Friday, November 14, 2014

The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia

The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia is a philosophical investigation of games by Bernard Suits. It is a dense, and, at times, difficult read. So, it is more for the stout-hearted, philosophically inclined reader, than it is for the casual reader. Nonetheless, it does make some very important points. So, I will summarize it here, very briefly, and emphasize a couple of its most dramatic contributions.

The book is structured around a very different interpretation of Aesop's Fable The Grasshopper and the Ant. In the original Aesop's Fable the grasshopper plays when the weather is nice while the ant works putting food away for the winter. When winter comes, the ant has plenty of food but the foolhardy grasshopper has nothing because he played all summer. So, the ant survives while the grasshopper starves. In Suit's interpretation, the grasshopper argues that he is merely acting according to his nature and if he did differently he would no longer be the grasshopper.  This was a little difficult to follow and I probably should read it again and wrestle with the ideas a bit more. But, the re-interpretation is not relevant to this post. So, I will keep going.

Along the way in discussing the role of play and games, Suits makes two rather astonishing observations. First, he asks about a utopian world in which people had all their needs met what would people do with their time? He suggests that they would play games. This seems right, on the face of it, as games are entertaining and will fill time not being spent on surviving. He then goes on to suggest that because of this games are the highest good for people. That is, it is the thing they would do if they could do anything they wanted to do. This, then, leads to the observation I made in a previous post that games are the only activity that people do for its own sake. Thus, putting play on a par with happiness as a thing people pursue for no other reason than to achieve it.

The second rather astonishing contribution that Suits makes is that he provides a workable definition of games. You might recall how, in the previous post, Wittgenstein said that games defy definition. The concept of games, according to Wittgenstein is held together by Family Resemblances and there is nothing that all games have in common. However, Suits defines a game as a voluntary attempt to othercome unnecessary obstacles. That seems to be a pretty good definition and one has to ask why Wittgenstein got it wrong while Suits got it right.

The answer, I believe, is that Wittgenstein was looking for a definition based on attributes whereas Suits provided a teleological definition. That is to say that  Wittgenstein was looking for features common to all games whereas Suits defined games in terms of the purpose they serve in our lives. This might even be a part of a larger patterns as we progress from natural science to social science to sciences of the artificial. Categories in natural science tend to be defined by attributes. In social science we see more of a mixture of attribute and teleological definitions. In sciences of the artificial more categories are almost always teleological.

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