Heather Reid is a professor at Morningside College in Iowa. She is currently on a three-year sabbatical at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy on a Fulbright fellowship. There, in addition to giving lectures, she is exploring the role of women in athletics during ancient times. Professor Reid is one of the most influential philosophers of sport alive today, having published six books on the topic. I got the good fortune to speak with her in August of 2019; here is an edited version of our talk:
Ben: What path led you to become a philosopher of sport?
Heather: I was a serious cyclist – I started in high school and got serious about it in college. I was also a student and was interested in humanities (I majored in English and Philosophy). After I graduated college, I tried to make the Olympic team. Back when I first qualified for the Olympic trials, in 1984, it was the first time women's cycling was at the Olympics. Then, in 1988 it was the first time track cycling was there for women, and I was excited to try out. I didn’t make the team, and started graduate school in philosophy in 1989, winding up my cyclist career. As I was reading philosophy – in particular Plato – I noticed that he used a lot of athletic metaphors. Only later did I learn that there was such a thing as a philosophy of sport, but at the time it was a discipline mostly by people that were training to become physical educators. I came from the philosophical side and tried to understand sport philosophically. Then, as a graduate student, I got the opportunity to teach my own course; I picked to teach a class on the philosophy of sport. Basically what I did was I took articles about athletes, and little bits of philosophy, and I put these three things together and started teaching this course. I started thinking about the philosophy sport with this course. When I graduated, I taught the course again, and that course became my first book The Philosophical Athlete.
Ben: Do you think philosophy should be taught in high school?
Heather: First of all, children are very philosophical. I think human beings are naturally philosophical but this sort of gets beaten out of you as you grow, and you’re discouraged from thinking philosophically. But, if anyone wants to be very good at anything, they need these skills. I think that philosophy should be taught in conjunction with sport because a large part of philosophy deals with how we behave, and as humans we are best taught this with experiential learning and working dilemmas out in the best way possible. This is true in particular of ethics (which is the branch of philosophy that deals with the art of being the best person possible and living the best life possible). The great thing about sport is that it does create all kinds of ethical situations (such as following the rules, or trying to get the best out of yourself) and so I really kind of wish that sports in high school would be connected up with discussions about ethics in particular and philosophy more generally.
Ben: Is philosophy worth studying?
Heather: Many students often see studying philosophy as useless because they don’t see themselves making money off of it. First of all, that’s not true since students who major in philosophy out-earn their peers. But also, even if it were true, the value it has is not monetary. People unfortunately often have hard time attributing value other than monetary value to things. This reminds me of sport in that people are looking into education as a business and seeing the only value for education to be money. Most people think that having more money equals more happiness. Of course, poverty is a huge problem, but after a certain amount of money (the psychologists will tell you!) it doesn’t lead to more happiness. But both philosophers and athletes know that this isn’t the reason they choose to do what they do. Anyone who has been an athlete knows that what matters isn’t a dollar sign. But they don’t have much space to talk about that. Really, education (in sport and philosophy) should be about acquiring virtues and becoming a better person.
Ben: What questions in philosophy are you interested in?
Heather: My personal research interest was in ancient Greek philosophy, in the history of sport in ancient Greece, and also in Olympic studies. I found that these areas kind of cross-pollinated one another. By looking at philosophy of ancient athletics and trying to understand ideas that made athletics such a powerful cultural force in ancient Greece, I got new insights in how ancient philosophers were thinking. Sport had great educational and cultural values at that time. Sport has educational and cultural value today for the same reasons, and reading into its history could help us understand why it’s valuable to us today. I started my dissertation in graduate school on Plato his theory of education; I was interested in what Plato thought about sport. But, nobody looked at why Plato advocated gymnastics and sports for women in particular, which is such a strange thing! I’ll be working on that in the coming year.
Ben: What is it like being a philosopher?
Heather: I often think about philosophy when I ride my bike. Typically, a philosopher is like any other professor: you teach, meet students, meet other faculty members, etc. But it’s different from other jobs in the sense that as a philosopher, you’re trying to be the best person you can be and living the best life by trying to understand what matters. This means that you have to be critical of yourself and of what is out in the world – you need to be open to the world, and should always consider the possibility that you’re wrong! Remember that the word philosophy comes from “philia”, which means “love” or “friendship” and the other “sophia”, which means wisdom. So a philosopher is someone that loves wisdom, which means you must admit that you don’t already have it – otherwise you’re just a wiseguy, so to speak. Admitting that you don’t know makes you want to learn more. This is similar to the athlete who always has a desire to get better. Philosophy is love of the truth in a way that athlete loves the victory: there’s a hunger behind it. It’s more of a “wow, there’s so much to learn” rather than a “oh, I already know everything”.
Ben: If you had one thing to tell high school students that have had no previous experience in philosophy, what would it be?
Heather: Ideas matter! Ideas are worth a lot. Ideas are really what guide people’s lives and it is a really beautiful thing about being human that you can have them. Those ideas are what is going to make your life good. A lot of ideas do end up generating a lot of money – but remember, the money itself won’t make you happy! The ideas will make your life happy and interesting. You can see a lot of fascinating stuff in world around you (scientific, historical things, art things, beautiful things) and so I think the one thing I would say to somebody that doesn’t know much philosophy is: ideas matter!