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December 07, 2007


Henry Armitage

While not having read "The Grasshopper", surely the summary statement itself is inadequate? I can think of many instances where I could voluntarily attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles that would not be classified, by most, as a game.

That said, I wouldn't want to go further without a more detailed explication of the statement. Is this possible?

Nigel Warburton

Thanks for your comment.

Suits does of course give a fuller definition of 'game'. And he is excellent at considering and responding to alleged counterexamples. The phrase you have mentioned is just a summary. You can get a fuller sense of this if you read Tom Hurka's discussion within 'Games and the Good' linked to from the end of the post above.

You might also want to look at the comment by John Wilson beneath my previous post about Suits here
and at Tom Hurka's reply to it, where he explains why driving in traffic wouldn't count as a counterexample to Suits' account.

But the best thing to do would be to read the book. I don't think you will be disappointed with it.

Ophelia Benson

I second that - I've just read it, and I wasn't disappointed.

Ophelia Benson

I don't think of this as a counter-example so much as an unsuspected relative of golf and bridge: poetry seems to fit the definition very well, and the definition gives an interesting way of thinking about poetry. I was pondering that while reading page 39 of the 1978 edition (I don't know if the pagination is the same in the new one), visualizing games like tennis and telling myself that of course free verse would be the exception, it's only poetry with 'rules' about meter and rhyme that fits - and I promptly remembered that - almost too perfectly - Robert Frost expressed his opinion of free verse by saying it was like playing tennis with the net down. Is that apposite or what?

Dave Maier

The book sounds excellent, but I find unnecessarily misleading your and Hurka's implication that Suits shows that "Wittgenstein was wrong about games." I don't want to make too much of this, as Hurka's argument doesn't depend on it, but the idea that Wittgenstein needs refuting here (or that Suits refutes him) gets Wittgenstein very badly wrong.

Hurka's concern in "Games and the Good" is to explain why we admire excellence in athletic and non-athletic games. He says that the reason that philosophers don't try to do this is that it requires "a unified account of what games are," and they think Wittgenstein showed that such a thing is impossible. So in order to proceed, the first thing to do is to refute Wittgenstein by providing one, which is why Hurka brings in Suits.

Of course he'd bring in Suits anyway, because he wants to use that notion of "game" for his explanation of why we admire excellence at games. But Wittgenstein has no objection to this procedure, and it misses his point completely to suggest that he does. He agrees that any concept can be sharpened to an arbitrary degree of precision for a particular purpose. (See PI §69, or start at §65 and keep going.) The (specific) point is only that in advance of specifying that purpose there can be no particular precisification which is the single correct one. (Wittgenstein's general point in saying that includes diagnosing and dispelling the attributions of semantic nihilism which saying such things inevitably provokes. But that's not our subject today.)

But Hurka *did* specify his purpose – so, no problem. As he says (MS p. 4): "Some minor lack of fit between [Suits's] analysis and the English use of “game” would not be important if the analysis picks out a phenomenon that is unified, close to what is meant by “game,” and philosophically interesting." I agree; but to say this is to abandon any attempt to "refute" Wittgenstein in any significant way. Which I also agree with.

Tom Hurka

Ophelia: Another example Suits gave in an article is reading mystery novels. The idea is to figure out who did it, but you forbid yourself the most efficient means, which is reading the last page first. And you do that because you want to solve the mystery in the less efficient way. So reading mysteries is a paradigm example of a game. (So is writing school exams: the goal is to write down the right answer to the question, but you're not allowed the most efficient means, which is looking it up in a book. Exams are used for a further purpose, i.e. to test student knowledge, but games can in general be used for a further purpose, e.g. deciding which suitor gets to marry the girl by having them play a tennis game.)

Ophelia Benson

Tom - Ah, that's interesting. And in a sense I suppose writing them too - since you 'could' just say who did it on the first page. In another sense not since the idea is that mysteries mimic the state of not knowing that detectives or cops or bystanders start out in - but then that mimicry itself could be a game.

I've scandalized people more than once by confiding that I sometimes do read the last page of a novel - not first, but before I've read the whole thing. Sometimes it's just to find out if I care enough to read a not terribly good novel, but sometimes it's the opposite: sometimes if a novel is good enough and also plotty enough I decide I want to find out what happens so that I can focus on how the novel gets there rather than on the plot. That's rare, but I've known it to happen. I suppose that's like watching a taped game when you already know who won. That's not to everyone's taste, but it presumably is to some people's? Wanting to watch the moves for their own sake?

Cory McMillen

I'm not sure I see what obstacle a child bouncing a ball off of a garage door is trying to overcome. Conversely, I have spent a lot of my life voluntarily trying to overcome unnecessary obstacles purely out of attitudinal stubbornness...which hardly makes the act a game.

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