The Subject in Play is Not the Subject at Play

Featured image is Children’s Games, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The subject-object schema is not destiny. It is handed down to us from the time of Descartes and Bacon, quite late in the history of philosophy. After Kant, subjectivity became a prison from which we are never free to directly perceive or interact with objects as things-in-themselves.

In the 20th century, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein—starting from very different interests, training, and standpoints—looked to play and games as a way of moving beyond the Kantian trap.

How can something as seemingly trivial as play provide an answer to a serious philosophical problem? When we say “do you think this is a game?” are we not implying that the matter at hand is more important than such a thing?

The Two Thinkers

It’s quite possible that both arrived at their approaches independently. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations was published posthumously, in 1953. Gadamer’s Truth and Method was published later, in 1960, but it was the culmination of a 30 year project. In a note in a later edition, Gadamer says that Wittgenstein’s language-games “seemed quite natural to me when I came across it.” He mentions Wittgenstein in several later works, in a context which makes it seem as though he encountered the latter’s work after Truth and Method was written. This lines up with the fact that, despite writing the manuscript for Philosophical Investigations in German, it made its earliest and largest impact in the English-speaking world.

This is all neither here nor there—a bit of historic trivia, enjoyable to enthusiasts about such things. Regardless of whether there was any influence between them, these two thinkers came to games from two very different starting points—logic and mathematics for Wittgenstein, philology and phenomenology for Gadamer. Their imagined interlocutors were quite different, as well. Augustine looms large for both (though for very different reasons), but the philosophers that Wittgenstein explicitly names (which are few and far between) include the logicians Bertrand Russell and Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, and the American pragmatist and psychologist William James. Gadamer, on the other hand, draws on a vast array of German philosophers, as well as Plato and Aristotle. His primary focus is on the dead-ends that 19th century hermeneutics fell into as a result of being trapped in either Kantian or Hegelian frameworks. The role of Russell and Frege for Wittgenstein are played by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey for Gadamer. Formal logic versus the interpretation of texts—very different starting points.

And their ways of approaching the subject matter is quite different. Gadamer attempts a systematic investigation of games, whereas Wittgenstein’s investigation explicitly avoids the systematic. Gadamer describes the features of play and of games, and sketches out an ontology. Wittgenstein relentlessly asks question after question, suggesting a direction of thought but hardly ever providing anything like a concrete answer.

Nevertheless, they do seem to converge on a similar answer to the conceptual problems of their day.

Particular Games

Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system. And one has to say this in many cases where the question arises “Is this an appropriate description or not?” The answer is: “Yes, it is appropriate, but only for this narrowly circumscribed region, not for the whole of what you were claiming to describe.”

It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…”—and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games.”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Wittgenstein purposely avoids a systematic analysis. For this reason, I’m skeptical that Robert Brandom’s concept of “the game of giving and asking for reasons” truly preserves the spirit of Wittgenstein’s language-games. I haven’t read Brandom’s book, but the notion of the game of giving and asking for reasons seems at odds with Wittgenstein’s repeated insistence that we focus on this move in this game. Philosophical Investigations explicitly resists generalizing as much as is feasible, demanding again and again that we focus on the particulars of the subject in question.

I imagine Wittgenstein’s response to Brandom would be: “which game, what sort of reason?” After all, what we mean by “reason” is itself a move in a particular language-game. But again, I have not read Brandom—perhaps I am not doing him justice here.

It is precisely his desire to attend to particulars that draws Wittgenstein to the word “game”. We use this word to describe a wide range of very different things—how are poker, volleyball, Super Mario Bros, and chess alike? He opposes the Augustinian (and therefore Platonic) notion of form or essence by advancing family resemblance as an alternative. Perhaps there is a collection of characteristics that could be applied to the notion of a game, but many games do not have a significant percentage of these characteristics.

Wittgenstein does not want to focus on family resemblance, however. He wants to emphasize just how different the particular games can be from one another; family resemblance is brought in to simply keep them from dissolving completely into unrelated particularity.

