Brief Article Review: “Words on Play” by Bernard Suits

Bernard Suits, “Words on Play”
Journal of Philosophy of Sport, 4:1, 117-131 (1977)

In this classic article, Suits sets out to provide a “tentative definition of play” (117). After taking some humorous snipes at Wittgensteinians and Huizinga, Suits sets out to differentiate ‘play’ from other autotelic activities. Autotelic activities refer to those activities which are ends in themselves; that is, they are engaged in for no external reason or justification. The activity is its own justification/meaning/purpose. (It’s Greek, literally meaning self-end)

Suits assumes that play itself is a kind of autotelic activity and sets out to find the appropriate differentia that won’t include other activities that are thought to be autotelic: contemplation of the God and a cat chasing his tail (his examples).

His first task is to argue that ‘play’ and ‘autotelic’ are logically independent. This seems pretty straightforward. He then goes on to assert that “all instances of play are instances of autotelic activity” (119). I don’t think this is as straightforward or obvious. It may be true (though I am not so sure), but I think it needs an argument. This is more than a quibble because getting the genus correct here is essential. If there is play that is not (exclusively?) autotelic, then his differentia isn’t going to work properly to differentiate between the kinds of activities with which he (and other play scholars) are concerned. It will also generate problems when trying to apply the concept.

He also seems to be begging the question by separating out from his discussion some uses of “play”: such as uses of ‘play’ that appear to mean more like ‘perform’ or ‘participate’. Ultimately, I think he is probably correct in doing this, but I don’t think he can just do it without more of an argument.

Suits takes his main cue from Schopenhauer who said “the play of animals consists in the discharge of superfluous energy” (119). Suits modifies this, first, by analyzing superfluous and then energy. Superfluous isn’t quite right, argues Suits. Play, in humans, sometimes isn’t based on superfluous energy, but on using energy that ought to have been used for some other purpose. So, Suits sees this insight of Schopenhauer to be more about the use of energy that was committed (or ought to have been) to some other activity (something not autotelic).

The notion of ‘energy’ isn’t quite right either for Suits. Claiming that it is too narrow, he proposes ‘resource’. This subsumes energy, but also includes other resources besides energy that are relevant to human life (in particular, time).

He arrives then at his definition: “X is playing if and only if x has made a temporary reallocation to autotelic activities of resources primarily committed to instrumental purpose” (124).

This definition (and his whole project) rests on the dichotomy between autotelic and instrumental. It is built into his choice of the genus. The differentia of superfluous/redirected resources seems to rest on there being a sharp and clear difference between engaging in something autotelic and something instrumental.

There are a few main problems here. (This is not exhaustive, but my main issues)

(1) Is there a clear difference? Do all activities admit of being wholly autotelic or clearly instrumental? Most of activities seem mixed (is blogging on a subject matter one finds interesting autotelic? Or is the fact that one is trying communicate with others make it instrumental?)

(2) Are there really any autotelic activities beyond life itself? Suits examples (the Roman solider contemplating God or the tennis players) don’t help at all. In fact, they point me in the direction of thinking how meaningless the idea of autotelicity (outside of life) is.

(3) The analysis misses completely the idea of constitutive activities: one’s that are not merely instrumental and are treated as or are a part of one’s ultimate end(s). They are not wholly or purely autotelic because they are engaged in for purposes beyond the activity itself, but yet they are also pursued as ends in themselves. Consider helping a friend out of a jam of some kind. One does this as an end in itself: the helping of a friend doesn’t require any further justification than the friendship. At the same time, one does this activity for reasons beyond the activity itself: maybe to increase the closeness of the friendship, to be a better friend, to do the kind of things that one wants done to them, or because such help is seen as a part of one’s virtue or duty (or a way to increase one’s virtue or fulfill duty). Moreover, friendship itself does need a justification beyond itself. Without addressing this third (and I’d argue largest) category of activities, Suits arguments rests on a false dichotomy.



Filed under play, Reviews

3 responses to “Brief Article Review: “Words on Play” by Bernard Suits

  1. Pingback: Brief Article Review: “‘And That is The Best Part of Us:’ Human Being and Play” by Drew Hyland | The Sports Ethicist

  2. joedanker3

    An old fashioned smack down is what that was! Awesome, but not without a minor minor typo – paragraph 6, first line, “Claiming that is to narrow . . . ,” should be “too narrow . . .”

    Your welcome 😉

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