When everyone else
is doing the same thing,

it reinforces feelings
of personal integration.

It is only when
a dancer appears

that such ways of being
seem incomplete.

Play, dance, swoop and glide.

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. When everyone else around is doing the same thing as you, it reinforces your comfort that you are acting correctly. It is only when the dancer comes along that previous ways of being are shown to be incomplete. Once the dancer arrives all methods of locomotion can be ushered in, from running to cycling to skateboarding. One can dance, one can skate, one can hop, skip and jump. One can play.

Importantly, as Hans-Georg Gadamer explained, such ‘play’ comes about only if the subjective manner of experience is pushed aside: “Play fulfils its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.”[1] Gadamer realised that one can distance oneself from subjectively orientated phenomenon and discover other modes of being.

Gadamer looked at the world differently from how he was taught and saw the possibility for dancing, if one lets 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, but with philosophy.

The priority upon play, Gadamer understood as the players losing themselves in play. However, he also realised that by the players losing themselves in this sense they also enable play to come forward. Play needs players.

Although, when discussing an example of a type of play, such as ‘to-and-fro movement’, Gadamer noted that “it makes no difference who or what performs this movement.”[2] The subject encountering play, importantly, has no necessary priority in the mode of being of play for Gadamer. Overcoming this priority is quite a challenge because, as Gadamer remarked, we have become “accustomed to relating phenomena such as playing to the sphere of subjectivity.”[3] To resolve this challenge, Gadamer drew 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.”[4]

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.”[5]

[1] Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 102.

[2] Ibid., 103.

[3] Ibid., 104.

[4] Ibid., 104-105.

[5] Ibid., 109.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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