Brief Article Review: “‘And That is The Best Part of Us:’ Human Being and Play” by Drew Hyland

Drew A. Hyland, “’And That is The Best Part of Us:’ Human Being and Play”
Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 4:1, 36-49, (1977).

Drew Hyland sets out to present a rather unique conception of ‘play’. His notion is that play is a kind of “stance” or attitude of “responsive openness” (38). So play is not, on this view, a particular kind of activity. Almost any activity can be play or non-play; what marks the activity as play is the presence of this stance on the part of the participant(s). So a basketball game can be play or not, depending on one’s attitude. Going fishing, doing the dishes, or doing philosophy can all be play or not (on the latter point Hyland has an interesting discussion of Socratic philosophy as a kind of play).

What is this responsive openness? The openness is the heightened awareness of the environment/situation one is in. In playing chess, one is open by being acutely aware of the location of all the pieces on the board, their potential moves, and the time one has to move. The responsiveness is the willingness on the part of the participant to respond, appropriately, to what one is aware of in the environment/situation. One is responsive by responding to the opponent’s move of her bishop into a check of your king by moving the rook to block check. One fails to be open if they aren’t paying enough attention to be aware that his opponent is positioned to check your king and one fails to be responsive if he doesn’t appropriately move his pieces to prevent check.

Hyland argues that play and non-play exist across a continuum depending on the amount of responsive openness in the activity (39). All human activities have some measure of responsive openness: walking down a crowded street would be quite difficult if wasn’t aware of his situation and respond to the objects in it. But as this responsive openness is turned up, we move out of non-play and into play.

Obviously Hyland is not intending to draw any sharp distinctions between kinds of activities or between non-play and play. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how such a project will be successful. As Hyland notes, responsive openness on its own cannot mark out all and only play. There are other dimensions that need to be elucidated to identify more clearly what play is and what non-play is (even if it is along a continuum: even continuums can have demarcation points).

Much of the rest of the paper focuses on two issues. (1) He wants to incorporate the idea of a stance of play with a Platonic notion of striving for completion of self. (2) He contrasts the stance of play with what he calls the stances of mastery and submission. These are interesting, but I am not going to say much about them here.

One noteworthy aspect of his paper (especially for my research interest) is that Hyland doesn’t seem to see play as incompatible with productivity or compensation. He discusses, approvingly, a claim from Plato’s Laws that “the real opposite of play is neither work nor seriousness, but war” (44). Work it would seem, with the appropriate attitude or stance, is not incompatible with play. He doesn’t develop that here, but it is a difference between Hyland and other play-theorists such as Suits and Huizinga.

I do think there is something to this stance conception. One can bring an attitude of play to nearly any activity (e.g. cleaning your desk becomes a race against an arbitrary and artificial deadline). Nevertheless, as presented in this paper, it is far too sweeping to be satisfying for me.

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