Pro wrestling is one of the most impressive and dramatic forms of entertainment around. The high-flying antics of its spandex-clad heroes combine Olympic-level athleticism with the dramatic skills of Hollywood actors to create a unique spectacle. What I don’t think has been sufficiently noticed though is that it can also prompt us to think about some deep issues concerning who we are as human beings, and how we ought to relate to each other both individually and culturally. In other words, it can help us do philosophy. Philosophy asks questions such as “what’s reality really like beneath the appearances?”, “what is it to be free?”, “what makes us the people we are?”, and “what is it to be a good person?”, which are all questions that arise when thinking about pro wrestling. Whether it’s thinking about the matches, the characters, the storylines, or the backstage politics, these questions are never far away. Pro wrestling’s stubborn resistance to classification into the categories of “sport” and “art” also poses a philosophical challenge, as philosophers love giving clear definitions! My book Philosophy Smackdown discusses many philosophical issues in pro wrestling. Here I’ll just focus on one, namely what pro wrestling can tell us about what philosophy itself is, and what philosophers should aspire to.
The back-and-forth nature of philosophical method has long invited comparisons with combat of various sorts. Terms like “argument”, “objection”, “counter-argument”, “rejoinder”, all give the impression of a tussle between people, or ideas. Indeed, amateur Olympic-style wrestling is one example of a combat sport that has invited comparisons with philosophy, with the Ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras even calling his book on truth The Throws to emphasise that his back-and-forth argumentative style mimicked the grappling in a wrestling match. Philosophy students in Ancient Greece were also required to supplement their studies with physical activities such as wrestling. Skilful philosophical argument seems to require the same sorts of imaginative abilities that a combat fighter needs in order to see the weaknesses of their opponent, as well as their own, and adapt their position as need be.
Now, pro wrestling is not a combat sport of this sort. In pro wrestling matches, the wrestlers work together to put on a match, as opposed to work against each other to try to win the match. Instead of the match being a genuine contest between two athletes, it is a story told by two athletes, who cooperate, either beforehand, on the fly during the match, or both. The story told is determined by the writers, bookers, or promoters who run the shows, and dictate the characters of the wrestlers involved. The intention is to captivate the audience, thrill them with the athletic display of the match, and draw them in emotionally with the story told by the characters involved.
Even though pro wrestling is not conventional combat, I think it provides a better model for philosophical discourse than amateur wrestling, and may help to alleviate some issues contemporary philosophy has. Let me explain. There are many problems with the philosophy-as-combat model. One is that it contributes to philosophy’s problems creating inclusive environments, where the aggressive argumentative actions of the privileged lead to many in marginalised groups leaving the subject. Another is that it prizes winning arguments over truth, an issue Socrates worried about in Ancient Greece: if what we care about is defending our chosen view to the death against all-comers (as we are often expected to do when giving talks or responding to journal articles), then are we really pursuing truth, or rather personal glory?
Philosophy can take some cues from pro wrestling here. A pro wrestler is not trying to win the match they’re in; rather they’re working collectively with their opponent in the service of a different cause: putting on a good match to entertain the audience. Pro wrestlers need to work cooperatively to achieve their goals, and not pit themselves against each other. The same should apply in philosophy. Philosophy is not about winning arguments; rather a philosophical discussion should be a collective enterprise where people work together to pursue the truth. If philosophers see themselves working together to achieve this goal, as opposed to each thinking that their goal is to beat the other in combat to win the argument, then we get a better picture of what philosophy should be about. Realising that everyone has a role to play, and that playing that role requires cooperation, not combat, may also help to create a more inclusive environment which moves away from the attack/defence model often found in philosophical discussion.
Further considerations of the similarities between pro wrestling and philosophy lead us to some deep questions about the practice of philosophy, such as whether a philosopher should believe the view or argument she puts forward. Pro wrestlers, for the most part, are “working” their audience, in the terms of the wrestling business: that is, they are pretending to fight, or pretending to dislike their opponents, as opposed to being engaged in a “shoot”, where real feelings and real fights are involved. We can now ask the question of whether philosophy is a work or a shoot: are philosophers “working” their audience by pretending to hold certain views to get their work published or noticed, or are they engaged in a “shoot” by writing things that they genuinely believe? Moreover, what should we expect of philosophers here: in increasingly competitive professional environments, is it too high an expectation that philosophers believe what they say, and, if so, what does this say about the value of sincerity in philosophical discourse? Let’s explore this.
The aim of a pro wrestler is to “get over” with a crowd; to generate a reaction, either positive for a babyface (hero), or negative for a heel (villain). Having a good gimmick (character), and a good story, is a key part of this. Examples of classic pro wrestling gimmicks (some more successful than others!) include a wrestling tax collector, clown, dentist, barber, and – perhaps the most famous of all – undertaker. Nowadays, in a more reality-based era, gimmicks are closer to the character of the real people behind them. Either way, a pro wrestler needs something distinctive to mark them out; to make them memorable. Likewise, borrowing the pro wrestling lingo, a philosopher aims to “get over” with other philosophers, in that they want their work to be recognised and engaged with. The more over you are, the more your work is discussed, the more your work is cited, the more book contracts you get, and the more conference invitations you get. In order to get over, though, you need something distinctive about your work: you need a view; a gimmick. This can take a number of forms: it can be working on something that nobody else has worked on for a while, or it can be taking someone else’s work and making minor amendments to it, or it can be founding a whole new view that nobody else has put forward, or it can be formulating and defending a view that everyone else thinks is crazy.