The range of particular cases involved here is also part of the appeal of games for Gadamer. He introduces the notion in his discussion of art. He explicitly compares the representation involved in a child playing with a toy truck with the representation of a theatrical production in front of an audience. Paintings, buildings, sports, conversations, games played alone and with others, and the performing arts—these are all things that Gadamer believes the concepts of play and games can shed light on.

The Game as Subject of Play

The player experiences the game as a reality that surpasses him.

-Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

Elsewhere I explained the concept of something that is not as “hard” as an object but not as individualized as a subjective experience. John Searle calls facts that occupy this middle space “ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective,” or “institutional facts” in contrast to “brute facts” such as the existence of a mountain (which would be “ontologically objective”). The more popular terminology is to call it “intersubjective.” For myself, I prefer Deirdre McCloskey’s term “conjective.”

It’s all well and good to give it a name, but what it is? How does it work? John Searle provides an ontology, which is highly influenced by Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein himself, like Gadamer, suggests that this space between subjects has the ontological structure of a game.

Again, Gadamer is much more explicit in his analysis of that structure:

Play is more than the consciousness of the player, and so it is more than a subjective act. Language is more than the consciousness of the speaker; so also it is more than a subjective act.

The subject of play is not the player, or their subjective experience of playing, but the game itself:

The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players. Even in the case of games in which one tries to perform tasks that one has set oneself, there is a risk that they will not “work,” “succeed,” or “succeed again,” which is the attraction of the game. Whoever “tries” is in fact the one who is tried. The real subject of the game (this is shown in precisely those experiences in which there is only a single player) is not the player but instead the game itself. What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there is the game itself.

Wittgenstein suggests this, rather than stating it outright. He continually resists the impulse to speak of some general thing-in-itself being represented by words. In a famous passage, he states that in some cases it doesn’t even matter whether what we’re thinking of is the same at all:

If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word “pain” means—must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!—Suppose that everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.—Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.—But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?—If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.—No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

Wittgenstein resists the notion of the thing in the box, or the mental picture, or the personal sensation from which we generalize. He does this so many times, that he sometimes feels the need to clarify that he is not denying the existence of feelings, mental images, or things-in-themselves. He is simply focusing on the nature of language, which he believes is more productively done by looking at its use in the context of particular language-games than in an Augustinian search for the form of the beetle (so to speak).

And so he says:

For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word meaning it can be explained thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

The game is the thing. To understand meaning, and the vast conjective web that humans spin together, you need to attend to the relevant games, which give the specific thing under observation its context as a move or role in a game.

Gadamer emphasizes how understanding has the character of an event, rather than of self-conscious deliberation. When we read “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” we don’t have to consciously define each term as we go in order to grasp the story; we follow the story without thought. The proper analysis of this phenomena focuses not on the neurons of even the subjective experience of the reader, but on the subject matter, the story itself. We can understand the reader’s role in this as that of a player in which the meaning of the story is a game.

For Gadamer, the audience is also a player, a participant:

The spectator does not hold himself aloof at the distance characteristic of an aesthetic consciousness enjoying the art with which something is represented, but rather participates in the communion of being present.

In characterizing understanding as play, and the subject matter as existing conjectively rather than subjectively, Gadamer hopes to do justice to both the shared experience and the multiplicity of what we take away from what we have understood. Many of us know the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears;” to such an extent that as metaphor it forms the basis of our shared language. But not all of us take away the same messages of the story, at least not at first. And if this is the case for such a relatively simple story, you can imagine how it goes with great works of literature.

Wittgenstein tries to walk the same tightrope between commonality and multiplicity. Early in Philosophical Investigations, he gives the example of a worker who shouts “Slab!” at a construction site, resulting in someone bringing the slab. Wittgenstein asks if the shout “Slab!” really means “bring me a slab,” but is simply the shortened form.

But how do you do this: how do you mean that while you say “Slab!”? Do you say the unshortened sentence to yourself? And why should I translate the call “Slab!” into a different expression in order to say what someone means by it?

