13. Play


“When everyone else around you is doing the same thing it reinforces your comfort that you are prioritising the right thing. It is only when a dancer comes along that previous ways of being are shown to be incomplete.”

Recap – Last time we looked at Gadamer, we were paddling with him across deep water and he was describing the inadequacies of a type of experience called Erlebnis.

Gadamer didn’t like Erlebnis because he found it limited, in that it always pushes any experience down the dead-end street of being something that is possessed by someone. Plus, it seemed to Gadamer that the Kantian priority of the subjectivisation of aesthetics, based upon Erlebnis, submerged any notion of self-understanding or self-identity under its enormous weight. For this reason, and others, Gadamer wanted to reject Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics, plus he wanted to explore how a work of art might possess truth.

Before continuing, though, we might also do well to remind ourselves that whenever we describe the engagement with an ‘artwork’ or ‘work of art’ we build a template for how we could engage with one another. This is because, as I mentioned in the last post, all Gadamer’s work on aesthetics has an implicit ethical lesson.

700 Ethics Lesson.fw

Onwards – As far as Gadamer is concerned, if we can “learn to understand ourselves in and through”1 a work of art then aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. The basis of this assertion, however, resides in a different mode of self-understanding. And this new mode of self-understanding relies upon the continuity of someone through time, the continuity of their history, and the continuity of history itself.

To reach this new mode of self-understanding Gadamer introduces a second manifestation of experience to replace Erlebnis. Erfahrung is described by his translators, Joel and Donald, as “something you undergo, so that subjectivity is overcome and drawn into an ‘event’ of meaning.”2 This second form of experience as “something you undergo” is explicitly distinct from Erlebnis as “something you have.” The priority of the subject is taken away, and replaced by the priority of the event. When Gadamer, once again, directs this mode of experience back to the experience of art, the impact of his introduction of Erfahrung becomes apparent: “a genuine experience (Erfahrung) [is] induced by the work, which does not leave him who has it unchanged.”3

700 Change.fw

The introduction of experience as Erfahrung also subsequently enables Gadamer to reformulate his epistemic question concerning art:

“Does not the experience of art contain a claim to truth which is certainly different from that of science, but just as certainly is not inferior to it? And is not the task of aesthetics precisely to ground the fact that the experience (Erfahrung) of art is a mode of knowledge of a unique kind, certainly different from that sensory knowledge which provides science with the ultimate data from which it constructs the knowledge of nature, and certainly different from all moral rational knowledge, and indeed from all conceptual knowledge – but still knowledge, i.e., conveying truth?”4

The re-emergence of the question of art having a claim to truth through the vehicle of Erfahrung, as opposed to the rejected Erlebnis, allows Gadamer the opportunity to reconsider what it is to experience a work of art and how one might gain truth from such an experience. If Erfahrung is experience as “something you undergo,” with the priority of the subject replaced by the priority of the event and, also, the importance of self-understanding, then Gadamer can begin to radically re-tune our approach to aesthetics.

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Thus far, Gadamer’s work in the arena of aesthetics has yielded a rejection of the Kantian model of subjectivisation with a clear rationale as to why it has been rejected, courtesy of the comparison between experience as Erlebnis and experience as Erfahrung.

The next step for Gadamer, then, has to be a tangible demonstration of what it means to seek out experience as Erfahrung. And, such a demonstration of Erfahrung needs, of course, to bring its buddy of ‘self-understanding’ along. Now, not to give the game away too much, but possibly to help it get off to a good start Gadamer states, “understanding belongs to the encounter with the work of art itself.”5 And, in this statement we can see a switch of priorities: the priority of the encounter replaces the priority of the subject doing the observing. Rather unhelpfully, though, Gadamer refers to the priority of the encounter in a Heideggerian sounding phase: “the mode of being of the work of art itself.”6

Placing to one side the Heideggerian connotations of such an obscure turn of phase, and somewhat relying on trust, we need to proceed undaunted in order to appreciate what lies beneath the Heideggerian obscurification, because within the concept of “the mode of being of the work of art itself” Gadamer employs perhaps his most innovative contribution to aesthetics: a re-evaluation of the term ‘play.’

700 Play

After first having to deal with all the uses of this term employed by previous thinkers such as Kant and Schiller, who gave it subjective application of course, Gadamer begins by setting out the criteria that play has, in his own thoughts.

When one is solely used to walking sedately from room to room and observing all those around conducting themselves in a like manner, it comes as quite a shock when a confident dancer glides, swoops, spins, and shimmies their way through the same building. The priority given to the subject in ‘pre-Gadamerian’ thought is akin to walking in this illustration. When everyone else around you is doing the same thing it reinforces the comfort you have that you are prioritising the right thing. It is only when a dancer comes along that previous ways of being are shown to be incomplete, if they were ever considered the sole way of comporting oneself. Once the dancer arrives and is seen, then all methods of locomotion can be ushered in from running to cycling to skateboarding. Gadamer, in this instance, is obviously the dancer because he realises that one can actually distance oneself from subjectively orientated phenomenon and discover other modes of being. One can dance, one can skate, one can hop, skip and jump, one can play. Importantly, as Gadamer explains, such ‘play’ only comes about if the subjective manner of experience is pushed aside: “Play fulfils its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.”7 Now, point to note. This is new.

Dancer in Office 2.fw

Swooping and gliding, Gadamer looks at the world differently from how he was taught and saw the possibility for dancing if one can let go of the priority of the subject. Letting go is difficult though, especially if you have the many shackles of philosophical history weighing you down. However, if you can do it, it is fantastically exhilarating and refreshing. Indeed, Gadamer must have felt this as he wrote about the player losing himself or herself in play, because in a way he too was playing with philosophy. Gadamer’s personal enjoyment, though, is not the current topic.

