Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday Philoso-Blogging: the Salem Concepts vs. the Washington Objects!

Happy Sunday! Today is Conference Championship day in the NFL, with the Arizona Cardinals currently kicking the crap out of the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC (24-6 in the 3rd), and the Pittsburgh Steelers set up to play the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC later tonight. You may have noticed something peculiar about these matchups: Three of the final four are teams named after different species of birds. This is especially strange given that, of the 32 different teams in the NFL, only five are named after birds. (Plus, four of those five made the playoffs this year. The only team not to was the Seahawks. Sorry, Seattle.)

But what about that fourth team? Pittsburgh was originally the "Pittsburgh Pirates," but changed their name in the 40's. An interesting historical note, from Wikipedia:

The Steelers logo was introduced in 1962 and is based on the "Steelmark," originally designed by Pittsburgh's U.S. Steel and now owned by the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI). In fact, it was Cleveland-based Republic Steel that suggested the Steelers adopt the industry logo. It consists of the word "Steelers" surrounded by three astroids (hypocycloids of four cusps). The original meanings behind the astroids were, "Steel lightens your work, brightens your leisure, and widens your world." Later, the colors came to represent the ingredients used in the steel-making process: yellow for coal, orange for iron ore, and blue for scrap steel.[23] While the formal Steelmark logo contains only the word "Steel," the team was given permission to add "ers" in 1963 after a petition to AISI.
The Steelers, of course, are somewhat unique in professional American sports in regards to their connection U.S. Steel. But they're not the only team that gets its nickname from the local industry: Other examples include the Milwaukee Brewers (MLB), the Detroit Pistons (NBA), the Green Bay Packers (NFL), and the Minnesota Vikings.*

Sports teams can get their nicknames from a whole host of different sources. But this makes me wonder about the various significances of these names. Obviously, common sources of inspiration include not only local industries, traditions, and birds, but also mythical beings (Tennessee Titans), cultural icons (San Diego Padres), and beloved racist stereotypes. (I'm looking at you, Chief Wahoo.) (Wow - the Eagles are up 25-24 now. That was fast.) But what about those teams named after not substantive nouns (i.e., shit you find in the world, like Clippers and Athletics and Buccaneers) but more ethereal concepts. The Orlando Magic. The Miami Heat. The Oklahoma City Thunder. (Sorry, Seattle) The WNBA has lots of these types of teams: The Seattle Storm. The Indiana Fever. My personal favorite: The New York Liberty.

And so here is my philosophical hypothesis. I have to make it short, because it's time to go, but I'll come back and develop this idea more later. These sports team names illustrate what I would call the distinction between concepts and objects, and that this distinction is highlighted by those teams that are named in plural and those that are in the singular. That is, a piston is an object, but liberty is a concept. However, this distinction is neither hard nor fast: Can I have a concept of a piston? If so, why can't I have the object that is liberty? (Or say, "He won his freedom.") Is a fever a thing? For that matter, is thunder? What if last year's AFC champs were named the New England Patriotism? Would they sell any tickets?

But this distinction is an ordinary language one. The philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) would probably say that all of these names are referencing objects - even "Liberty" and "Magic". This is because these names perform the function of the object within the thought. This is difficult material - Frege is one of those philosophers that continues to mystify me - but I think that there is something to this. Sorry to free associate and run, though. Arizona's up 31-25 with less than two minutes to go. More on this story as it develops.

* Pillaging is Minnesota's #1 export.

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