The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once told us that the way to begin any philosophical discussion is to first “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle.” I gather what he meant is that we must begin discussions with definitions to make sure we know what we are talking about. If we debate, for example, who is the greatest athlete to ever perform on the public stage we must  start with some sort of stipulation as to just what “greatness” means. Otherwise we are much like the fly in the milk bottle: we beat our heads against an unforgiving surface.

This reasoning allows us to solve the age-old question of whether the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it makes a sound. That depends on what we mean but “sound.” If we mean vibrations in the air, simply, then surely it makes a sound. If we mean vibrations heard by at least one person then, obviously, it made no sound.

But I have always found that making distinctions is also extremely helpful in showing the fly the way out of the milk bottle. For example is the distinction between WANT and NEED. I have made mention of this in previous posts and it remains a focal point in my thinking about so may complex issues — as in the case of what students need as opposed to what they want.

Take, for example, the current discussion over whether or not collegians should or should not play football this Fall. This is what is known as a “hot” topic and everyone and his dog has an opinion.

In a recent informal poll on a sports show I learned that nearly twice as many people say”yes” to the question as say “no.” The vast majority want to play or to watch football this Fall. Additionally, a football player at Ohio State has initiated a petition among football players nationwide and has nearly a quarter of a million “yes” votes that show clearly that a great many football players in this country want to play football this Fall. Even the President of the United States, who cannot keep his fingers still, has plunged in and insists that it would be a “tragedy” if the game were not played this Fall.

Seriously? A tragedy. Let’s define our terms! I jest, of course, but the word does seem a bit overworked, to say the least. If the absence of football this Fall is a tragedy then what do we call the death of a grandmother whose young son brings back the Covid-19 virus after football practice, infects her, and she dies? Surely there are tragedies and there are simply unfortunate or even sad circumstances: things we don’t like.

For a great many Americans what they like or want amounts to what they need (in their minds). As a people we are not very good at denying  ourselves what we want. Calling those things “needs” makes us feel better about our choices, I suppose. The petitions and the polls show us clearly that many people want to play (or watch) football. But do the polls and the petitions show us anything about what the people need as far as football is concerned? Surely not.

It might be argued that a great many people genuinely need to play or watch football for their own psychical well-being — as a release of pent-up frustration, perhaps. But it is a game, after all, and the one thing we know for certain is that given the circumstances these days, it is a game that courts danger: it is risky, at the very least. We know nothing about the long-term consequences of infection from this virus. There are indications that there might be as many as one hundred possible side-effects, some of them very serious. And the wise choice in this case is to err on the side of caution. In general that might serve as a viable general rule, one would think.

But in the end, we do not really need football. We (or many of us) want it. And that is something entirely different.



5 thoughts on “Distinctions

  1. Hugh, I wrote this morning on Jill’s post that football has become a “gladiator sport,” per the words of the now deceased sportswriter Frank DeFord. He was discussing the inability of the NFL or collegiate leaders to make the sport safe from head injury. No matter what is done, the brain will rattle around in the head when it helmets are hit by another, the ground or a slap. His point is people with choices will not play football, so it will be left to people with fewer choices.

    This context is needed for this issue. This is one of those flies out of the bottle issue. If players are viewed as gladiators, then their safety is less important to some than our entertainment. The point of the “gladiator” comment is, you can always substitute a new gladiator or football player.

    The NBA could teach others on how to play in a COVID-19 world. Placing players in bubbles and testing has been far more effective than what major league baseball has done.


    • Yes, the NBA seems to have found the formula. But baseball — after the initial SNAFU — has proven that if we are careful we can avoid spikes in the curve.

  2. Dr. Curtler,

    There are a number of reasons people want to act as though taking the Covid-19 pandemic seriously were optional — including willful ignorance and conspiratorial thinking, which are not mutually exclusive.

    In addition to these, another common thread arises when collegiate and professional sports are involved — money.

    Revenues from television royalties, branded sales, and gate receipts are important to both amateur and professional sports organizations. To the extent that the pandemic would affect salaries or scholarships, there would be an additional incentive for managers, coaches and players to continue competition during the pandemic, despite their own best interests and the interests of the public at large.

    For those who advocated “opening up the economy”, the priority was money over lives. The same is true of many who advocate “opening up athletic competition”. Having already seen the high costs of opening the economy, why should we doubt the outcomes of opening up athletic competition?

    The same refrain an be heard again and again, with minor variations in pitch and tone, but much if this is simply about money. As one adds ignorance and conspiracy theories to the mix, the tides of disease and death only strengthen.

    Same stuff; different day.

    Regards, respects, and best wishes.

    Jerry Stark

  3. As always, loading pages and reading them off line, I reached this part:

    “… and insists that it would be a “tragedy” if the game were not played this Fall.

    Seriously? ”

    and then laughed.

    I love you, Hugh! Until that moment I was perhaps a bit too serious – and in agreement with your thoughts – and you managed to add a bit of extremely-dry humor…. and you are right – so many people confuse their wants and needs — most likely it’s their egos that encourage them to truly believe that a want could indeed be a need…

    The hamsters continue to work overtime, and now the truck, which has covered about 30 miles in six months, has a very tired battery.. it’s weary from lack of work!

    As for a battery being a want or need — at this point, it is a want, and definitly not a need, so the burro will remain without a battery until life moves forward!

    Thank goodness I stay busy painting!

    As for internet – is that a want or need? At times, when it’s my only form of communication with the world, it’s sort of a need – but when I see what’s happening in the world, oh goodness, maybe it’s not so important.

    As for a change in who runs the country? That is for sure a need!
    Thanks for for your continued online presence – a grounded voice in these unstable times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s