Messi is more of a natural talent.


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In recent years, two footballers – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – have been regularly described as the best of their generation by the sport’s commentators, fans, and players. This is evidenced in the recipient list of the Ballon d’Or, which is annually awarded to the player who is voted to have performed the best in the world in the preceding year. The last year that this award was won by a player who was not Messi or Ronaldo was 2007.

Given this unprecedented domination by both players, considerable debate has been afforded to distinguishing the two on the basis of their respective talents. Often such considerations will focus on the different qualities that each player offers. However, even within such considerations, the focus inevitably turns to which of the two is the better, more talented, player. The grander ramification of this debate is that, given the phenomenal statistical records of both players, whoever is deemed to be better between them, could also be considered to be the best player ever.

A particular point of interest that is raised within this discussion concerns how naturally talented each player might be. The Spanish player, Gerard Pique, is well positioned to provide an interesting perspective on this matter, given that he currently plays alongside Messi at FC Barcelona, but has also previously played with Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United. In Pique’s estimation, Ronaldo has had to train and work harder in order to be as talented as he is, whereas Messi is more naturally talented:

Messi is more of a natural talent. He’s not as obsessed with training (Gerard Pique, 2014)

What is being quantified?

Pique here sets up a distinction between two different kind of talents. The first talent is that with which one is naturally invested, the second talent is acquired through the training of oneself. This is no passing distinction. If one is deemed to have been born with more natural talent, the implication is that one was destined to play the game well. Natural talent, in this light, takes on an inevitable, unstoppable, God-like character.

A hierarchy emerges from this distinction, in which natural talent subordinates any acquired talent. Given that many players could possibly work and train hard enough to become talented in such a way, there is something which seems less special about such talent than the natural version with which certain players might be born. Perspectives which distinguish those players who seem to have been “chosen to play,” versus those who diligently “choose to play,” duly manifest.

A commentary such as Pique’s does not suggest that Ronaldo is born without natural talent. Rather, Pique’s is an observation grounded in relativity, simply stating that Messi has more of this talent with which a human might be naturally “blessed” than Ronaldo does. The conclusion drawn from this by Pique, is that Messi does not have to be as fixated on becoming a talented player.

Depending on one’s perspective, this might mean that Ronaldo is viewed in a positive or negative way. An observer might consider it commendable that Ronaldo has achieved what he has in the game, as a result of having worked hard at improving himself. Alternatively, the same observer might have the impression that in being relatively “obsessed” with training and with “being the best,” Ronaldo is more ego-driven than Messi and is likewise less deserving of adulation.

That both Messi and Ronaldo are portrayed by Pique to have relative amounts of talent with which they were born, indicates that what is being quantified by Pique is natural talent. Such talent is seen to be something that Messi has to a significant degree or amount, overshadowing the relatively smaller amount that Ronaldo has. The quantifiable relations of more and less duly emerge.

The concern regarding this quantification is that Pique has not explained how he is measuring the natural talent that he compares between Messi and Ronaldo. Whilst Pique (and indeed other commentators) might present statistics regarding the goals, awards, or championship titles, that have been won by either Messi or Ronaldo, these achievements do not necessarily measure natural talent directly. Rather, they exhibit the effects and prosperities of such talents.

If talent itself is quantifiable, which is what Pique is saying, there must be measurable units of talent which comprise its quantification. These units, in being counted, aggregated, and compared, condition there being a quantity of the thing or the experience in question. Measurable units of quantified talent are not, however, identified by Pique.

How, then, might we consider whether Pique could possibly identify measurable units of talent?

Can talent be quantified?

Henri Bergson posits that the tendency to quantify things or experiences derives from social influence. This is because such quantification occurs through the measures and representations that have been installed by the institutions, perspectives, and languages, of human, collective existence. The sciences, and the social sciences, exemplify this quantifying tendency, in symbolising the world via calculable, comparable data. The integration of the sciences and the social sciences could therefore be helpful in determinations of Pique’s possible identification of measurable units of talent.

What must also be taken into consideration, though, is Bergson’s complementary concern that from this tendency are said to emerge quantifiable constructions of features of the world and our experience of it that might not really be quantifiable. This speaks to the tension between (i) what is perceived to be the socially constructed quantification of a thing/experience, versus (ii) what is presumed to be the real-natural state of a thing/experience.

In terms of talent, we can review four positions which operate from within this tension. This will allow us to appraise how Pique might identify the units which comprise a talent that he assumes is quantifiable, and the responses that he would face. Click on each position below to expand/contract its supporting argument:

1. Extreme social constructionist. The social construction of talent misrepresents what is real-natural about talent.

i. Pique engages studies of talent to evidence the measurable units of talent.

ii. [Science study “y”] studies the physiological changes that are experienced when talent is reported to be experienced…or…[Social science study “z”] studies the behaviours that a society has defined as indicating talent.

iii. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of these physiological changes or behavioural patterns that comprise talent?

If no…

iv. Pique does not identify measurable units of quantified talent.

If yes…

v. Pique identifies measurable units of quantified talent.

The extreme social constructionist responds…

vi. The sciences are socially constructed institutions/perspectives.

vii. Socially constructed perspectives misrepresent what is real-natural about the world.

viii. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a socially constructed perspective of talent.

ix. Even if measurable units of quantified talent are posited by [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”], such units misrepresent what is real-natural about talent.

x. The talent that Pique quantifies misrepresents what is real-natural about talent.

