in. That is to say, the style of description we adopt, particularly when we explain the things in the world, can be from numerous vantage points within conscious experience. Great stress must likewise be added to this, for a comprehensive understanding this point can solve a lot of futile problems in philosophy, as many useless problems arise out of point-of-view explanations. So what does it mean to have vantage points within consciousness? What is the philosophy of soccer?

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The stream of consciousness we experience while at a soccer event is a feed of information coming from numerous sense-organs; and awareness is at the centre of the numerous pathways which feed information inwardly toward it. Of course, in some cases, awareness modifies the information that is coming in via top-down expectation; for example, the labels on the packaging of food can influence our beliefs about the properties of said food, even to the point of modifying the taste of the food. Meaning, some of the information that is fed into the locus of awareness is modified by expectation: thus, bottom-up processing is not the only means of knowing, we can know things both a priori and a posteriori: before and after the experience. Moreover, each stream of information that flows into awareness can be identified and focused on via effortful attention.

For instance, there is a psychological phenomenon known as in-attentional blindness that occurs when a person either pays too little or too much attention to something, and so, even though their brain might have unconsciously processed a visual-input, the person fails to notice something that is within their visual field. A good, concrete example of this would be slight-of-hand tricks. Street performers can trick on-lookers by simply doing their slight-of-hand tricks in plain sight, as most on-lookers expect the slight-of-hand trick to be hidden from their view and so over-focus on small details like the cuff of a sleeve or the opening of a jacket. What we can learn from in-attentional blindness and phenomena similar to it, like change blindness, is that we can select particular aspects from various streams of information which bombard consciousness. We need not attend to the entire world as it impresses upon our sensory-organs.

Data On Attentional Blindness

graphic of blink presentation procedure

Graph of semantic blink data from Barnard et al. 2004

Source: Barnard, P. Scott, S.K. Taylor, J. May, J & Knightley, W. (2004). Paying attention to meaning.Psychological Science. 15, 179-186.

Now, to relate this back to the vantage points within consciousness and the different descriptions of the soccer match that we presented, consider the following: we have the ability to actively select various aspects of conscious experience and focus entirely on said conscious content. With our so choosing to do so, we can focus on either our beliefs or representations of the environment; that is, we could describe our thoughts about the environment, or we could describe the visual representation of the environment. In reference to our two descriptions of watching a soccer match, we can see that one focuses on the meta-cognitive processes which are necessary to watch the soccer match, and the other focuses on the visual-field, of which bares the contents of the soccer stadium. By flashing a light onto either our meta-cognitive processes or the stream of visual input rushing towards consciousness, we can have two different descriptions of the same environment: we can shift the vantage point within consciousness.

The Intentionality of Consciousness 

Soccer field with players

What we have thus far described is the notion of Intentionality: the ability for the mind to be directed toward or to be about something. That is, when we are concerned about finding our ticket for the soccer match, so we can gain entry into the stadium, we are necessarily concerned about the ticket and its location. Likewise, when we are earnestly watching the soccer game, rooting for our favourite team, our mind is necessarily directed toward something. But to be clear, not all mental states are about something. There are experiences such as Free-Floating Anxiety, which are neither about nor directed at anything. Even furthermore, we also have unconscious beliefs and attitudes, of which remain unconscious until the right circumstances arise, that are either about or directed at something; for example, the attitudes we have towards our previous employers are necessarily directed at someone in the world, but are dormant for the majority of our day. So Intentional states must be about something and can sometimes be unconscious.

Empty net on soccer field

In addition to the structure of Intentional states, that is, in addition to them being about or direct at something, Intentional states can be categorized: we have Intentional states of action, we have Intentional states for collective behaviour, we have Intentional levels, and etc.,. Intentionality can characterize much our moment-to-moment activity, and so we should expect to see such a diversity in Intentional states. Thus, I seek to explain these intentional states, and I believe these Intentional states can be further understood by considering them in the context of a sporting event, like soccer.

The Intentional Action of Soccer


In his 1999 book “Intentionality,” John Searle argued that Intentional action has a sequential structure like the following: the prior intention, the intention in action, the bodily movement, and then the action.

When a soccer player is ready to perform a free kick, the player has a similar intentional sequence. Before the player performs the kick, he or she has to be thinking about the kick its self; that is, the object of their intentional state is the image or thought of performing the kick. So, the prior intention is to perform the kick. After such, the intention in action follows; here, the mental state is about the details within the act of performing the kick. That is, when the player thinks about the kick with the prior intention, they are concerned about the overall structure of the act: I.e., that one has to be in a certain spot, that there are certain players to kick the ball towards, and etc., but during the intention in action, the player then becomes hyper-focused on how hard they must kick the ball, where their foot needs to land, and where the players are standing on the field. And this is then followed by the bodily movement.

