Abstracts of Papers in Progress

Below are abstracts for the following papers in progress:

  • “Games and Stories”
  • “Wittgenstein’s Fictions”
  • “How To Undo Things With Words: Wittgenstein and Heidegger on the Dissolution of Philosophical Problems”
  • “Wittgenstein’s Confessions: Reading Philosophical Investigations with St. Augustine”
  • “Homo neotenicus and Homo ludens”

Games and Stories

This paper argues that stories represent a limiting case of games. The argument proceeds by presenting a number of structural features of games, and then arguing for a continuity between traditional stories and games by means of the intermediate form of narrative games: games that constitutively feature a storytelling element.

The paper begins by considering Bernard Suits’s tripartite definition of games. According to Suits, all games involve (a) a prelusory goal, which is the aim of the game, whether it be to outscore the opposition or to cross the finish line first; (b) lusory means, which are restrictions upon how players can achieve the prelusory goal, whether it be to forbid touching the ball with one’s hands, or to interfere with other runners in the race; and (c) a lusory attitude, which is that we accept the restrictive lusory means voluntarily, and as a way of making the game more interesting: games deliberately seek out less than maximally efficient ways of achieving the prelusory goal. Noting the contrast between lusory means and rules, the paper next considers John Searle’s distinction between regulative rules, which define what one may, must, or must not do, and constitutive rules, which establish the institution within which the regulative rules operate. Johan Huizinga develops the notion of constitutive rules to talk about a “magic circle”: the limited extension of space, time, and participants that defines all play.

Narrative games are defined as games where storytelling is part of the game’s constitutive rules. Storytelling may feature constitutively in games in three different ways: first, and most straightforwardly, narrative games revolve around a story of some sort; second, the players in narrative games typically play characters who are distinct from themselves; and third, these players tend to participate in telling the story in a narrative game. These three aspects of narrative games find continuities with non-narrative games on the one hand and with non-game narratives on the other. With respect to non-narrative games, the story element of a narrative game is a special case of the magic circle that constitutes all games; all games involve players, even if those players do not play characters in non-narrative games; and players in all games determine the outcome of the game, whether or not that outcome is the outcome of a story. With respect to non-game narratives, a continuum without sharp breaks distinguishes, for instance, improvisational theatre games and traditional theatrical productions, where the involvement of players is gradually reduced to zero. We can see a similar continuum between tabletop role-playing games and traditional prose narratives. Effectively, stories are games in which character and narrative are absolutely central, the roles of player, referee, and game master are rolled into a single author, and the readers or viewers occupy much the same role as spectators of games.

This approach contrasts with, and supplements, Kendall Walton’s make-believe theory of the representational arts: by considering the nature of play and games more closely, this paper draws distinctions not available to Walton, and in particular rejects the emphasis Walton places on make-believe, or pretence, in an audience’s engagement with a story. Just as athletes and spectators don’t need to pretend that a game of soccer is taking place, make-believe is not a necessary element in our engagement with stories. We also don’t need any kind of true-within-the-fiction qualifiers to account for the truth-conditions of utterances about stories any more than we need true-within-the-game qualifiers to account for the truth-conditions of utterances about games.

The conclusion briefly suggests further ramifications of this argument. What applies to stories might be extended to the arts more generally, as well as to other areas of human endeavour: for instance, Huizinga suggests strong similarities between religious ritual and play. More generally, this argument suggests that games and play have a more central place in human life than is normally acknowledged.

Wittgenstein’s Fictions

At various points in his later philosophy, Wittgenstein insists that he is not advancing any claims that one could dispute, and says that, rather than theses, theories, explanations, and the like, he is offering descriptions. This paper addresses two related puzzles that stand out if we take Wittgenstein at his word: How can we make sense of his claim that he says nothing we can dispute? And how, if what he says is beyond dispute, can it nevertheless be philosophically interesting? This paper answers these questions by drawing an analogy between the language-games and other imaginary scenarios that pepper Wittgenstein’s later writings on the one hand, and works of literary fiction on the other. Like literature, Wittgenstein offers us ‘objects of comparison’, scenarios or worlds that stand in contrast with our own, and which work on us not by persuading us of the truths of particular propositions, but by shifting our general orientation. This argument proceeds by distinguishing Wittgenstein’s imaginary scenarios from standard philosophical thought experiments, and applies the conclusions it reaches regarding Wittgenstein’s imaginary scenarios to the problem of cognitivism in literary fiction.

