Philosophy as Serious Play

In his Republic, Plato (427-347 все) treats the notion of play with no small amount of caution. The kinds of play that children engage in, according to Plato, have an important influence on the adults they become, and therefore on society—so play must be closely regulated. In other words, for Plato, play was serious business. Nonetheless, Plato’s dialogues are filled with Socrates’s singular type of “playful amusement,”8 a sportive process involving philosophical questions and inversions: “Every man and woman should spend life in this way, playing the noblest possible games, and thinking about them in a way that is the opposite of the way they’re now thought about.”9

In Plato’s philosophy, play served many functions: “play can be a childish game, an educational tool, or a metaphor for philosophical activity.”10 Rather than simply a game that can be won or lost, play is an important mindset, “a constant self-awareness, and a recognition of the provisionality of all philosophical claims. To approach philosophy dogmatically is to approach it with an inappropriate and excessive kind of seriousness—a grim or humorless attitude that precludes true learning.”11 An awareness of our humble limitations as philosophers can sometimes instill an optimistic, flexible outlook toward the pursuit of wisdom. More importantly, play and seriousness in philosophy needn’t be mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is more helpful to think of philosophy as “serious play.”12

There are also times when play is not playful, as seen in The LEGO Movie. Think of how Lord Business/The Man Upstairs plans to use that weaponized superglue, the Kragle, to freeze everything into his version of seeming perfection. In this instance, the Kragle is a reminder of what happens when play is taken too seriously: play becomes inert, lifeless. A binary opposition between play and seriousness is not helpful, implying more of an absolute division between the two than there really is. What happens when play becomes too work-like? The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1955) once noted: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” Must play have a purpose? Perhaps play is simply its own purpose—we play because it’s fun.

In one of the most well-known discussions of the central importance of play, Homo Ludens (“Man The Player”), historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) observes that play is “in fact an integral part of life in general. It adorns life, amplifies it and is to that extent a necessity both for the individual—as a life function—and for society.”13 To separate play and seriousness absolutely is to lose the enjoyment from what we think of as our work—that work becomes simply the absence of play, and play becomes no more than a brief escape from work. Likewise, to separate play from work is to miss out on the interstices, the little moments of playful thinking that can make life worth living.

There can be something profoundly generative and inventive about playful thinking. Play, like philosophy itself, is fundamentally about seeking alternatives, new ways of looking at something:

While philosophers are not normally thought of as either childlike or playful, in fact the practice of philosophizing comes down to reconstructing deep historical constructs of meaning. It is innovative in the profoundest sense. Philosophy is not just a professional occupation but also an activity of being human.14

The psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith suggests, “that play is like language: a system of communication and expression, not in itself either good or bad.”15 Sometimes the best kind of philosophy comes from a certain approach of playfulness. Does this thing have to be this way? Why this way, and not some other way? And sometimes playful thinking means taking seriously the things that no one else would think to— as well as not taking seriously the things that everyone else would.

 
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