Nigel Warburton is author of Philosophy: The Basics, Philosophy: The Classics, Thinking from A to Z and a number of other books. He contributes to two podcasts and has two weblogs. His main job is as Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University, but he also teaches regularly for Tate Modern, presents and contributes to Radio 4 programmes, and is very involved in the area of writers' rights (he is currently on the Board of the Copyright Licensing Agency and standing for re-election to the Board of the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society). Below Nigel writes about Bernard Suits's The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.
Nigel Warburton on The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits
For me Bernard Suits's book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (Broadview Press: Ontario, 2005) is the discovery of last year. First published in 1978 by University of Toronto Press, like David Hume's Treatise it fell stillborn from the press. Hume thought that the manner of his expression was what made his book unpopular and rewrote it as the Enquiries. Suits did not need to take similar action. This is a brilliant and witty book, superbly written and with serious and original contributions to make. Quite why it has remained so obscure for so long is a mystery, particularly as philosophers as eminent as Simon Blackburn, Tom Hurka and G.A. Cohen are now praising it highly. Sadly Suits died earlier this year without knowing that at last his book was about to receive some of the praise that it was so clearly due.
Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared that 'game' is a family resemblance term, that it cannot be defined adequately in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions but that we must resort to unravelling a pattern of overlapping resemblances between the things we call games, and not expect to find a meaningful single common denominator that makes all games games. Suits in playful style, demonstrates that this is not so. He gives a sustained analysis of games and play. He does what Wittgensteinians have said is impossible: gives a plausible and informative definition of 'game'. At the same time he presents a delightful parody of Plato's dialogues using the Grasshopper from Aesop's Fables (the one that played too much and had nothing to eat in the winter) as the Socrates equivalent.
Suits's simple definition of a game is 'the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles' (p. 55). Obviously this needs unpacking. And that is where Suits is superb. He identifies a basic goal that a game has, such as golf's aim of getting the ball into the hole. In his terminology this is the prelusory goal. But the rules of the game set limits on how this prelusory goal is achieved: these are the lusory means. In golf you have to hit the ball with a club, and can't, for example kick it or just walk to the green and place it in the hole - a far more efficient way of achieving the prelusory goal. These rules prohibit use of more efficient means in favour of less efficient. The rules are accepted because they make the activity possible (this is the lusory attitude).
From this sketchy summary, it might seem that Suits's position is open to numerous counter-examples, and doesn't even seem to capture why chess, for example, is a game. Suits's great achievement is to run through a range of apparent counter-examples and arguments, and show why none threatens his position. Chapter Four is an example of this. Here Suits recognizes that in chess there doesn't seem to be a prelusory goal that could be identified outside the rules of chess. What chess players aim at is checkmate. Suits's response is that you can bring about a position that is checkmate while flagrantly ignoring the rules. You can't avoid the institution of chess, but you can have a checkmate position that isn't part of a game. This may seem like an ad hoc move. But Suits goes on to distinguish between three sorts of players: triflers, cheats and spoilsports.
Triflers play according to the rules, but do not aim at checkmate. A trifler might, for example, aim at achieving a nice pattern of pieces. Although operating within the institution of chess (because all the moves are legal ones), a trifler, Suits argues, isn't really playing a game of chess. Where triflers recognize rules but not goals, cheats 'recognize goals but not rules' - again they aren't really playing the game. Spoilsports don't recognize either goals or rules. This is a summary of a small part of the book and doesn't adequately communicate the verve with which Suits parries attacks while at the same time developing his own ideas - here the way that the institution of a game functions.
By the end of the book Suits takes a wider perspective. Having left Wittgensteinian ideas about the impossibility of definition for dead, he suggests that in Utopia, since all our other aims would easily be met, we would spend our time setting up unnecessary obstacles: i.e. playing games. The complexity of rules and the difficulty of achieving the prelusory goal without breaking them contribute to the activity's value.
Puffs on the backs of books are usually full of hyperbole. Simon Blackburn declares on the back of this one that this 'a gorgeous literary feast' and says of Suits, 'He engages not only Wittgenstein but human life itself at the highest level, in a book that challenges philosophical orthodoxies, while all the time flowing like honey'. But - believe it or not - that's about right. If only undergraduates in the 1980s had had a slice of this book instead of the rather stodgy commentaries on Wittgenstein that they were fed, perhaps we wouldn't have ended up with such an uninspiring house style in Philosophy. Truly an inspirational book. (See also the interview with Tom Hurka here.)