How To Undo Things With Words: Wittgenstein and Heidegger on the Dissolution of Philosophical Problems

Both Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations and Heidegger in Being and Time characterize their method as descriptive, reminding us of what we already know, and eschewing any positive theoretical claims. For both, the sorts of problems that typically prompt philosophers to advance such claims are symptomatic of deep misunderstanding. Overcoming this misunderstanding require bold methodological innovations: how can we undo deep misunderstandings simply by telling people things they already know? This paper focuses primarily on Heidegger’s method of formal indication and Wittgenstein’s use of objects of comparison and the dialogical form of his investigation. In comparing how the two authors deploy these methods in their attempt to dissolve the problematic of realism and idealism, I remark on one principal difference in their terms of criticism: where Heidegger uses “discovery” (Entdeckung) to denote the uncovering of a deeper realm of ontological disclosure, Wittgenstein uses the same expression to talk about uncovering nonsense.

Wittgenstein’s Confessions: Reading Philosophical Investigations with St. Augustine

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations begins with a quotation from St. Augustine’s Confessions, and then proceeds to scrutinize “the picture of the essence of human language” that Wittgenstein claims to find in the passage that he quotes. Wittgenstein is normally read as criticizing the “Augustinian picture of language,” and by extension, Augustine himself, but this paper argues that Wittgenstein takes Augustine as his starting point primarily out of a sense of affinity with Augustine’s project, rather than in rejection of it.

In particular, I draw attention to the difficulty both Philosophical Investigations and Confessions have with beginning, and with arrogating to themselves the authority to begin. Both texts begin with the words from another text—Confessions in the case of Philosophical Investigations, and the Book of Psalms in the case of Confessions—such that the author’s voice enters in response to the voice of another. Over the first few pages of Confessions, Augustine struggles with the question of how he can begin, a struggle that I read as calling into question Augustine’s own authority to act as author to his own life story. One central aim of Confessions is precisely to challenge the autonomy of the individual as author of his or her own life, insisting instead that a life can only be properly understood through God and as a part of God’s creation.

Ultimately, Confessions is a text about conversion, and the difficulty of conversion—in particular, the difficulty that conversion requires more than assenting to a set of propositions. In this respect, Philosophical Investigations is also a text about conversion and its difficulty: Wittgenstein does not try to persuade his readers of a set of propositions so much as he attempts to shift his readers’ overall way of seeing. By exploring Wittgenstein’s own deferral of authority at the outset of his text, and by comparing it with Augustine’s own, this paper seeks to cast light on the aim of Philosophical Investigations as a whole, and the significance of Stanley Cavell’s proposal that the text might be read as a confession.

Homo neotenicus and Homo ludens

Human physiology shows many signs of neoteny—delayed physiological development that results in the retention in adulthood of traits normally only seen in the young. With our hairless bodies, large eyes, small jaws, and globular skulls containing large brains, we look more like the juveniles of other ape species than like the adults. This paper explores one common form of juvenile animal behaviour that is more prominent in adult humans than in the adults of other species: play. Drawing on work by Johan Huizinga, as well as Roger Caillois and Bernard Suits, I lay out some of the characteristic features of play, and of the distinctively human form of play that we call games. Play unfolds in what Huizinga calls a “magic circle” or “play ground,” which is delimited from “ordinary” life spatially, temporally, and socially. We begin to see the centrality of play to human existence when we recognize the delimitation of structurally similar “play grounds” in artistic and religious practice. To the extent that a “human difference” is worth marking, on this view, it is more a matter of degree than of kind: other animals play as well, just nothing like as intensively as we do, especially not into adulthood. However, adult human play takes on a much more regulated structure than either the play of human children or of other animals. We are not the only creatures that play, but we may be the only creatures that play games.