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Rule-following and formalism in sport

Arguments against determinacy in showed that the project of formalism is misplaced: it could not be realized and (even if it were) could make no contribution to philosophical understanding of sport. But that chapter also distinguished a second aspect to the project of formalism. Having thus put aside the ‘determinacy’ aspect, we turn here to the ‘rules’ aspect of formalism. Again, our conclusions are largely negative, but this does not mean that there are no insights here.

On the contrary, we are drawn to formalism because the root thought is insightful. That root thought relates the possibility of sporting actions to the rules of sports. For only in the context of the rules can one perform that precise action – say, scoring a six in cricket.

This context does not require inclusion of all that could be said about rules (even if there were such an all, and even if we knew it), nor does it pick up the full variety of different uses of rules, some of which may be fairly hard to distinguish – but where the contrasts are sometimes crucial.

Also, there are many uses of rules not considered here directly, even though they might be of importance in sport; especially, ‘rules’ of skill (pace Suits 1995a: 19), and ‘rules’ of tactics or strategy within a game or sport. As remarked in Chapter 1 (p. 15), some rules for sport proscribe or prescribe behaviours; in particular, the most efficient means to a pre-lusory goal might be proscribed. We think, then, of rules saying what thou shalt not do.

To recall the variety here, note two less usual cases: (a) sometimes the proscription is achieved by listing permissible means, so that anything not explicitly mentioned is not permitted. Our example has been the list of objects, and so on, that players may take on the rugby field. Sometimes, by contrast, (b) not all rules need to be explicitly stated: consider two different examples, from road traffic control.

First, in the UK, a sign for ‘national speed limit’ (some drivers, mistakenly, called it ‘no speed limit’) – we need collateral information to know what the regulation is. And it might be changed by the legislature. Second, the inference to what is permitted at a traffic light in the USA (at least, in California) – that you can make a U-turn, unless there is a specific sign precluding it.

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