The priority upon play, Gadamer understands as the players losing themselves in play. However, he also realises that by the players losing themselves, in this sense, they also enable play to come forward: “play reaches presentation (Darstellung) through the players.”8 Play needs players. Although, when discussing an example of a type of play such as ‘to-and-fro movement’, Gadamer notes that “it makes no difference who or what performs this movement.”9 The subject encountering play, importantly, has no necessary priority in the mode of being of play for Gadamer. Overcoming this priority, though, is quite a challenge because, as Gadamer remarked, we have become “accustomed to relating phenomena such as playing to the sphere of subjectivity.”10 In order to assist in over coming the challenge, Gadamer draws our attention to another facet of play that complements the loss of subjective priority: the loss of any kind of target for play:

“It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose but also without effort. It happens as it were by itself… The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the strain of existence.”11

700 unburdened

Play then, if undertaken without a goal, has priority over the subject and incorporates the latter within itself in such a manner as to relieve the subject from existential concerns whilst they are at play. Self-conscious thoughts about whether one is any good at the game become lost, as do minor worries about what to cook for the evening meal, or even major ones such as where is my life going. The player gives himself or herself over to play and becomes part of an event, if the game is entered into with commitment and seriousness, and not in the mode of a spoilsport. In this way one presents themselves open to the risk of being ‘outplayed’ and the possibility of embarrassment. However, by the same token, one also allows the possibility of new experiences that were not even on the horizon of expected outcomes: “The player experiences the game as a reality that surpasses him.”12

Bringing it back to aesthetics, Gadamer reflects once more on the subjectivisation of aesthetics after Kant and his desire to overcome the priority of the subject with its aesthetic consciousness filling art objects with its unique and special meaning:

“If art is not the variety of changing experiences (Erlebnisse) whose object is filled subjectively with meaning like an empty mold, we must recognise that ‘presentation’ (Darstellung) is the mode of being of the work of art. This was prepared for by deriving the concept of presentation from the concept of play, for self-presentation is the true nature of play – and hence of the work of art also.”13

The concept Gadamer has of play, therefore, creates a framework to re-work aesthetics so that one isn’t trapped or locked into following its subjectivisation and epistemological separation.

450 escape

Because play effects a surpassing of the subject, epistemological prospects become altered, as Gadamer concludes:

“My thesis, then, is that the being of art cannot be defined as an object of an aesthetic consciousness because, on the contrary, the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows of itself. It is part of the event of being that occurs in presentation, and belongs essentially to play as play.”14

The presentation of play makes the “being of art” more than can be known by aesthetic consciousness, or said in a slightly different way, aesthetic consciousness is insufficient when attempting to capture the “being of art.” Perhaps we need to step back from the Heideggerian “being of art” for the moment to really grasp what is at stake here?

When looking at a work of art we normally try to understand it, appreciate it, or interpret it. So, we meet with it as ourselves with all of our experience, or inexperience, knowledge and taste, as Kant would argue, to assess the work. Then, after a period of application and potential revelation as to what the work might mean for us we move on: our aesthetic consciousness has done its job. The issue for Gadamer is that this explanation of an encounter with an artwork is insufficient and misses the point because everything is so wrapped up in the subject, and the subject’s ability to attend to the work. Such a perspective invariable limits the work, reduces its potential, and sucks the life right out of it and kills it, dead. Rushing up, Gadamer performs emergency resuscitation and breathes new life into the work by realising that for art to operate and function as art it must be allowed the opportunity of perplexing the viewer; it must be allowed to penetrate deeper than the viewer could have at first perceived; it must be allowed to be more to the viewer than just another aesthetic judgement or contemplative study. For such a shift to happen, of course, an attitude of play needs to be brought to bear whereby an easy too-ing and fro-ing takes place between the viewer and the work. This way the work will that not be subsumed by the viewer’s ability to exercise taste or their desire to assess the object before them.

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Consequently, as well as altering the epistemological prospects of a work of art, by postulating the concept of play as that which forces ‘presentation’ as the mode of being of the artwork, Gadamer also introduces what he regarded as the ‘true’ mode of being for the spectator. If one is to be a Gadamerian spectator then one must participate and be present within the play that surrounds the work of art’s presentation: “being present does not simply mean being there along with something else that is there at the same time. To be present means to participate.”15 Participation is a huge concept for Gadamer and we shall have to work up to it over the next few sections. Good to know what’s on the horizon, though, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, let us not forget that, as far as Gadamer is concerned, what we are doing is learning “to understand ourselves in and through”16 a work of art so that aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. However, more importantly, residing in this different mode of self-understanding is something new and something vital. A continuity of someone through time begins to surface and make an appearance. By being in play with a work of art we allow ourselves to undergo experiences that help give definition to ourselves beyond the usual two-dimensional descriptions of unconnected snapshot moments in time. We become fuller, richer and more rounded as we play with the artwork and allow the play to take us new unanticipated directions.


  1. Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 97.
  2. Gadamer, Truth and Method, ‘Translators’ Preface’ by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 14.
  3. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 100.
  4. Ibid., 97-98.
  5. Ibid., 100.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 102.
  8. Ibid., 103.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 104.
  11. Ibid., 104-105.
  12. Ibid., 109.
  13. Ibid., 115-116.
  14. Ibid., 116.
  15. Ibid., 124.
  16. Ibid., 97.

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