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The intention associated with the bodily movement is drastically different than the previous two intentional states; similar to the function of a smoke alarm, the intentional state of the bodily movement is about checking the degree of accuracy between the intended actions and the actual movements. The smoke alarm sounds when it detects smoke, likewise, the bodily movement stage will be about minor corrections of movement to mitigate the discrepancy between the intention in action and the bodily movement: it allows for self-correction. And after all of that, one then has the action. The action is a conjunction of both the intention in action and the bodily movement.

Soccer’s Intentional Rules and States


Soccer players and fans, throughout the game, form a complex system of variables that follow a given set of rules, which lead to reoccurring states within the system. To explain further, let us consider the notion of a goal.

For a goal to occur, a ball cannot simply pass over a line, nor can a ball simply pass between the poles of a net: i.e., during the warm-up one cannot score a goal on the opposing team. Even while the opposing teams goalie is in net, if the game is in time-out, then one can still not score a goal. The rule to score a goal has plenty of contingencies, but the general rule might be something like: “if no other rules were broken, and the game is underway, then the ball going into the opposing teams net is a goal”.  Thus, the only way to score a goal is if we all agree that, in addition to the ball going into the opposing teams net, the players have the follow the other rules: i.e., no hand-ball goals.

On top of the rules for declarations of whether something was a goal or not, there are also rules which the players must follow. More specifically, we can distinguish between the rules of the game and the strategic rules which soccer players abide by. Consider, if player X is in field position Y with the ball, then I need to be at position W incase player X decides to execute plan Z. This type of rule is not rigid and can be broken without directly impacting the rules of the game. As such, we can say such a rule is not necessary to play the game of soccer.

Orange soccer shoes

Another set of un-necessary rules would be the social conventions associated with soccer. Though it may not seem obvious, there are a lot of social conventions involved in the game of soccer, and a lot of them stem from the interaction between the fan and the game its self. Think about the interaction between the home-fans and the home-team when the home-team scores a goal: there is a social convention for the home-fans to loudly cheer. Such an interaction can be stated as, “If home-team scores, and I am a home-fan, then I should cheer”. Of course, there are also social conventions between players as well; for instance, “if my teammate scores a goal, then I should run and congratulate them”. These social conventions, as said, are entirely un-necessary to the game, though are vitally important for the beliefs and intentions about the game; for without these social conventions, the complex states of soccer would not exist.

If we recall from earlier, we said that soccer players and fans form complex systems of variables, and we said that it is because of rule the driven behaviour that both soccer fans and players engage in. Well, now that we understand the rule driven behaviour, let us consider how states within the soccer game system come about.

Suppose there are two soccer games going on at once, and that one of these games, which we will call game-B, has no fans attending. When a goal is scored during game-B, the game cannot reach the conditions that would be reached, if a goal was scored, at game-A, which has fans attending. Without the fans, game-B cannot reach certain states of existence, and so because rule-abiding agents are not present at game-B, it is necessarily missing some of the states we associate with a professional soccer game. And this necessarily impacts the performance of the players inside game-B, of which can then influence the fluidity of the game. For instance, the players in game-B might feel as though they can get away with more cheating since there are less eyes viewing the field: better odds for cheating successfully.

What this tells us is that soccer games are composed of various agents who follow intentional rules, whether they be the formal rules of the game or not, that, through the very act of following those rules, influence the state of the complex system known as a soccer game.

The Collective Intentions of Soccer

Soccer fans

Soccer cannot just be something which spontaneously arises, and the reason is far beyond the simple fact that rules and regulations are necessary, of which take deliberate action. There is also some background assumption about the game of soccer, and that background assumption allows us to engage in a framework of beliefs. Therefore, this framework must be adopted as well.

Lets suppose we were to walk into the general public with a soccer ball and attempt to play soccer with everyone. Our doing so would end in failure, with the exception of a few adventurous personalities playing along, at least temporarily so. Even if everyone knew the rules of the game, we would still fail at our attempt to engage the general public in soccer. The reason for our failure is due the missing collective beliefs associated with soccer, of which reside in the background of the players and fans, necessary to play.

Whenever we are pulled-over by a car with lights and sirens, we are aware that we are partaking in a traffic stop; that is, we have an immediate background assumption about what is currently happening, particularly based on the given perceptual conditions. We fit our cultural framework of “traffic-stop” onto certain conditions of satisfaction. In our doing so, we begin to operate with the belief systems associated with those background assumptions. In example, we know that the person who is about to approach our car has more authority over us, that there are certain rules of behaviour we need to follow now more than ever, and that we are subject to something known as ‘the law”. The culturally bound framework, as a result of certain environmental conditions, has lead to our use of different sets of beliefs, of which are all related to one another by the simple perceptual conditions: we adopt the appropriate belief sets for the environment.

soccer stadium

And thus, when we attempt to engage someone with the soccer framework while they are in, let us say, the “going to work” framework, we will of course fail. The reason why we can play soccer is because we adopt a cultural framework as a background assumption, which then allows us to adopt the appropriate belief system: namely, the rules of the game, the conventions of sportsmanship, and etc.,.

