The Grasshopper - Third Edition: Games, Life and Utopia 3rd Edition
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“Like Erasmus’s Praise of Folly and Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, Suits’s The Grasshopper sparkles with wit and fun; and outranks those wonderful works in clear, firm philosophical conclusions. Defying certain discouragements, Suits constructs an illuminating definition of games, which he defends in lively dialogues, amusing parables, and cascades of subtle analytical distinctions. That is achievement enough to make a new classic in the history of philosophy. Suits offers more: an application of his definition in a discussion of how much we may have to rely on games―deliberately using relatively inefficient means to reach freely stipulated goals―if life is to continue to have meaning. We may be able to regain thereby the meaning lost as advances in technology enable us to escape one by one the tasks that necessity used to impose on humankind.” ― David Braybrooke, Dalhousie University / The University of Texas at Austin
“The Grasshopper is an amazing book. Philosophically profound, yet genuinely funny. While primarily an articulation and defense of a highly plausible definition of games (and we all know what Wittgenstein said about that), it also manages to raise some of the deepest and most challenging questions about the meaning of life. All in the form of dialogues between an insect and his disciples! There is simply nothing else like it.” ― Shelly Kagan, Yale University
“Philosophers are not generally known for fine writing, but once in a generation or two a book appears out of nowhere, unclassifiable, inspired, amazing, mesmerizing, wonderful, classic … ” ― Philosophy and Literature
From the Back Cover
In the mid twentieth century the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously asserted that games are indefinable; there are no common threads that link them all. “Nonsense,” said the sensible Bernard Suits: “playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” The short book Suits wrote demonstrating precisely that is as playful as it is insightful, as stimulating as it is delightful. Through the jocular voice of Aesop's Grasshopper, a “shiftless but thoughtful practitioner of applied entomology,” Suits not only argues that games can be meaningfully defined; he also suggests that playing games is a central part of the ideal of human existence, and so games belong at the heart of any vision of Utopia.
This new edition of The Grasshopper includes illustrations from Frank Newfeld created for the book’s original publication, as well as an introduction by Thomas Hurka and a new appendix on the meaning of ‘play.’
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Top international reviews
Agame is defined as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles". There are no wasted words. A game must be /voluntary,/ not compulsory (so much for those compulsory “games” in school then); it is an /attempt/ to /overcome/, success is not required, trying is sufficient; there must be an /obstacle/, so it isn’t some trivial activity, but requires some effort; and that obstacle must be /unnecessary/, for it it were necessary, overcoming it would be a job, or for survival, or some other reason.
This definition seems very reasonable, and gets around Wittgenstein’s claim that there is no sufficient and necessary conditions for something to be a game, by moving up a level of abstraction. Suits spends time picking apart his definition, and showing how various activities do, and do not, fit, and that those activities are, and are not, games, respectively.
So far, so good. Suits’ second argument is about the role of games in Utopia. In Suits’ Utopia there is no need to work; there is abundance of goods, companionship, and sexual partners for all; there is no physical or mental illness. That is, there is no need for involuntary activity, and there are no necessary obstacles to overcome. So the only worthwhile thing left to do in Utopia is play games.
I’m not convinced there is nothing to do in this Utopia other than play games. What about learning to play a musical instrument? That doesn’t seem to be a game: it is (in Utopia, at least) voluntary, but where is the unnecessary obstacle? One might argue that one could get a machine to play the music: is requiring the music be produced by oneself an unnecessary requirement? Listening and performing is qualitatively different, however.
But there is a deeper problem: I am not convinced that this Utopia can exist. Even if we assume perfect mental health, so no-one coerces anyone to do anything against their will (everything is voluntary), this does not imply there will be someone else to engage in any particular activity with you. Human partners in play are not “objects” in anything like the same sense that yachts and diamonds are objects. They are people, with their own desires, which, even with their posited perfect mental health, need not overlap with yours. One cannot require that Utopia be populated with other players for one’s own benefit. Robot players may not be sufficient: playing against another person may be an /unnecessary/ obstacle, but if that’s part of the game…
I found this a fascinating and thought-provoking book. The definition of a game is excellent: compact enough to be memorable; simple enough to be applicable; abstract enough to show the virtue of abstraction. The consequences of the definition are not so apparent to me, but it is an interesting journey to follow the argument: in my Utopia, reading such books would be more worthwhile that playing games.