Newsletter: November 2021
[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]
I hope you’ve seen your way past Halloween with more treats than tricks. Here at Outer Coast, I’m now two weeks into my second intensive term of teaching. We’ve left behind the study of ancient wisdom and are now investigating the philosophy of games and play. It’s fun, but it’s also serious business!
In the world of online philosophy, our Wittgenstein reading group is coming to the climax of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. We’ll turn next to Wittgenstein’s late masterpiece, the Philosophical Investigations. Meanwhile, there’s lots of action going on behind the scenes as I get ready to announce January’s online courses. You’ll hear more about them later this month. Your responses to my survey earlier in the month were a great help in my planning, so thanks to those of you who responded.
Less behind-the-scenes are a couple additions to my online presence. One is that I’ve set up a Facebook page in connection with David Egan Philosophy. That page will carry announcements and other bits of information. I encourage you to like or follow it.
The other addition is the blog on my website. Blog entries offer philosophical reflections in three different forms. First, I keep a permanent record of these monthly newsletters, which I’ll post to the blog with a one-month delay. Second, I’ll post occasional “Reflections,” in which I think out loud about something that’s on my mind. And third are “Starting points”: short essays on topics covered by my courses that serve as an accessible introduction.
I’ll announce updates to the blog on my Facebook page. The website as a whole will get a new, cleaner look around the time I announce the January courses later this month.
Snow is starting to settle on the mountains surrounding Sitka. The weekend before last, I managed to beat the snow to Starrigavan Ridge. The Alpine meadows afforded stunning views.
Last week, the students in my course on games and play started reading The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia by Bernard Suits. Few works of philosophy could claim to be cult classics but this is one of them. Published in 1978 to little fanfare, it’s since picked up a growing coterie of admirers. The book is about games, packed witty and delightful examples and thought-experiments. But beneath its playful surface is a striking and profound argument.
Suits frames the book with a narrative that plays both on Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper and on the character of Socrates. In Aesop’s fable, Grasshopper plays all summer long while Ant toils in preparation for winter. When winter comes, Grasshopper comes begging to Ant for food and is refused. A moralistic interpretation reads the fable as an exhortation to hard work and a reproach to idleness. But Suits turns the moral on its head. Grasshopper is a Socratic hero, who steadfastly lives out his ideals even when it costs him his life.
What ideals are those? According to Grasshopper, the best life is a life devoted to playing games.
To explain himself, Grasshopper first has to define what it means to play a game. Games, unlike other forms of play, are goal-oriented activities. In a game we strive to get a ball through a hoop, to checkmate our opponent, to cross the finish line ahead of the competition, and so on. But unlike the goal-oriented activities that occupy our working lives, we find inefficient means of pursuing our goals in games.
Consider the high jump. My goal is to get my body over the bar. The easiest way to do that would be to bring a stepladder, or at least to place a mini trampoline before the bar. Jumping from the ground unaided is inefficient but that’s what the high jump stipulates. All games prescribe inefficient means. I can’t touch the ball in soccer or carry it in basketball, I can’t rob the bank in Monopoly or keep aces up my sleeve in poker.
Grasshopper works toward a three-part definition of a game. Playing a game is the pursuit of what he calls a prelusory goal: the state of affairs I’m striving to achieve. But my pursuit of that goal is constrained by lusory means: rules that exclude the most efficient means of pursuing that goal.
So far what I’ve described applies to moral precepts. Injunctions not to lie, cheat, or steal also urge us to pursue inefficient means to our ends. That’s where the third part of Grasshopper’s definition comes in. We accept the constraints of lusory means in a game by adopting the lusory attitude. We accept those constraints for the sole reason of making the game possible in the first place.
Putting these three elements together—prelusory goal, lusory means, and lusory attitude—Grasshopper offers a pithy summary: “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
One curious feature of games is that they invert the traditional relationship between means and ends. In most activities, we pursue the means for the sake of the ends. The means to our ends only matter to us because the ends matter. But in a game, we pursue the ends for the sake of the means. There’s nothing valuable in itself in getting a ball through a hoop or getting my body over a bar. Those ends only matter to me because the challenge of striving to achieve them is interesting and enjoyable.
This inversion of means and ends lies at the heart of Grasshopper’s claim that games provide a model for the ideal life. Consider, first of all, that most of our activities are merely instrumentally valuable. That is, we pursue them only for the sake of some other thing. I take the bus for the sake of getting to work, I work for the sake of earning money, I earn money for the sake of buying things I need, and so on. By contrast, the things we most care about are intrinsically valuable: we care about them for their own sakes.
In an ideal world, we could devote our lives only to intrinsically valuable activity. Grasshopper invites us to imagine such a utopia where everyone has everything they need. Food and shelter materialize at the push of a button, ill health is miraculously cured, everyone is loved and cared for. If we didn’t have to work for all these things, what would we do? One worry that haunts utopians is that a perfect world would be, well, a little boring.
Grasshopper proposes to save utopia by playing games. In utopia, we want to do things but there’s nothing we need to do. Here’s where the inversion of means and ends effected by games becomes crucial. Games are goal-oriented activities where the goal itself is unnecessary. In a world where we resolved all our pressing problems, all we’d be left to do would be to play games.
In fact, in this utopian vision, all sorts of activities that we don’t consider games would start to seem game-like. In utopia, there’s no need to build houses. But what if someone wants to build a house? By all means—but that person is thereby playing the “game” of house-building. They’re pursuing a goal (to build a house) by inefficient means (they’re not taking advantage of utopian house-creating technologies) and they’re doing so for the sole reason that the challenge is enjoyable.
In this light, we can see that many of our preferred activities in our own non-utopian world also have a game-like structure. These are the hobbies and life goals we choose rather than the activities we’re bound to by grudging obligation. And for this reason, Suits thinks, we ought to take games far more seriously than we normally do.
May you all have a very playful month of November!