Play and Philosophy (1966)


SINCE ANTIQUITY, since there was philosophy, the meaning and status of human play have formed an unsettling and confusing problem for thought. And at the same time it is precisely the unquestionability, the elated cheerfulness of play, its blessed repose in itself, that which is unproblematic in the performance of play, which has posed question after question to conceptual thought. How is it possible to live for a time as though there were no looming darkness around us, as though there were not the night of oblivion in which what is known to us is only a small island, a wretched isle where we know our way around to some extent and nevertheless actually figure nothing out and realize nothing until the end —how is it possible to live as though there were not the burdensome toil of labor that is imperative and compelled by necessity, as though there were not the frightful struggle for dominance among human beings, not the vanity of the loving heart and not the shadow of death over all human things? Play is obviously the most extreme counterpart to everything “serious,” to all purposive activity that is planned, is related to the future, and has foresight; it is a cheerful exuberance that takes life lightly and withdraws from every care and responsibility, and more than anything from the strict conceptual sobriety of philosophy. In the gloom of our life’s setting, human play appears as an illuminated scene, as a transfigured and transfiguring intermezzo, as an action that needs no motive and does not look ahead to an end, as an activity that is self- sufficient and lives out its impulses unhindered. In contrast, philosophy is perhaps the most acute form of the “unhappy consciousness,” the persistent mistrust of everything that exists—even of its own self, a despairing doubt [verzweifeltes Zweifeln] about the “given,” about what is accepted and traditional, the destruction of the rootedness of existence and indeed by means of an ice-cold conceptuality bereft of images and hostile to the senses, and in the medium of an unceasing, abstract reflection.


This is the usual way of portraying the antipodean relationship between “play” and “philosophy,” assessing it as an opposed relationship between “immediacy” and “reflective mediation.” However, it should perplex us that supposedly simple and immediate play goes around confidently with a broken, fragmented “understanding of Being”—and that, on the other hand, philosophy that problematizes strives for distinct clarity in the knowledge of beings. The player’s existentiell immediacy moves pleasurably in the labyrinth of Being and appearance—the thinker’s existentiell fragmentation attempts to force its way through everything apparent to the true essence. Philosophy wants to disenchant, to reveal, to unveil, wants to tear things from concealment into the light of reason, does not want the beautiful for its own sake but at best as a prefiguring trace of the true. It scorns the charm of veiling, does not dread the unmasking of the most revered secrets; it wants only sober clear-sightedness into that which truly is. That implies much more than a psychological typological difference between player and thinker—the opposition of antipodes lies in the character of the world: in it Being and appearance are unceasingly blended, “essence” and “manifestation” are distinguished, in it things have surface and depth, in it nature conceals itself and opens itself up, in it the emergence and demise of all beings occur. Playing and thinking are two opposed relations to the world exhibited by the human who has an understanding of Being. The one: swinging into the round dance of worlded things, enjoying the polysemy of beings in the colorful twilight, where essence becomes surface and appearance becomes the core, where the “ruddy complexion of things” enchants and dons the mask. The other: the reduction of the colorful and manifold phenomena to the outline of what is essential, the conceptual insight into the structure of things, dismissal of the contingent, the working out of the architecture of the universe. If {thought} nevertheless strives passionately for “essence,” breaks and shatters concealments in order to advance toward what is genuinely and truly actual, then it has as its path precisely the appearances that it denies, the trumpery of what is without essence, which it wants to set to the side; it is fettered to that which it negates. What is suffused with appearance, whether it be the appearance of illusion, of error, of hasty, all-too-human opinion, or whether it be the appearance of things themselves, their external, veiling surfaces or their will-o’-the-wisp sheen of the beautiful, becomes productive irritation for thinking, which relates itself negatively to that wherein human play has its joys. Play and philosophy have more in common with each other than the usual demarcations suppose; they refer in their immanent understanding of Being to the same appearing and manifesting of beings in the world, even if, respectively, in different, indeed, converse ways—they are antipodes on the same globe.




After this general preliminary explanation of the peculiar oppositional relationship between play and philosophy, we will now attempt a philosophizing view of the phenomenon of play. Everyone is familiar with play; it is universally well known as something that occurs in the human world. Here, too, Hegel’s dictum holds, that what is familiar [das Bekannte] is not on that account already understood [das Erkannte]. What is completely trusted in and self-evident often most tenaciously eludes the reach of the concept. Everyone is familiar with play from their own life, has had experiences with and of it, is familiar with the relationship of play among fellows, is familiar with numerous forms that play takes, is familiar with public games, the spectacles of the masses resembling the ancient circus, games of diversion, games of sport, competitions, the games of children and the somewhat more labored, ponderous and uptight games of adults. Everyone is familiar with elements of play in almost all realms of culture. Homo ludens is not fenced off from homo faber and homo politicus; there are half-concealed elements of play in the field of work and of politics, enticing and tempting kinds of play in the interaction of the sexes. Play is a dimension of existence that is intertwined with all the other fields of life, that determines interpersonal communities as much as cult, love, work, and ruling do. We are all conversant with the fundamental possibility of playing, even if we are not playing at present or are of the opinion that we have already left behind the phase of life for play. Everyone is familiar with countless situations of play in the private, familial, and public realms. Play activities are found in abundance time and again, are everyday events and occurrences in the human world. Play is alien to no human being; everyone is familiar with it from the testimony of their own life. Yet the everyday familiarity often hinders a deeper, more pressing question concerning the essence, concerning the ontological sense and status of play, and entirely prevents a question as to whether and how the human understanding of Being is altogether determined and marked by human playfulness [Spielertum]. An everyday interpretation of human play for the most part corresponds to the everyday familiarity with it. This tends to exclude play as much as possible from the essential core of human existence, to de-essentialize it, to conceive it as a merely “marginal phenomenon,” to take the weight of its genuine significance from it. To be sure, one sees how common play is, human beings’ ardent interest in play, the intensity with which they pursue it, the increasing appreciation of play in connection with the problem of free time in a technologized society. The aspect of play that thereby predominates above all is “recovery,” relaxation, pastime, and cheerful idleness, a refreshing pause that interrupts the workday or is an activity for holidays. Wherever play is interpreted exclusively from an opposition to work or to the serious carrying out of life in general, we have the shallowest yet still predominant, in an everyday sense, interpretation of play before us. Play is now principally taken to be a complementary phenomenon, an ingredient, a supplement for a lifestyle determined by serious business. That implies that play is not grasped in its very own positivity; it is misinterpreted as an interlude [Zwischenspiel] between the serious activities of life, misinterpreted as a “pause,” as a way of filling up free time. 




