What, to paraphrase the scholastic theologian Tertullian, does AEK Athens have to do with Beitar Jerusalem?

In its original formulation, Tertullian’s dictum raised the question about the fundamental relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and Judeo-Christian faiths. Why, to put it bluntly, should the Jewish or Christian worshipper worry themselves with the ideas of thinkers in Athens?

When José Mourinho — self-proclaimed philosophical proficient — settled in front of the press pack on Friday afternoon, no one expected the question to be re-appropriated for the modern world. Now, though, instead of Athens and Jerusalem functioning as metonyms for those two cultures brought into close congruence as BC became AD, they referred to quite different things. Athens still symbolised the world of philosophy. But Jerusalem now represented the world of football. What, you might ask, does philosophy have to do with football?

As he settled down to face the cameras on Friday, José Mourinho was in no mood to be amicable. He had endured the media in the days following his side’s defeat at home to Tottenham and the questions about his playing style and legacy were starting to wear thin. When he was asked whether he could retain his place amongst the best managers in the world even despite his present record at Manchester United, he was hardly going to be magnanimous. But no one was quite expecting the response he gave.

Could he retain his place amongst the greats? “Of course,” he replied. “Did you read any philosopher? Or in your formation you never spent time reading for example Hegel? Okay. So just as an example Hegel says: ‘The truth is in the whole,’ is always in the whole that you find the truth.”

In many respects, this was classic Mourinho. When things start to get tricky: deflect. This tactic had its desired effect. The audience shuffled nervously as if Mourinho was a university lecturer who had asked a question in a 9am lecture on a Monday morning. And can you blame them? How do you respond? “Yes, José. Actually, I very much enjoyed The Phenomenology of the Spirit. Which part of Hegel is your favourite? Maybe The Science of Logic? Or perhaps you find his totalising metaphysics too hard to stomach? Let’s chat after the press conference and talk about how best to schematise the triadic structure of his dialectic.”

But what if they had? What if someone had challenged him on his reading of Hegel? How would that have gone?

Mourinho’s quotation “The truth is in the whole” is actually a slight misquote from the Preface of The Phenomenology of the Spirit sub-section 20 where Hegel writes “The truth is the whole”. Being charitable to the Manchester United manager, let’s assume he’s been reading the original in Portuguese and so the introduction of the preposition ‘in’ is a slip of the tongue. That section of the text continues: “The whole, however, is merely the essential nature reaching its completeness through the process of its own development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only at the end is it what it is in very truth.”

At this point, you may feel like closing your web browser and going for a cold shower. Bear with Hegel, though, because this is just the German philosopher’s way of saying that we can only really know a thing at the end. When speaking about what things are, he might say, we shouldn’t consider them at one point in time but only at the end of the process of their development.

In this instance, then, an appeal to Hegel would hardly seem to help Mourinho. Having been asked whether or not he can still be judged to be one of the all-time great managers, Mourinho cites Hegel in a bid to remind his audience of his past record. But Hegel’s point in claiming that “The truth is the whole” is that the process of becoming — of change, of development — is as fundamental to what things are as what they have been at one point or other in the past. Faced with the problem of José Mourinho’s managerial career, Hegel would not have pointed to the achievements of an earlier time but to the future. Will Mourinho be remembered as a great? How could we know until we had reached the conclusion of the process?

In this sense, the original question raised in that press conference was more Hegelian than the Hegel-citing Mourinho. Translated into Hegelian terms, the question would become: What does the process of development in your managerial career tell us about its essential nature?

In order to answer this question properly, we need to delve a little deeper into Hegel’s ideas about the process of development. One of the words that constantly crops up in discussion about Hegel is the word ‘dialectic’. Now, although it sounds complicated, the concept of dialectics is very simple: it simply means the back and forth between two opposing sides in an argument. Most famously, Plato would use the Socratic method — so named because Socrates was one of the interlocutors in the debate — as a means of developing his ideas. You start off with two differing positions and then slowly move back and forth between them to refine the original ideas into more sophisticated ones.

So far, so simple. The problem arises when these two opposing positions lead you into a contradiction. According to the logics of a traditional reductio ad absurdum argument, if you reach a point at which the two premises can be shown to be at odds with one another, the only conclusion can be that one or both of the premises are false. For Plato, at this point you have to return to the beginning and arbitrarily select new starting positions from which to argue. But Hegel doesn’t like this approach. He thinks it ends in scepticism as the philosopher “must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss.” (The Phenomenology of the Spirit, §79)

It is at this juncture that Hegel’s idea of the process of development comes in. We have already mentioned that Hegel’s dialectic has a triadic structure. At the point in dialectics at which a contradiction is reached, Plato would say go back to the beginning and start again. Hegel, though, would introduce a third moment into his dialectic — a moment he called ‘sublation’ but which is often rendered ‘synthesis’ — a positive moment in which the useful portions of the contradicting ideas are taken up whilst sloughing off their limitations. In this way, we are able to say something more about the original premises than simply negating them (as Plato would). As a result of his dialectic, Hegel was able to take up the contradictions that pervaded modern philosophy — subject/object, freedom/nature, being/nothing — and move his philosophy beyond them. Subject and object, for example, should not be strictly opposed, then, but should be reschematised within a more meaningful conception of the whole.

What does any of this have to do with José Mourinho? To answer that question, we have to go back to another press conference: the one given in the wake of Manchester United’s loss to Tottenham. The Manchester United manager was understandably rankled. His team had just lost at home to Tottenham Hotspur in a game in which, according to him, his “team played so well and strategically. We were so, so, so, so, so, so good.” So when he came into the press conference and found the media trying to “transform this press conference into let’s blame the guy,” Mourinho let the floodgates open.

“I need to know from you what is the most important thing. If it is to play well or to win matches? To play offensively or for a certain result?”

And there it is. Football’s contradiction. The two positions: playing well or winning. The Portuguese provocateur clearly considers the one to be a negation of the other. Why, he imagined, were the press so impatient to accuse him? In previous games, his teams had played stodgy football in a bid to win. The journalists did not like it. Tonight, he had got his team playing much more attractive football. The journalists did not like it. What did they want from him?

Here’s the thing. Football has developed. These two antinomies are no longer held as incommensurables. Having undergone its own Hegelian synthesis in Pep Guardiola, there is now an understanding that playing well and winning can be held together despite the implicit tension that exists between them.

For José Mourinho, the conclusion he has reached at this point of his career is, like Plato before him (on Hegel’s terms), scepticism. Where can he go? What can he do? Will the media never be happy? It is in this sense that his appeal to Hegel is most problematic. What does the process of development in Mourinho’s managerial career tell us about its essential nature? Precisely that he has, as yet, failed to go through that final sublation in which he takes up the contradiction of football and moves through it so that he can finally stand side by side with Guardiola in the sunny uplands of the modern game.

So Mourinho is right. For Hegel, “The truth is the whole”. But, at this moment, the Manchester United manager doesn’t seem to know why he is right. Perhaps a better quotation for him would be that section in The Philosophy of Right in which Hegel notes that “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” According to the Roman tradition, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and philosophy, takes the form of an owl. What Hegel is saying, albeit cryptically, is that, tragically, it is only at the end of our lives when it is too late that we are able to come to understand things fully.

As the dusk falls and the Owl of Mourinho readies itself to take flight, he would do well to return to the Hegel that he read ‘during his formation’ and ask himself whether or not he had truly understood it.