The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits (review and announcement)

Broadview Press has released a 3rd Edition of the Bernard Suits classic: The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. The new edition contains the illustrations from the original publication. Also, there is a new appendix on the meaning of play.

With this exciting news, I thought I’d repost a brief review I wrote of The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.

“The Grasshopper” is unique philosophy monograph. It is part narrative, part dialogue, part treatise. It is also humorous and easy to read. It, quite self-consciously, plays off elements from Socratic dialogues, the New Testament, and Aesop’s fables. Though I don’t agree with many of its philosophic conclusions, the work, overall, is successful at pulling all these elements off. That is, I enjoyed reading it and found it enlightening.

The main focus of the book is an extended discussion of the definition of the concept of “Game.” While in some ways, it is a meant as an answer to Wittgenstein’s famous claim that one can’t define “game,” it is more philosophically rich than that. Suits’ discussion is really more an analysis of the meaning of life. The Grasshopper’s main philosophical claim seems to be that in Utopia, all meaning in life would come from some kind of game-playing. By Utopia, he means a state of life where all activity is purely and totally voluntary and no instrumental activity is necessary. Suits argues that the only activities in such a utopia would games (or other forms of play).

I think Suits is wrong here, for several reasons. Without going into detail (I hope to write a long blog fleshing this out), his use of Utopia is irrelevant. The life he imagines here is impossible, and even if it were, such beings living that life would be nothing at all like human beings. So, whatever we might learn about such a utopian life is meaningless for the life human beings live. His accounting of play as “all of those activities which are intrinsically valuable to those who engage in them” is far too broad (This sweeps in things like one’s career) (146). His distinction between instrumentally and intrinsically valuable activities is too constrained and too sharp (it leaves no room for mixed activities or constitutively valuable activities). So while I agree that game-playing and more generally play itself are important, even central, aspects of human life, I disagree that is the only intrinsically valuable (whatever that means) human activity.

My main quibble (and it might be more than a quibble) with Suits’ definition of games is the idea that “the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favor of less efficient means” (54). It is a quibble if by less efficient he really means obstacle-making. I do think all games involve rules that place certain kinds of obstacles for the players to overcome, surmount, or play around. These obstacles often mean that only less efficient means for achieving the goals/ends of the games are available. So my concern is that the focus on efficiencies is non-essential. The essence is obstacle-making, not efficiency reduction–even if these end up being co-extensive. I am not sure they are co-extensive; hence, my concern that this is more than a mere quibble.

3 Comments

Filed under games, play, Reviews

3 responses to “The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits (review and announcement)

  1. Pingback: Crash Course: Games | The Sports Ethicist

  2. I think Suits by ‘less efficient means’ is accounting for limitations put on the player’s mode of behavior, like in golf: not being able to pick up the ball, run over to the hole and put it in, but actually having to use the less efficient means of successively hitting the ball towards the hole, using only (a roughly 44 inch long) club. I don’t think he is referring to obstacles on the playground, like a lake placed in between you and the hole, for instance. (Which you have to “overcome, surmount, or play around”.)

    >”These obstacles often mean that only less efficient means for achieving the goals/ends of the games are available.”

    You say “often”. Which implies that there are counter-examples. Could you provide one? I’m curious if a game can place an obstacle in between the player and a goal of the game which doesn’t also necessitate that the player would be less efficient in reaching that goal. If it doesn’t make the player less efficient in reaching the goal, is it then really an obstacle?

    >The essence is obstacle-making, not efficiency reduction–even if these end up being co-extensive.

    Even if? If they are co-extensive (i.e. terms that refer to the same underlying reality / concept), are they not interchangeable? So that using one over the other is a matter of preference of focus, rather than anything else.

  3. Thanks for your comment. I go back and forth on how much of a mere quibble I have here or if there is something more substantial.

    The general concern I was trying to raise is that the use of efficiency is not as clear or helpful at picking out the essence of games as something like obstacle-making (or maybe some other even clearer alternative). I think Suits is using efficiency as a way of talking about obstacle-making and in that way he is not necessarily discussing something different. But defining it in terms of efficiency raises some concerns. (1) It suggest something more quantitative — since so often efficiency is talked about in terms of percentages and the like. I worry that quantitative sense of the term makes the efficiency aspect here seem like something it is not. (2) It doesn’t provide a clear enough distinction between in-game activities where the point is efficiency within the rules/play of the game. The offense in American football is trying to get to the endzone as efficiently as possible within the bounds of the game. We praise a goalkeeper’s efficiency at saves in soccer or hockey. So defining games in terms of efficiency reduction can cause some confusion. The point being that if by efficiency-reduction Suits just means (as I think he does) obstacle-making, then the latter is a clearer way to put it since it avoids these potential confusions.

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