Move over Eric Cantona. Enough trawlers and seagulls. Joey Barton has taken over as football's No 1 philosopher. A fluent midfielder who has played for England and Manchester City, Barton is also famous for his fouls and has criminal convictions for affray and assault.
Now, as he is being squeezed out by Newcastle United, he has turned to philosophy for support. On Twitter, he has recruited a Premiership team of attackers and defenders, including Nietzsche, Goethe, Virgil, Proust, Norman Mailer, and the well-known nippy left-winger, George Orwell.
There is a natural link between philosophy and football. Jacques Derrida, the deconstructionist, dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. Had Paris Saint-Germain signed him before the Ecole Normale Supérieure, we might never have had Of Grammatology and The Archaeology of the Frivolous. Our own A J Ayer, the Oxford logical positivist and author of Language, Truth and Logic, was a Spurs fan (and known as "the Prof" at White Hart Lane). But it was Albert Camus who spelt out the connection explicitly.
There is an urban myth to the effect that Camus used to play in goal for Algeria. He certainly played in Algeria for the Algiers university team. His lonely position between the posts – part of the team and yet not able to handle the ball, but also likely to take a lot of flak – probably gave him the idea for the novel that would become The Outsider.
Joey Barton is the outsider de nos jours – the alienated individual who can speak on behalf of our feelings of angst. The contemporary philosopher Simon Critchley (who supports Liverpool) has said that the philosopher is "the person who has time or who takes time". Barton goes one better by actually having done time to boot (74 days in Manchester Strangeways). Which gives him an edge. After all, Socrates, the father of Western philosophy (whose namesake played for Brazil), was outlawed by the 5th century BC Olympiakos for "corrupting the minds of the young" and "not believing in the gods of the state".
It would be easy to make fun of Joey Barton and his intellectual pretensions. But the fact is that philosophers have always understood that they are comic figures. Zeno, for example, proved with his paradoxes of infinity that it is always impossible to get beyond the halfway line (which may well be true for certain extremely defensive European teams). Thales, another pre-Socratic, was mocked for falling down a well while looking up at the stars.
Barton's philosophical tweets suggest an explanation as to why his court appearances are right up there with his appearances for Newcastle. He is an intellectual manqué. All his misdemeanours can be attributed to his frustration at the lack of a decent dialectician to tackle.
If Barton wants a philosophical role-model I would recommend Jean-Paul Sartre, who came out with possibly the most resonant one-liner of the 20th-century: "Hell is other people." Sartre was also, like Barton, handy with his fists and likened everyday experience to boxing, which he defined memorably as "a binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity". Or as Bertrand Russell once put it: "Can I take him or can he take me?"
Sartre also thought of football as akin to boxing. In his late work, Critique of Dialectical Reason, he argued that "in football everything is always complicated by the presence of the opposing team". I would define Joey Barton as the pre-eminent neo-existentialist of the Premiership.
I hope he applies for a place to Cambridge University – as Wittgenstein did – as a mature student. I am confident he would walk straight into the Blues team. I should warn him though that essays on philosophy are typically longer than 140 characters.
Andy Martin lectures in French at Cambridge UniversityReuse content