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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Play

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love. Tracks like George Harrison’s Taxman, written in response to a marginal tax-rate of 96 percent introduced by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the Sixties, are the exception.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

The Ancient Athenians were a playful lot – but in a thoughtful way. Paidia, the Greek word for childish play or amusement, formed the root of their word for education, paideia. As if to hammer home the point, their word for leisure was skholē, from which comes our word ‘school’. No surprise then that Plato (428-348 BCE), through his mouthpiece Socrates, was adamant that the best way of teaching was through play: “the instruction must not be given the aspect of a compulsion to learn… don’t use force in training the children in the subjects, but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each is naturally directed toward.” (Republic, 7.536e-f)

Fast forward two thousand years, and the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was on to the same thing: “I have always had a fancy, that learning might be made a play and recreation to children; and that they might be brought to desire to be taught” (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, p.148). Half a century later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) made a similar case for play, noting that, “every village boy of twelve knows how to use a lever better than the cleverest mechanician in the academy” because they learned it through play. “The lessons you learn in the playground are worth a hundredfold more than what they learn in the classroom.” (Emile p.250)

Rousseau, Locke, and Plato were chiefly concerned with children. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) went a step further and stressed that childish play was important for adults, “for a man who is at work needs rest, and rest is the object of play, while business is accompanied by toil and exertion” (Politics 1337b). If we include thinkers of more recent times it’s almost as if the history of philosophy is a succession of thoughts on the benefits of playing and being childish. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) believed that it was the aim of life to become a playful child, for through play, “he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p.27)

In more modern times these ideas about play were taken over by psychologists. No less a figure than Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) found play to be a key to creativity for children as well as for adults. The father of psychoanalysis believed that “the creative writer “is the same as the child at play. He creates a world of fantasy which he takes very seriously.” (Creative Writers and Daydreaming, p.436)

Of course, there are some spoilsports who are less inclined to see play in a positive light. St Augustine (354-430) could see no point in childish playing around. He wrote approvingly that he was beaten “because, by playing a ball, I made less progress in studies” (Confessions, Book 1). The saint ought to have known better. After all, he must have known that Scripture teaches “Except ye… become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2021

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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