Jos de Mul. Games as the True Organon of Philosophy. Playful ontologies: Schelling, Huizinga, Borges and beyond. In: Marco Accordi Rickards & Fabio Belsanti (Eds.) Homo Cyber Ludens. Bari: Idra Editing, 2021, pp. 97-124. Also availble as Kindle edition in Italian and English.
A playful specter is haunting the world. Since the 1960s, in which the word ‘ludic’ became popular in Europe and the US to designate playful behavior and artifacts, playfulness has increasingly become a mainstream characteristic of our culture. In the first decades of the 21st century, we can even speak of a global ‘ludification of culture’ (Raessens 2006). Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind in this context is the immense popularity of computer games (Frissen et al. 2015). But although perhaps most visible, computer game culture is only one manifestation of the process of ludification that seems to penetrate every cultural domain (Neitzel and Nohr 2006). In our present experience economy, for example, playfulness not only characterizes leisure time (fun shopping, game shows on television, amusement parks, playful use of computers, internet and smartphones), but also those domains that used to be serious, such as work (which should above all be fun today), education (serious gaming), politics (ludic campaigning), and even warfare (video games like war simulators and interfaces). According to Jeremy Rifkin “play is becoming as important in the cultural economy as work was in the industrial economy” (Rifkin 2000, 263). Postmodern culture as a whole has been described as “a game without an overall aim, a play without a transcendent destination” (Minnema 1998, 21). And according to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, even human identity has become a playful phenomenon. In ludic culture, he argues, playfulness is no longer restricted to childhood, but has become a lifelong attitude: “The mark of postmodern adulthood is the willingness to embrace the game whole-heartedly, as children do” (Bauman 1995, 99).
As a result, the phenomena play and game have gained strong attention in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. One can think, for example, of the implementation of game theory in biology (Sigmund 1993), economics (Von Neumann and Morgenstern 2007, Leonard 2010) and cultural anthropology (Bateson 1977, 1955). In addition to the increased interest in play and games in these already existing disciplines, in the last decades – motivated by the substantial growth of leisure time and the growth of ludo-industry and ludo-capitalism (Dibbell 2008), several new fields entirely devoted to the study of play and (computer) games have emerged (e.g. Raessens and Goldstein 2005, Fuchs et al. 2014).
How should we understand this ‘ludification of culture’? What does it say about our life and world view at the beginning of the 21st century? Today I will present an interpretation of this phenomenon of ludification with the help of two books - Friedrich Schelling’s System of transcendental Idealism [System des transzendentalen Idealismus] (1800) and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play-Element in Culture [Homo Ludens. Proeve ener bepaling van het spel-element der cultuur] (1938) and one short story, Jorges Luis Borges’ ‘The library of Babel’[‘La biblioteca de Babel’] (1941). I will argue that these works, when we situate them in the context of the database ontology which characterizes our computer age, offer an illuminating outlook on the playful ontology that underpins the ludification of culture.
I will develop my argument in three steps. In the first two I will present some of the key ideas that can be found in respectively Schelling’s System of transcendental Idealism and Huizinga’s Homo ludens. I will discuss their shared romantic desire for immanent transcendence through aesthetization of the world, as well as their shared – and no less romantic - aversion toward modern technology. However, as I will argue in the third and last part of my talk, contrary to what both Schelling and Huizinga expected, precisely in modern information technologies the playful ontology they were after, is realized. Using ‘The Library of Babel’ (and also referring to playful simulations of this Library at the internet), this will lead me to the conclusion that the ludic turn of technology turns the computer game into the ‘true organon of philosophy’.
