Bernard Suits's The Grasshopper is a brilliant investigation of the nature of games and play that deserves to be much better known than it is. I've already posted a brief review of it here that has generated some discussion. Although it was first published in 1978, it is only recently that philosophers in Britain have started to become aware of it.
Tom Hurka, who wrote the introduction to the Broadview edition of the book, and who knew Suits (Suits sadly, died earlier this year) very kindly agreed to be interviewed for Virtual Philosopher about The Grasshopper. Hurka's recent article 'Games and the Good' (Arist. Soc. 2006) builds on Suits's ideas.
Nigel: Bernard Suits' book The Grasshopper is on the verge of becoming a cult book in the UK as eminent philosophers such as Simon Blackburn and G.A. Cohen are praising it highly. I was delighted to discover it and wish I'd come across it ten years ago. What do you think are the chief virtues of the book?
Tom: The Grasshopper's chief virtues? I'd say the incisiveness and depth of its philosophical content, the contrast between that and its light, whimsical style, and then actually the harmony between the book's content and style. It's both philosophically profound and a literary masterpiece.
Shall I elaborate a bit? The bulk of The Grasshopper defends an analysis of the concept of playing a game - the very concept that was Wittgenstein's prime example of one that can't be analyzed. Yet Suits's definition is both persuasive and tremendously illuminating. It's the best piece of conceptual analysis I know. The book then argues for the central place of game-playing in a good human life, arguing that in a utopia where all instrumental goods are supplied, people's prime activity would be playing games. This is philosophically very deep. As I've argued in my 'Games and the Good' paper, it gives the clearest expression of what I call modern as against classical values. It's when you have Suits's definition of a game in hand that you understand most clearly what, say, Marx and Nietzsche had in mind when they proposed their visions of the good life, and how those differ from a classical view like Aristotle's.
So that's the book's content. But its style is playful and even hilarious: on many pages you laugh out loud. It's written as a dialogue between the Grasshopper of Aesop's fable, who's about to die because he spent the summer playing games rather than gathering food, and his disciples, who try to refute his views but are always persuaded they're wrong. So it's a multi-level loving parody of a Socratic dialogue. And it's full of whimsy. To make his philosophical points the Grasshopper invents different fantasies - about two retired generals in a Black Sea port trying to play a game without rules, about a bowler-hatted Englishman atop Mt. Everest, about the greatest spy in history.
That's the contrast: between the profundity of the content and the dancing lightness of the style. (Nietzsche would so approve!) But then there isn't really a contrast. What else should a book about games be except a game, or itself an instance of play? There are bits in Shakespeare - my favourite is the debate about flowers in The Winter's Tale - where a great many different things are going on at once without getting in each other's way. The Grasshopper's like that. There aren't many philosophy books you'd like to read on a beach or give as a Christmas present. This is one.
Nigel: Suits' definition of a game does seem to refute Wittgenstein's claims about 'game' being a family resemblance term. Do you agree?
Tom: Absolutely, I think Suits's definition decisively
refutes Wittgenstein's claims, and it does so because it looks at a
level Wittgenstein didn't consider. He saw the surface differences
between games - that some use playing-cards and some don't, that some
are amusing and some not - and concluded that there can't be anything
they have in common. But Suits's analysis operates at a deeper level,
finding a shared structural feature that's consistent with all these
surface differences, one that involves the pursuit of a certain type of
goal, restrictions on the permitted means to that goal, and an attitude
that accepts those restrictions because they make activity governed by
them possible. That structural feature can be found in card games,
cricket, chess, rock-paper-scissors - any game you like. But
Wittgenstein didn't see it because he was looking only at the surface.
I keep talking about The Grasshopper's style, and there's another instance of it here. Though much of the book is a direct refutation of Wittgenstein, Suits mentions that philosopher only once*."'Don't say', his Preface quotes Wittgenstein as admonishing us , 'there must be something in common or they would not be called 'games' - but 'look and see whether there is anything common to all.' "This is unexceptionable advice," Suits comments."Unfortunately, Wittgenstein himself did not follow it. He looked, to be sure, but because he had decided beforehand that games are indefinable, his look was fleeting, and he saw very little." (The Grasshopper, p.21) And that seems exactly right. For all its playfulness,The Grasshopper is an intellectually serious book. Having proposed his analysis of game-playing, Suits considers a whole series of possible counterexamples to it, all serious-looking, but shows in each case how his analysis in fact yields the right result. He isn't just throwing an idea out; he's testing it rigorously. I don't think you can say Wittgenstein or his followers have done anything like that in their remarks about games.
