Philosophers World Cup: Rules and Introduction

As mentioned in a previous post, I was considering doing a feature series inspired by an old Monty Python sketch about philosophers playing football / soccer; of simulating the upcoming FIFA World Cup as if it was played by philosophers / theorists. It is happening. Below, I put years of liberal arts schooling and humanities grad school to work to present the guidelines for 2014 Philosophers World Cup.



The abstract: mirroring the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the 32 World Cup nations field teams of philosophers against one another with results determined using Google Ngrams. This determines which nation has the ‘best’ team of philosophers.

The dissertation: First, the teams, groups, and schedule are the same for the Philosophers World Cup as for the FIFA World Cup. This means that philosophy powerhouses India, China, Scotland, and Austria are not involved. Beyond that, things will play out a bit differently.

Each nation has a team of no more than 11, but no less than 6, philosophers / theorists. The term ‘philosopher’ is being interpreted in a fairly broad sense, which makes it easier for nations to field competitive squads. For some countries, finding at least 11 people for a team was easy and required essentially no research whatsoever. For others, it was impossible for me to find 11, which is why some nations do not have a full roster (in my defense, most of these nations are unlikely to advance beyond the group stage). Additionally, special rules are in place for those teams with full rosters. If a team has 11 players, at least three must be from other fields than strict philosophy. Of these three, there must be at least one historian and one theologian / religious scholar. However, nations are not limited to the number of non-philosophers that they can have; some will be more theologian, historian, or aesthetic theorist heavy than others. Furthermore, each nation with 11 players must have at least two scholars that were active in the twentieth century.

Fortunately, the majority of nations had considerably more than 11 candidates for roster slots. To determine which 11 would make the final squad, I divided a nation’s philosophers into chronological groups and used Google Ngrams to make intra-squad comparisons, with the philosophers receiving the most mentions making the squad. This ensures that each nation has a side that is both diverse and competitive. Unfortunately, this meant that some of my personal favorite theorists were left off of the final rosters (e.g., Rancier, Lyotard, Schopenhauer), but this would be a lot less interesting for me if it came down to me picking my favorites in that I would already know who wins (presumably France or Germany).

Some philosophers are in a grey zone when it comes to which nation they are assigned to, due to issues including dual citizenship, being from polities that no longer exist, and place of birth vs. place of activity. To settle this, I used a combination of received wisdom, an interest in competitive balance (e.g., Algeria benefits from the presence of pied-noirs like Camus and Derrida as France has a stacked roster anyway), and trying to guess where a philosopher from the past would want to play based on the historical events since his / her death (e.g., Al-Andalusian philosophers are not included on Spain’s roster due to the Spanish state since the Reconquista being a far different place than the one that they were familiar with). Hopefully these decisions are no too controversial.

Match results are determined by Google Ngrams. Before each match, one philosopher is selected from each side (using a random number generator) to compete head-to-head for each half of a match. These philosophers are plotted in Ngrams with the philosopher with the most mentions in the year 2000 scoring a goal. The match ends after two halves, with points in the group stage awarded equal to the FIFA World Cup (3 points for a win, 1 each for a draw, 0 for a loss) or the winning team advancing in the knockout rounds. In the knockout rounds, if tied after two halves, each time will have a third philosopher selected to play in extra time. In the unlikely event that the score is still tied, a 5-on-5 penalty shootout will occur, with sudden death penalties after that.

To better approximate real world scores, it is possible to score two goals in a half if a philosopher’s Ngram is considerably larger than their opponent’s (that is, if there are at least three rectangles on the Ngrams chart between the two lines). Likewise, no goals are scored if the Ngrams lines are too near one another (this will be a judgment call). Philosophers that have already been used cannot be used again until a side has cycled through its entire roster, meaning that depth is important. Note that an appearance in a penalty shootout will not count as a use.

For the philosopher matchups, full names are used in most cases. Of course, even when using more than a last name, there remain several possible naming variations. To determine which version of a philosopher’s name should be used, all common naming variants of each philosopher have been compared against one another to determine the most frequent. Thus, Hegel will be “G.W.F. Hegel” rather than “Georg Hegel” or “Georg  Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.” However, when a philosopher is paired against an opponent who has only one name (e.g., Plato), the former will be allowed to use his or her last name only since single names appear far more frequently in text than full names (thus, Hegel vs. Plato would be the comparison instead of G.W.F. Hegel vs. Plato). This is not a perfect solution, but since Ngrams is not able to understand context it is the most satisfying one that I can come up with.

Furthermore, language is going to play a role in match outcomes. A language is selected before each match, meaning that Ngrams’ result is based on that language. Each nation has a preferred language assigned to it—based on an intra-squad comparison of which language it performs best in. The match language is randomly chosen between the two preferred languages of the competitors. Ngrams has a number of language corpora, but it is not comprehensive. This competition utilizes English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Hebrew, Russian, and Simplified Chinese are not in play because I use a Latin keyboard and it would be too difficult to translate Romanized names into their equivalents in these languages. Obviously this skews the results in favor of European-language teams generally, and those European-language teams whose most-common language is featured in Ngrams more specifically (apologies to the host country Brazil). Sadly, this is unavoidable. However, since the majority of the teams in the competition are European-language teams, hopefully it will not be too great a factor.

There is one final note about the use of Ngrams. I am using a smoothing of 8 to trend more toward an average. The default is 3, but I wanted something a bit larger but not so large as to penalize more modern philosophers too much. What this means is that the year 2000 (which is the year that determines the result) will actually be the average of the years 1992-2008 rather than just the mentions in the year 2000. To accommodate this, my Ngram charts will run to 2008 (the last year in Google’s dataset), but the score in the year 2000 is the one that counts.

Those are the rules. As mentioned, the schedule follows that of the FIFA World Cup, with a match day post each day that there is competition in the FIFA World Cup. The first match will be on June 12, featuring Brazil taking on Croatia in Group A action. Every Tuesday and Thursday for the next four weeks, I will be previewing one of the eight World Cup groups, including revealing the rosters.

Remember that this should not be taken too seriously. Ngrams is an interesting but very flawed utility. Besides, which country has the best philosophers is, like all things, entirely subjective.

Image: Habermas prepares to foul Erasmus early in the 1974 Philosophers World Cup. Luther will muff the Spinoza penalty kick to give the Netherlands a temporary 1-0 advantage over the favored German side.

Credit: Rainer Mittelstädt / German Federal Archives via Wikipedia.


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