Idleness, Play and Sport – Ep 13

Hogarth Industry and Idleness

A plate from Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness (1747) series of engravings.  Photo taken from the Wikipedia entry on Industry and Idleness

This is admittedly conjecture, but it sure seems to me like more and more writers and thinkers these days are praising the value and virtues of idleness. Renowned MIT physicist Alan Lightman recently explored the importance of “wasting time” in a book based on a recent TED talk. He argued that the ability to temporarily liberate oneself from structured time and pressures of modern life is essential to human creativity. Similarly, American artist Jenny Odell’s has recently called on people to “do nothing” through unstructured respite in natural settings, as part of her overall criticism of digital technology’s impact on people’s everyday work habits. For some time, intellectuals and radical thinkers have engaged with the notion that idleness (uncoerced leisure, spontaneous play, inactivity, laziness, whatever you want to call it) is a human right that is too often denied by capitalism. In the early 1900s, British philosopher Bertrand Russell and Czech writer Karel Čapek’s “praised” idleness and unrestricted leisure as a humanist remedy for the overworked, exploited conditions of workers suffering under industrial capitalism.  This was not even the most radical of propositions: at the turn of the century French socialist Paul Lafargue, employing a decidedly Marxist approach, polemically declared that people have the “right to be lazy”. Now, in an era defined by such problems as the hollowing of social welfare programs and digital technology’s seeming uncompromising power over people’s everyday activities and work habits, more people like Odell and Lightman are calling for a renewed, nuanced discussion of idleness as a healthy, humanist, virtuous endeavor.

Idleness probably seems like a strange topic choice for a podcast dedicated to sport, physical activities and the “active body”.  Oliver and I work in the academic field of sport management, which, like kinesiology and sport sociology, are fields dedicated to study of contexts of exercise and organized physical activities.  It would seem, then, that idleness, inactivity and laziness is the negative opposite of sport and physical: the thing that a podcast on sport should not discuss. Moreover, for decades feminist sport scholars have dismantled the history of patriarchal gender relations in part by illustrating how gender norms during the Victorian Era framed women as the “idle”, weaker counterparts to manly sportsmen. Indeed, the importance of women’s sport history is partly because the historical narratives highlight how women found ways to actively participate and succeed in sports, even during eras defined by restrictive social regulations and gender segregation. Yet, this is precisely why we think idleness is an important topic, especially for historians and sociologists of sport, because it speaks to the need for a radical re-definition of idleness in light of the important done by postmodern, feminist, and postcolonial scholars. As well, our current context of Anthropocentric climate change  demands that we as humans rethink our “activities” (including our sports and leisure pursuits), for it is indeed our acts – the things that we do or perform that impact the Earth – that irreparably harm our global environment. We should consider the possibility that idleness can be reconceived in terms of human freedom, and that our common assumptions of inactivity underpin and power our assumptions of work, activity, and productivity.  In short, if we are to critically study activity, we also have to critically study inactivity.

In this episode of Somatic, we talk about idleness and its relation to notions of sport and play. We talk with Dr. Brian O’Connor, Professor of Philosophy at University College Dublin and ask him questions concerning his recent fascinating book on the subject, titled Idleness: A Philosophical Essay. In his book, O’Connor examines notions of idleness as they were articulated in the texts of famous Western philosophers like Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer. O’Connor chose to study the texts of these philosophers, many of whose works were influenced by German idealist thought, because “each articulate views of idleness that are now implicit, if not prevalent, in everyday discourse” (21).  The goal of the book, according to O’Connor, is to “expose the presumptions and faults” of the philosophers’ notions of idleness, so that we can then consider the possibility that our “idleness-excluding world” is actually doing harm to humans and the global environment around us.  The episode centers on our interview with Prof. O’Connor, and highlights his understanding of idleness and its potentially relation to physical activities like play and sport.  The episode provides a fascinating look at the question of idleness in Western thought, but we hope it is also a helpful resources for scholars in sport fields and a call to rethink the importance of including idleness in the study of all things somatic and active.

For more information on O’Connor’s book, visit the Princeton University Press website. Below are some links for those who want more information on this discussion of idleness as a virtue.


Sound Acknowledgements: Multiples sound clips heard on this episode were taken from  The sound clip of the basketball game is attributed to Freesound user joesh2 and the sound can be found here. of various sporting spaces. The sound of the volleyball game is attributed to Freesound user Taira Komori, and the sound clip can be found here.  All music on the episode was written and recorded by Somatic co-founder Sam Clevenger.