This position is that scientific experimentation, techniques, perspectives, and theories, could have been developed in myriad ways, depending on relevant social influences. Consequently, the resulting scientific results must be dependent upon how society has shaped them. This contingently social factor in the production of scientific truths is contrasted from what are posited to be the necessarily timeless truths or realities of the world. By looking at talent through a contingently socially constructed lens (the sciences are interpreted to be such lenses), the extreme social constructionist’s position demands that the measurable units that might be posited scientifically regarding talent, never represent talent as it really, naturally is.

2. Exclusive social constructionist. The social construction of talent is all that talent ever is.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

The exclusive social constructionist responds…

vii. Talent is also a social construction.

viii. If talent is a social construction, and the sciences are social constructions, the scientific study of talent measures the only reality of talent.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of this talent?

If no…

x. Pique does not identify measurable units of quantified talent.

If yes…

xi. Pique identifies measurable units of quantified talent.

This position is that talent is a concept that societies have created. Societies define the criteria for what comprises talent accordingly. These criteria, either physiological, behavioural, or both, are the signs of talent. If a society conceives of talent by such signs, and talent is considered to be nothing but its social conceptualisation, then the measurement of these signs is duly interpreted to measure talent’s reality.

This differs from the extreme social constructionist position that is presented above in one key regard; the exclusive social constructionist avoids the supposition of a separate natural reality of talent that the social construction of it must explain, access, or discover. Rather, for the exclusive social constructionist, talent is a concept that is believed to only ever have a social reality.

This latter point presents the greatest issue with this position. Will it be adequate for Pique (or indeed for anyone), to state that talent is only a contingent, social construction, with no other reality? If Pique wishes to argue that talent has a reality beyond how a society has come to conceive of it, he then needs to tackle the contestation in position 1 from the extreme social constructionist.

3. Real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of talent is a part of what is real-natural about talent.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of talent.

If no…

x. Pique does not identify measurable units of quantified talent.

If yes…

xi. Pique identifies measurable units of quantified talent.

This position is that what is real-natural expresses itself in social ways. Society, which is a part of what is real-natural, declares through its languages and customs (including its scientific studies), that this feature (talent) of what is real-natural is quantifiable. The social construction of talent in quantifiable terms is a part of what is real-natural about talent. This interpretation resolves the problem of a real-natural world that social perspectives only misrepresent, as found in the extreme social constructionist’s position.

If what is social is real-natural, and vice-versa, then not only is the social construction of talent a part of what is real-natural, but also, what is real-natural about talent is a social reality. If the real-natural, as society, is said to conceive of talent quantifiably, and to identify talent’s measurable units, then what is real-natural about talent is that it is quantified via measurable units.

Not incidentally, this position intersects most coherently with what might be referred to as the “realist” position. The realist would posit that our scientific impressions of what is real-natural do accurately represent what is real-natural. This point must be qualified with the observation that the realist might baulk at the definition of scientific production merely as a contingent, socially constructed, institution. Given that Counting sheep is occupied with Bergsonian-inspired concerns regarding the tendency to socially (mis)construct all features of the world quantifiably, this realist position, in avoiding themes of social constructionism, is not included in these considerations.

4. Incorrect real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of talent is a part of what is real-natural about talent, but is incorrect about talent.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of talent.

If no…

x. Pique does not identify measurable units of quantified talent.

If yes…

xi. Pique identifies measurable units of quantified talent.

The incorrect real-natural social constructionist responds…

v. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural and is incorrect that talent is quantifiable.

vi. Pique does not identify measurable units of quantified talent.

Alternatively, the interpretation might be that what is real-natural, socially posits that talent is quantifiable when actually it is not. The curiosity in this position is that what is real-natural is presenting as a social form of the real-natural, which in perceiving a feature (talent) of what is real-natural, is incorrect about that feature (talent) of what is real-natural.

What is forwarded in this position is not that incorrect socially constructed quantifications of talent represent a mutual exclusion between (i) the social, scientific, perspective/construction of talent, and (ii) what is real-natural about talent. Instead, as per position 3, both the social construction of talent, and what is real-natural about talent, are simultaneously social and real-natural. Whilst units of measurement do not exist for this feature (talent) of what is real-natural, what is socially constructed is not said to be excluded from what is real-natural when conceiving of talent incorrectly (quantifiably).

Rather, what is being forwarded in this position is that what is real-natural comprises all possible social perspectives/constructions of this feature (talent) of what is real-natural. Every social perspective/construction, according to this position, comes from nowhere but from what is real-natural, after all. One of these perspectives/constructions is that which posits that talent is quantifiable, even when there are actually no measurable units comprising such quantification, and therefore no quantification of talent whatsoever.

A reason that such units of measurement do not exist, and that the quantification of talent is incorrect, could relate to the way in which talent manifests. Pique perceives a difference in the degree or size of the talent that is possessed respectively by Messi and Ronaldo. However, for this position it could be stated that talent emerges environmentally, structurally, and circumstantially. With each set of different circumstances comes a different kind, rather than a different magnitude, of talent.

If the kind of talent that manifests is contingent upon the environment in which it manifests, there can be no standardised units across differently manifested talents. This problematises the possible quantification of, and comparison between, an individual’s manifestations of talent over time. Similarly it contests the possibility of comparing the talent between different individuals. Each instantiation of talent is instead qualitatively incomparable, if it is deemed to manifest circumstantially.

If Pique was to be receptive to this position, he would need to re-evaluate his statement that Messi has more natural talent than Ronaldo, or indeed than any other player. An appreciation of the multitude of qualitatively differentiated natural forms of talent, rather than a focus on the different quantities of a singular, homogenous talent, would be required. Within this perspective, natural talent would be seen to be socially constructed by nature in qualitatively incomparable ways. The different types of contributions each player makes to a game, rather than the size of the same contribution each player supposedly makes, would duly become the pivotal point of attention.



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