In Plato, who established and founded Western metaphysics, we find a peculiarly varied, colorful relation of thought to play—of philosophy to poetry, of the truth of what genuinely is to sensuous appearance in the radiance of the beautiful. His “critique of the poets” in the Republic, that great text on the state, is of an incisive, unsurpassed sharpness. A connection between being beautiful and being true, between kalon and alēthes, presides over his thoughts on the ascent of the soul from the cave’s twilight of our earthly sojourn into the ideas’ realm of light, above all in the Phaedrus and in the Symposium. In the work of his later years, the Nomoi, the “Laws,” Plato constructs the second-best state by way of a meditation on play. Play is elevated to a principle that structures the state. The polis is ordered into three ranks, no longer into the static classes of worker, warrior, and philosopher-king as in the Republic, but rather into degrees of seniority. The difference in the stages of life is seen in a tension, different in each stage, between a natural instinctual force and rational insight. As children relate to their parents and legitimate teachers, so too do human beings in general relate to the gods. The human race is subject to divine discipline; the means of discipline, whereby the gods educate and train human beings, is the choral round dance. The festivals, which are celebrated for the gods and are dedicated to them, are not merely interruptions of everyday pursuits—the gods themselves have established them in order to again and again keep human beings once more under divine discipline. Thus Plato places the work of education and the structure of the state under the guidance and blessing of the gods. Above all, the guests in the divine festivals are the Muses, Apollo, and Dionysus, and thus the choral round dance is ordered into three divisions: the chorus of youth under the guidance of the Muses, the chorus of adults who are at the peak of life under the leadership of Apollo, and the chorus of the elderly under the banner of Dionysus. Rhythm is moderately ordered movement, is dance. Harmony is moderately ordered voice, is song. Dance and song constitute the choral round dance. The human being’s sense for rhythm and harmony is a gift of the gods. Thus they nurture us. When youths excitedly band together to play in a round dance, they do not then know what it is in this at bottom that delights them. They do not understand rhythm and harmony as a numeric relation; they do not know that in all the joys of play the gods already draw them in the direction of true insight. The beautiful in its true mathematical nature is still opaque to them. Yet he who organizes such a musical chorus for youth must have an understanding of how the true is heralded in the beautiful, how philosophy is already prefigured in play. The task of a lawgiver organizing the state consists in allowing the song of praise of right living to sound in all the choruses of the polis—for the sake of playful inculcation into what is right. The youth chorus of the Muses and then the Apollonian chorus, too, sing the canticle of virtue, and by means of this continual bringing to presence, their existence is formed into a correspondence to true humanity that is, to be sure, not discerned by them and yet is felt. In the youth and in those who are at the peak of their powers the fire of life blazes up high, they are filled with the Dionysian, the surge of enthusiasm carries them high. Hence they need the constraint of musical and Apollonian restriction. The elderly, however, who are matured by long experience, already proceed along the declining paths of life. It is an irremediable tragedy of human existence that insight and passion, reason and the primordiality of life do not coincide, but are rather related in such a way that they are opposed. The chorus of understanding, yet weary elderly men is supposed to sing the most proper enchanting song of virtue, fuelled by their apportioned wine, and thus attain the highest condition: cool wisdom and playful-cheerful delight in life in one, as the fitting reconciliation of desire and insight, of hedonē and phronēsis. In this context, Plato gives an odd designation for the human being—from the perspective of play, he calls the human being paignion theou, plaything of the god. The human being, the free, creative player, is thereby humbled, pressed down into a marionette, degraded by the philosopher’s “evil eye” into a thing that is moved about—or is there a deeper sense in the human being as a plaything of the gods? Does divinity, least in need of all things that are to be attained by work and struggle, need the human freedom of play—like a higher plaything, as it were, in order to dream its dreams, to reach beyond into the domain of fantastical possibilities and enchanting silhouettes that present a nothing in Being and a Being in nothing—the divinity that is omniscient reason and sees through everything that exists all the way down to the bottom and knows no deception?


With this open question, in which an explosive problematic lies, we conclude our train of thought on play and philosophy.



Published in Play as Symbol of the World , Eugen Fink (Trans. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner)