This is what Umberto Eco has his protagonist – the thoroughly unlikeable Simone Simonini – ask in a contemplative aside in his 2010 novel, The Prague Cemetery (p. 162). In doing so he reiterates a view of philosophy both as socially grounded, grappling with the material world, and also as a second-level form of analysis exploring the hows and whys of those social and material aspects of life rather than, necessarily, the whats of more empiricist forms of knowledge. Simonini’s aside has a more nuanced meaning, however. He asks his question in the context of his time spent meandering through Parisian passages where his focus is not on the shopping but on those he calls suiveurs, the men who watch the ‘factory girls’ who promenade. Simonini’s image of Paris is one where suiveurs indulge ‘factory girls’ and life is understood watching the audience at the café chantant. This is the indulgence of the banal, the ordinary and the alltoo-often-understood-as-meaningless. This is not a stereotypical and overparodied image of the philosopher contemplating the meaning of Truth or Being from a chair in the corner of the senior common-room, but is Eco’s more social view of the philosopher among the popular – a view also seen in essays such as those in Travels in Hyper-reality or Five Moral Pieces. To discuss the philosophy of play is, in some senses, to take a step further than this version of the ordinary, the popular or the trivial to consider a ubiquitous phenomenon that is often seen as beyond reason. It is not work, which offends the sensibilities of industrial moralities; furthermore it is widely seen as the activity of children or at least childlike, which places it either in the context of learning or diversion, meaning that it is paradoxically justiﬁed (for children) and condemned (for children and adults) in instrumentalist terms. Both of these approaches place play beyond the norms that determine those things that are important, meaning that even when play is admitted to the legitimate realm of study it is often as the object of study, the subjects being those who play while on a path to somewhere else (be that adulthood or a state of being that is relieved of the stress caused by life in the modern world). When play becomes the subject
of study, however, it takes on a new hue that allows it to be seen as an element of the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane and the taken-for-granted, or what, following Henri Lefebvre (1991: 86), we may consider to be ‘the simple moments and the highest moments of life’. It is in this sense of the ordinary that the philosophical investigation of the richness and diversity of lived experience may be opened up, allowing, as Stephen Jay Gould (1987: 23) noted, the ‘close observation of individual differences [that] can be as powerful a method in science as the quantiﬁcation of predictable behaviour in a zillion identical atoms’. In this context, there is a risk that this approach may imply support for the assumption that a deﬁning and necessary characteristic of play is that it is freely chosen, yet as some of the contributions that follow show, neither this assumption nor the necessity of free choice is valid; it is a contradiction that runs through play praxis, a tension between players and their play. It was in the light of these kinds of issues that we became part of a group wanting to explore a variety of philosophical issues in play, leading to hosting a conference in April 2011 that saw a vibrant dialogue between philosophers who play and players who philosophise, comprising academics, play sector workers, policy advocates, analysts and others. As a sample of work from that dialogue, this collection includes meta-analyses of play from a range of philosophical approaches as well as an exploration of some key applied ethical issues. Its main objective is to provide a richer understanding of the concept and nature of play, and its relation to human life and value. It also aims to provide scholars and practitioners working in the spheres of play, leisure, sport, education, childhood studies and related disciplines with a deeper understanding of philosophical thinking and to open dialogue across these disciplines. We make no claims for this collection being anywhere near the last word, but see it rather as dipping the toe in the ocean of philosophical play and playful philosophy in the hope that it may stimulate more work in the ﬁeld. The themes and approaches of the papers received for the conference and subsequently those included in this collection demonstrate the way in which the subject of play may be considered from metaphysical, epistemological, ontological and ethical perspectives. They also draw from a range of philosophic traditions with contributions from Western ancient, analytic and continental standpoints, and which utilise the work of renowned philosophers such as Plato, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Nietzsche, Sartre and Deleuze. By way of introduction to the papers included here, this Introduction offers an overview of what Western philosophy has had to say about play before outlining each of the contributions herein and considering the questions they pose. In his seminal work on play in modern philosophical discourse, Mihai Spariosu (1989) contends that the history of Western philosophising on play may be understood alongside and in relation to the history of Western mentality, and that this has oscillated between a pre-rational and a rational pole, with cultural paradigm shifts occurring alongside periods of crisis in established values. The conventions of analytical and continental philosophy might be seen in this light, in which case it may come as little surprise that the continental philosophers,
