Olympic Epistemology: The Athletic Roots of Philosophical Reasoning

Proceedings of the Xxii World Congress of Philosophy 47:19-28 (2008)
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The ancient world witnessed a meaningful transition in the conception of human thought and belief. What some have called the “discovery” of the mind can also be understood as a release from dependence on oracular wisdom and mythological explanation, made possible by the invention of more reliable and democratic methods for discovering and explaining truths. During roughly the same epoch, Hellenic sport distinguished itself by developing objective mechanisms for selecting single winners from varied pools of contestants. Is there a connection? Following the general thesis that sport is an expression of thehuman desire to know, this paper will explore the epistemological nature of the earliest forms Hellenic athletics. I begin by interpreting the funeral games depicted in Homer’s Iliad as an unbiased, publicly monitored means for settling questions of social honor. I then consider the ancient Olympic games, arguing that their religious foundations motivated a new focus on objective and reliable methods for selecting single winners who could be symbolically sacrificed to the god. In both manifestations, athletic games are used to objectively answer important questions about merit. Eventually, competitive methods of truth‐seeking would become commonplace in Western thought. By examining early the origins of Greek sport in this light, however, Olympia may be identified as a key source of epistemological testing methods, and sport itself may be characterized fundamentally as a search for knowledge



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Heather Reid
Exedra Mediterranean Center, Siracusa, Sicily

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