The last option is the most impactful, though it is hard to pull off successfully. Perhaps the most famous example in contemporary philosophy is David Lewis’s realism about possible worlds, which holds that every way a world could possibly be is the way some world is. All these worlds exist in the same “concrete” sense that our world does, though they are spatiotemporally sealed off from one another. A close second is David Benatar’s “better never to have been” view that existence is a harm, and that everyone would have been better off if they had never existed. These are great gimmicks: they are striking, shocking, and demand your attention as soon as you hear about them. They also got Lewis and Benatar more over as philosophers then they would otherwise have been, even if they were already over to a good degree before the views appeared.
Such is the value of having a good gimmick. Now suppose you’re a philosophy grad student, starting to think about your doctoral dissertation. You know that the philosophy job market is incredibly competitive, and your chances of success are low. You talk to your advisor, and they emphasise the importance of originality: of having a view that makes you stand out; makes you memorable. So, you start to conduct your research with this in mind: what can I do that makes me stand out? Notice that doing things this way in no way requires that you end up with a view that you actually believe, just so long as it is something that is defensible, and stands out. (This is not to say that you don’t believe in it as an idea, but this is not the same thing as actually believing what your view says.)
What’s going on here is that you are directing your work with your audience in mind. You are constructing a project whose goal is to “pop” those reading about it. In wrestling talk, you are working. You are working in that you are putting on a show, playing a character, and stating views you do not have to believe. You are also working the audience in that you are trying to capture the imagination of your readers to get them interested and engaged with your project.
Now let’s suppose you get over. People are reading your work, discussing your work, inviting you to conferences, writing papers about your work. As your career progresses, you start to think more critically about your gimmick: it got you over, but do you really believe it? Does it matter? Maybe you do start to publicly question the view, and maybe you publicly denounce it, leaving others to take up the mantle. Or maybe you decide that the attention, the conferences, the edited volumes, are worth continuing to defend it, and continuing to associate your name with it. This decision is a decision about whether philosophy – to you – is a work or a shoot.
Some philosophers, like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hilary Putnam, radically change their minds throughout the course of their careers. This suggests a tone of academic integrity, in that they are willing to abandon views that made them famous in the pursuit of truth (though, more cynically, it is also a gimmick in itself, and another way to be noticed!). These are rare exceptions though, and most philosophers stick to their main view through the course of their careers, albeit with amendments and clarifications made to the position.
This may seem like a surprising thing, as why should we expect a philosopher aged 60 to still hold the same views they held when they are 30? One answer is that if you make your name with a view, you are better positioned in the discipline if you stick to it, whatever your private doubts might be. Moreover, there is pressure to do so. If you are known for your views on a particular subject, when you’re invited to give talks at conferences or other institutions, usually they will want you to talk about that: that’s why you were invited, after all! If you show up and talk about something completely different, or start trashing your own views, you’re not really doing what’s expected of you as an invited speaker.
This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with working as a philosopher. Being an academic is a job after all, the thing that is one’s work, and part of that job is coming up with and defending views. If one sees one’s work as merely one’s job, then perhaps there’s nothing wrong with this. I guess the issue is though whether we see philosophy – as a subject – as something worthy of nobler intentions. If a view is just put forward to advance the career of its author, then there’s no guarantee it will get us closer to the truth about a topic. Indeed, it may run contrary to this purpose.
Interestingly, this takes us back to Ancient Greece, and Protagoras, who (as we noted earlier) called his book on truth The Throws. Protagoras is often described as a “Sophist”, or “wise person”, in contrast to someone like Socrates, who is described as a “philosopher”, or “lover of wisdom”. The Sophists as a group of thinkers get a pretty bad rap in the history of philosophy. The distinctive claim of the Sophists is “to make the weaker argument the stronger”. The Sophists were teachers, who sold the development of skills in argumentation to young Athenians looking to make their way in the world. Students were taught how to argue effectively for a position, and – crucially – there was no requirement that they actually believe the view that they were arguing for. All that mattered was that they could argue effectively. The Sophists were viewed by people like Socrates and Plato as a great threat to the good name of philosophy, as they employed similar methods to philosophers – arguments – but in ways that could be a lot more directed towards personal gain and advancement than arguments were intended to be in philosophy: the difference between a Sophist and a philosopher is that a philosopher cares for the truth, whereas the sophist cares about winning the argument. Indeed, it wasn’t just philosophers who had a problem with the Sophists, but, eventually, Athenian society in general, and one of the reasons Socrates was ultimately executed was because he was widely perceived to be a Sophist.
If what’s been said above is correct, it is not a stretch to say that philosophy as it is practiced today could be accused of sophistry. As we’ve already talked about, what’s prized is having a distinctive view, that you can argue for well, that gets noticed. This requires a great deal of creativity and argumentative skill, but it doesn’t also require a concern for the truth. The skills that philosophers teach undergraduates and graduate students are largely critical thinking skills: skills that enable one to effectively criticise and construct arguments. To retain an important element of philosophy, we need to remember that philosophy is ultimately about pursuing truth, not trying to sound clever or sophisticated.
What should the upshot of this be, then? Should philosophers really believe the views they put forward? Should philosophy always be a shoot, and never a work? This seems like too strict a constraint to place, but philosophers should be mindful of the potential harm that working their audience can do to legitimacy of the subject as a whole, and not be too tempted by the glitz and glamour of a good gimmick — that is one thing that should be left to pro wrestling!