what Spariosu terms ‘artist-metaphysicians’, have had more to say about the nature and value of play’s pre-rational elements, whereas analytical philosophy has sought to subordinate the emotional and unconstrained excesses of prerational play to its civilising role in rational ethics and epistemology. In archaic, pre-Socratic, pre-rational Greece, play was the prerogative of violent, unpredictable gods who used people as their playthings. The primary pre-rational play concept is agon, the violent play of the forces of Nature (or gods) and the immediate competition of war, seen as the foundation of aristocratic virtues such as courage, endurance and physical strength. In its rational form, competition becomes mediated through symbolic sports and games with rules. Closely linked to agon is what Spariosu terms ‘chance-necessity’, sometimes referred to as alea (Caillois 1961) or chaos (Sutton-Smith 1997): the unpredictability of the kosmos and the struggle to survive against the whims of the gods and/or natural forces. In its rational form, this becomes rule-bound games of chance and risk-taking. In both agon and alea/chaos, might wins out in pre-rational forms, whereas justice and ideas of fair play regulate rational forms. Mimesis refers to what we now know, in rational play discourse, as performance and representations of life through various forms of art, literature or play. Spariosu suggests that pre-rational mimesis was less a representation of life and more an imitative performance intended to ‘presence’ something, in the sense of invoking or calling forth. This calling forth is generally to do with emotions: through ritualistic rhythms, music and other performance techniques, the audience identiﬁes with the player and can experience the emotions being invoked. This idea still exists today in the arts, from the catharsis of tragedy through to the vitality of emotions aroused in horror ﬁlms or comedies. An extension of the ideas of mimesis is the concept of play as an as if activity or way of being. In pre-rational mimesis this is through ritualistic simulation; in its rational form it is the play of reason as a part of creative cognitive processes in problems of knowledge and truth as seen in the work of Plato, Kant and Schiller. Spariosu’s ﬁnal play concept is play as freedom. In its pre-rational guise, this is linked to the unconstrained play of forces in agon and alea-chaos: the sense of freedom is closely linked to displays of power. In its rational form, freedom is both contained within social conventions (play as carnival, or speciﬁc situations where normal rules no longer apply) and is also seen as a release from everyday responsibilities – the dualism of play and work. Ancient Greece and early Rome, seen as the dawn of Western thought, were predominantly pre-rational, whereas Hellenistic Greece and Imperial Rome were for the most part rational (Spariosu 1989). As an illustration, Plato’s rational epistemology sees playing as the route to learning, not only for children but for philosophers too: philosophy as play. This is the rationalisation of as if, the interrelatedness rather than bifurcation of seriousness and play: playfulness is at the basis of Socratic dialogue and dialectic (Ardley 1967). Such ideas re-emerge towards the end of the Age of Reason and into the period of German Idealism, although in forms reﬂective of their Enlightenment context. For Kant, ‘mere play’, such as in the competitive agon of metaphysicians, does not
have a place in the necessary thoroughness of serious philosophy; however, a rational, rigorous and orderly form of as if thinking is used as a bridge between pure empiricism (in terms of understanding that which cannot be experienced) and the inevitable delusions of pure reason. This is a cautious endorsement of a particular form of playing aimed at higher order activity. Indeed, Kant (2006: 74) warns that overindulgence in play may lead to laziness, bad habits and a dulling of mental capacities. Schiller (2006) develops Kant’s ideas on the relationship between play and aesthetics, and suggests that what he calls the ‘play drive’ can mediate between natural, physical drives and logic, between animal sensuous experiences and rational, moral behaviour, to create both aesthetic and human potential. This is, again, a rationalisation of both as if and mimesis play forms, and although it extends Kant’s original ideas beyond the cognitive into the sensual and practical, it is still reason that dominates. Thus when play advocates quote Schiller as saying ‘Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays’ (letter XV, 9), this is only telling the rational half of the story. For, as Schiller develops his iterative argument in his Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man, it becomes clear that he is not talking about all forms of play but a particular transcendental rather than physical form:
[M]an is serious only with the agreeable, with the good, and with the perfect, but he plays with beauty. In saying this we must not indeed think of the plays that are in vogue in real life, and which commonly refer only to his material state.