On the one hand, we have many ways of meaning the same thing—“Slab!” can be the same move in the same language game as “bring me the slab.” The game creates the possibility of commonality in the commonality of moves. But there’s a multiplicity of ways to make the moves, and then, of course, there is the multiplicity of moves, and of games themselves.

Shedding Light on a Variety of Human Affairs

It seems to me that we shed a lot of light on one great mystery of human nature—that we seem too individualistic to be a properly eusocial species, but too good at acting in concert to discard the analogy with eusocial species entirely—when we begin to look at our social aspects and activities in terms of games.

The biblical scholar Anthony Thiselton put this to direct use, for instance, by analyzing the writings of Paul in terms of the different language-games he was making moves within. By doing so he is able to shed light on a range of meanings in the text that might have otherwise been concealed from a superficial analysis of when the same words are used.

One question that I had struggled with over the past year is how you can write for an audience made up of two types of people: one who knows less than you do on a subject, and one that knows a lot more. My provisional answer: conversation and writing are games in which you can invite different people with different standpoints to play different roles. We’re not all trapped in our different subjective experiences; we’re united in being able to commit to playing the same game.

Similarly, the German theologian Fuchs said that Jesus created a space for both believers and non-believers within the parables he told. However, as Jesus himself says in the gospels, this space is only available for those willing to listen in good faith. That is, to make a good faith effort to attend to the spirit in which the parables are told.

I also think this approach is fruitful for analyzing institutions and politics, such as the relationship between the system the founding fathers created and the administrative state the 20th century progressives created. In discussing political legitimacy elsewhere, I suggested:

Imagine if we were playing a game but decided that performing some central part of it illegitimated the results. So certain moves in chess, or using the Queen at all, or jumping over a piece in checkers, or bluffing in Poker. If these things are central enough to the game, then the player who insists they invalidate the game will likely make it unplayable, or playable in a very handicapped sense, or will simply spoil it to such an extent that the game is abandoned and some other is taken up, perhaps without the person who spoiled it. It could be that legitimacy is simply when we keep playing the game, and alter it within the terms of the game rather than attempting to externally invalidate core parts of it unilaterally.

Why would we do such a thing, if we can see some very bad things about the game in question? Perhaps because we imagine the game will be even worse if we are not active players, or that if the game is abandoned entirely, the thing that replaces it will be much worse.

I had in mind Aristotle’s notion that the difference between sophistry and philosophical investigation cannot be determined from the surface structure, but must be a sort of ethical commitment. That is, the difference is in the spirit of the inquiry.

In the context of games, Gadamer makes a similar point:

Play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play. Seriousness is not merely something that calls us away from play; rather, seriousness in playing is necessary to make the play wholly play. Someone who doesn’t take the game seriously is a spoilsport.

The opposite is also often true, however—someone who takes a game too seriously, or too rigidly adheres to its rules, is just as much a spoilsport. There’s a reason that winning a game on a technicality feels hollow, whereas we have a sense of when we have lost fairly.

Playing a game without being a spoilsport means committing to the spirit of the game.

In several posts, I have attempted to allude to what “being a spoilsport” looks like in the context of American democracy. The Revolt of the Public can be interpreted as saying that technology and other factors of this particular moment in history are pushing us to abandon the spirit of our political games en masse, but they largely go on because no new ones are started in their place. The author speaks of the extinction of narratives, but of course for Wittgenstein and Gadamer, narratives are games.

How far can this sort of analysis carry you?

I leave this question to the readers, so that you might put your own answers in play.

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3 thoughts on “The Subject in Play is Not the Subject at Play

  1. Pingback: 2:00PM Water Cooler 5/20/2016 | naked capitalism

  2. You wrote,”In the 20th century, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein—starting from very different interests, training, and standpoints—looked to play and games as a way of moving beyond the Kantian trap.”

    Can you elaborate that what is “Kantian trap”.

    1. Just what I mentioned at the start—the notion that after Kant philosophers found it hard to break out of seeing things in terms of subjectivity, with inaccessible things-in-themselves.

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