We can then say that some group behaviours necessarily require a collective intention. Soccer cannot be played without all the participants adopting the framework for it, similar to how one cannot be baptized by simply being dunked in just any body of water. To be baptized requires a collective of people to adopt a particular framework, to the point where they recognize different social roles and social abilities. Likewise, the framework of soccer allows for the social roles of team, coach, and referee. And those social roles come with certain social abilities, of which depend entirely upon an acceptance of soccer framework. That is, if the collective do not engage in the soccer framework, then the social roles and abilities associated with the framework are useless, as no one will recognize their authority or legitimacy. So, soccer depends on collective intentionality.

Intentional Attitudes and Collective Intentionality


Not all intentional states involve abstract thought, for instance, we can have attitudes toward a certain thing; that is, when we are annoyed, we can be annoyed by something; when we are spiteful, we can be spiteful about something; and, when we are disagreeable, we can be disagreeable towards someone. These are all instances of attitudes which are either directed at or about something. Thus, they are intentional attitudes.

Furthermore, intentional attitudes, though they can occur independent of other intentional qualities, like beliefs, can occur in conjunction with beliefs or frameworks. For instance, we can be annoyed with someone, which would be an intentional attitude, while also believing the person did X. In doing so, we would have an intentional state that consisted of both an attitude and a belief.


Intentional attitudes, thus, allow us to categorize varieties of collective intentionality in respect to soccer. To clarify, we can recognize attitudes as modulating the difference between a competitive versus non-competitive game. Someone who adopts the soccer framework with a serious attitude will more than likely play competitively, whereas someone who adopts the soccer framework with a non-serious attitude will play non-competitively. These attentional attitudes modify how we enact the beliefs within the framework of soccer.

A non-serious player will be less likely to push the rules to their boundaries, for instance. That is, when it comes to head-to-head soccer, the mild shoving which can take place will be less aggressive, supposing that it even took place to begin with. And likewise, the serious players will push each other more aggressively, to the point where they are quite close to a violation of the rules. The intentional attitude modifies the entire soccer framework; and so, we can categorize varieties of soccer frameworks via attitudes.

The Ontology of Intentionality


Although these explanations sound perfectly reasonable, we have a particular problem with the ontology of our views on intentionality. To explain further, theories can put forth ontological entities, like when cognitive psychologists posit memory to the brain. When this is done, we can either reject the propositioned entities or accept them. That is, we can accept that memory is a real thing or can reject the notion, entirely. And so, we are now at a point where we need to consider whether we want to accept a real ontology for the philosophy of Intentionality, or simply reject any kind of ontological realism for the philosophy.

The problem of ontology, in respect to our philosophy of intentionality, relates to the fact that we’ve been appealing to mental states while not empirically demonstrating the mental states. We have yet to point out something which could be measured, observed, or quantified. Rather than point to empirical objects, we have instead explained the behaviour of objects with a self-consistent view. Metaphorically speaking, what we have done is placed a  blanket over-top of a set of objects. Meaning, our theories have been ad-hoc explanations that fit the environment in the same way that the blanket will be malleable to the objects we lay it over-top of. The blanket is not the objects themselves but is instead a characterization of their outline; it is likewise the case that our explanations of intentionality are merely just explanations of the objects rather than the objects themselves: they are imaginary or rationalist explanations. This is a problem because the realism of the ontology, that is, the claim to real objects which our explanations can make is incredibly limited. We cannot claim the ontology of these theories to be real until we can empirically demonstrate them – assuming we subscribe to the standard of empirical evidence. But we can solve this problem.


The problem of ontology can be solved through cognitive neuroscience. In cognitive neuroscience, with the simple assumption that the mind is whatever the brain is doing, we can correlate metabolic processes with mental states: i.e., “increased blood-flow to region X is correlated with task Z or subjective report Y”. After we get a sufficient amount of data, we can formulate predictions about how brain structures will react when mental in state H or doing activity N. And if our predictions fail to be correct or remotely accurate, then we can presume the ontology and theory are most likely irrelevant to one another.

The Pragmatics of Phenomenology

Now most of what we have done throughout this essay is armchair speculation, as is the case with most phenomenology. And although we just discussed a kind of neurophenomenology to increase the rigour of our epistemology of mind, there is still a pragmatic justification for the discipline, regardless of rigorous methodology.

Phenomenology allows us to heuristically understand human nature without having to engage with computational models of physiology; it is the language of human subjectivity. So, even though it might be scientifically incoherent, it can nonetheless provide us with greater insight and understanding of our subjectivity. Rather than talking to someone about various levels of neurotransmitters within their brain, we can instead use folk-psychology and phenomenal analysis to explain their depression to them. The pragmatics of phenomenology justify its use, even if we reject the validity of this type of theorizing on the grounds of speculative epistemology and no ontology.brain wash 2.jpg

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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