Nigel: Apart from the wit of exposition, and, of course, the definition of a game that he gives, one unexpected aspect of the book that impressed me was the serious philosophical points that Suits develops about the place of play in human life. Do you think he was right about this?
Tom: Actually, Suits is careful to distinguish game-playing
from play. The first is an activity that fits his definition, with the
goal, rules, and so on, and the second is any activity chosen for its
own sake. So there can be game-playing that isn't play (if you play, say, football only to make money) and play that isn't game-playing (like a kitten's playing with wool). And the value his
book defends is primarily that of game-playing, though in his utopia, where people don't need things like money, the game-playing will also always be play.
Now I think Suits exaggerates the value of game-playing when he says it's the supreme good, and he does so because he's tacitly built into his utopia other things that are comparably
good, such as pleasure and knowledge. Still, his claim that game-playing instantiates one important good, and in fact is the paradigm expression of that good, is a wonderful insight.
In game-playing you aim at a goal that's in itself completely trivial: that a ball go into a hole in the ground, that you cross a line on the track before anyone else does, that you stand atop a mountain. But the rules of the game make achieving that goal complex and difficult, and it's that difficulty that gives the activity its value. To play the game you have to aim at a trivial goal, and you haven't succeeded in the game unless you achieve the goal, but the value of the activity is independent of the value of the goal. That's why I say game-playing is the paradigm expression of modern values, because what those values emphasize is process not product, journey not destination. And there's the big contrast with someone like Aristotle, who said that if an activity produces a goal outside itself, the activity has to have less value than the goal does. Not true! That a ball go into a hole in the ground is completely trivial. That Tiger Woods can make it do so from 562 yards away in four shots is tremendously valuable.
Nigel: What was Bernard Suits like as a man?
Tom: I'd only met Bernie Suits a few times before I organized a symposium on The Grasshopper at a Canadian Philosophical Association conference a few years ago and then invited him to give a paper in Toronto. But he was just what you'd expect from his writing. He loved jokes, fun, and play. Earlier in life (he was around 80 when we did the symposium) he was a devoted smoker and drinker; in retirement he did a lot of sailing. And he was completely artless about the professional side of academic life. He didn't go to conferences to schmooze the right people - he didn't even know who they were. He thought you just wrote books, the best you could, and then sent them off to publishers, whereupon their merits (assuming they had them) would be recognized by all. Only in utopia, one wants to say.
Nigel: What did Suits feel about the reception of his book? He surely must have realised that it deserved greater worldwide recognition than it received on initial publication...
Tom: Suits was obviously disappointed by the reception of the
book. It's had a big impact in the philosophy of sport, where it's
regarded as a classic. But philosophy of sport is hardly the centre of
philosophy; it's mostly written about by people in Physical Education
or Kinesiology departments rather than Philosophy departments. And
though he responded to critics in the philosophy of sport literature,
he didn't think they were very able and would have much preferred
commentary from proper philosophers.
The question, obviously, is why he didn't get that. Well, he was a not-so-well-known philosopher at a not-so-well-known university, and his book came out with University of Toronto Press, not a leading philosophy publisher (though they did a fabulous job producing the first edition, with lovely illustrations by Frank Newfeld). And unfortunately those things matter a lot more for philosophical success than many would like to admit. Plus The Grasshopper wasn't written as a standard philosophical treatise; it was too stylish and unconventional, too close to a work of literature. In a way it was too good for the world it came into, or maybe the world was too full of humourless Wittgensteinians. But there were some people who knew the book and loved it, and they've always kept the flame burning.
Nigel: Tom Hurka, thank you very much.
*The 2005 edition includes two appendices, however, in which Suits explains where he stands in relation to both Wittgenstein and Plato. I particularly recommend the first one 'The Fool on the Hill' which as well as making some interesting points about the nature of definition is also very funny. NW