chapter  9
11 Pages

Play and being in Jean- Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness


The twentieth-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is best known for his writing on freedom, controversial political development (particularly his relationship with Marxism, and his later writings on emancipatory violence) and extensive oeuvre, which covers a vast terrain: from the life of Flaubert, documentation of his trips to the USA and Cuba, to plays and his extensive philosophical output. But what contribution can Sartre make to current debates on the concept of play? While a feeling of freedom is often described as occurring through play, what philosophical implications does such a claim have? And what does this tell us about non-playful existence? Sartre’s first major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness (BN), presents his theory of human existence, or ontology. The world of BN is one in which we live primarily in ‘bad faith’. It is a world usually described as one where we deceive ourselves: we deny that we are freedom itself (we are ‘condemned to be free’), and fail to take responsibility for our choices and actions, deliberate or otherwise. It is also a world of conflict with fellow human beings, or what Sartre calls for-itselves (often characterised as an ‘embodied consciousness’ Sartre’s foritself is necessarily situated in the world). Contained within BN is a largely unacknowledged analysis of play, the most pointed and developed discussion of which takes place in fewer than two pages (BN: Sartre 1996: 580-581). Here Sartre presents and develops his own analysis of the play/seriousness dichotomy. Yet while the inconclusive analyses offered by BN might give the impression that play is a minor, and unimportant, part of the text, to adopt such a reading would be to underestimate play’s specific, and specialised, role in Sartre’s philosophy. While common interpretations of BN frequently imply that the world of bad faith and conflict is inevitable, there remains much dispute among scholars as to whether play indicates that there is the possibility of transforming certain aspects, or even eradicating what Sartre describes as the desire to ‘try-to-be-God’. It is this type of ‘fundamental project’ which gives us the seemingly endless task of trying to give permanence to our being, while we simultaneously suppress ourselves as freedom. Sartre’s discussion of play reveals BN as a critique of, rather than statement about, our existence. Furthermore, play tentatively indicates the parameters for Sartre’s developing emancipatory theory. Consequently, this use of play enables

us to broaden and situate this concept beyond just a list of characteristics which fail to acknowledge the wider context in which play takes place. It is precisely this wider critique of existence, and because of play’s specialised role in Sartre’s ontology, which means that while Sartrean play utilises similar terminology to many other thinkers who write on this topic (e.g. it is different from normal activity, gratuitous, etc.), Sartre’s use of such terms is quite specialised, and has the potential to inform or reorientate other discussions on play. The following description of play in Sartre’s work is exploratory: I offer an interpretation of play’s essential characteristics, the reason for play’s inclusion in the text and note some contentious areas of this concept. For reasons of space I do not fully evaluate the central, and often diverse, concerns of the few commentators who do write on Sartrean play (primarily Thomas Anderson (1993), Linda Bell (1989) and Yiwei Zheng (2001, 2002, 2005)), or exhaustively cover the terrain and implicit connections between different characteristics of play.