1. The work of art as the true and eternal organon of philosophy
Friedrich Schelling, who lived from 1775 until 1854, is not only known as one of the three main representatives of German Idealism, but he is also considered to be one the most important romantic philosophers. Although many elements of his work can also - and often earlier - be found in the work of forerunners like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller, and of contemporary early romantics like Friedrich Hölderlin, Ludwich Tieck, Novalis and the brothers August and Friedrich Schlegel, Schelling has been the one who united these elements into a philosophical system. Or rather: a whole series of systems, because Schelling’s philosophy underwent several fundamental transformations. However, in the context of my attempt to delve into the foundation of the ludification of culture, the System of Transcendental Idealism, published in 1800, is the most relevant work.
In order to find our way into this abstract metaphysical work, which, at first sight, seems to belong to a world that definitively lies behind us, we have to situate it against its historical background, of which I here have to restrict myself to some of the most important philosophical and socio-political elements.
The fundamental philosophical questions in Germany around 1800 were the ones that were put forward by Immanuel Kant in his transcendental philosophy, in which he critically analyzes the theoretical and practical use of human reason. In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), in which he analyses the theoretical use of reason, Kant makes his famous Copernican turn, which consists in the discovery that in our attempts to understand the world, contrary to what has been thought in Western philosophy so far, our cognition must not conform to the objects, but rather the objects must conform to human cognition. Although Kant, as a realist, does not deny the existence of ‘things’ outside the human mind, in his transcendental philosophy he argues that the phenomena (Erscheinungen) that constitute our world of experience, are a synthesis of the ‘things as such’ and the a priori forms of our intuition (time and space) and a priori concepts (such as causality). The world in which we live is not the world as it is in itself, but as it appears to our finite human cognition.
In the causally determined world of appearances freedom is impossible. However, in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), in which Kant analyzes the moral will, or – to be more precise – the ability of reason to subordinate our natural inclinations to principles, he strongly emphasizes the existence of human freedom in our practical, socio-political life.
Although Kant’s transcendental philosophy was a turning point in the history of philosophy in the sense that all later philosophers have to take position with regards to Kant’s Copernican turn, this does not mean that everyone is in agreement with Kant. Around 1800, two problems connected with Kant’s philosophy especially moved to the center of attention. The first one was the status of the ‘thing as such’. According to Kant’s contemporaries Jacobi and Schulze this was a very problematic concept. Without this concept, we cannot acquire access to Kant’s transcendental philosophy, but once this access is acquired, the concept cannot be sustained. After all, the Critique of Pure Reason argues that the validity of a priori concept like causality is strictly limited to the phenomenal world. How then, can the thing as such be the cause of the phenomena? The second problem was connected with the fact that in Kant’s transcendental philosophy the human being appears to be, to use Kant’s own metaphor, “a citizen of two worlds”. Being part of the phenomenal, that is sensible world (nature) we are completely determined by causal laws, being part of the noumenal, that is supersensible world of the spirit (Geist), we are absolutely free. Like the problematic status of the thing as such, this somewhat schizophrenic image of man appeared to be quite unsatisfactory for Kant’s successors.
In his Foundations of the Science of Knowledge, published in 1794-1795, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) solved both problems by a rather stout-hearted argument. According to him one has to make a choice between a dogmatic view, according which spirit (the I) is determined by nature (the not-I), or an idealistic view, according to which nature (not-I) is determined by the spirit (I). Fichte resolutely choose for the idealistic standpoint. However, he now had to explain how it is possible, that in daily life we do not experience nature as a product of the spirit. Fichte’s brilliant answer was that the common sense holds nature for an independent domain, because it does not realize that nature is an unconscious product of the spirit. The task of philosophy is to bring this process to consciousness. Only when the I has completely absorbed the non-I in thought and action, it will have realized its freedom. In this respect Fichte’s transcendental idealism remained loyal to Kant, as - like Kant - Fichte does not consider this realization of human freedom as a given, but rather as a task still to be accomplished.
Philosophy does not develop in isolation. The rise of German Idealism is connected with many other cultural developments that took place around 1800. Without doubt, one of the most important influences on German philosophy at that time was the French Revolution, which aroused a revolutionary spirit among German intellectuals. Fichte’s appeal to the Germans to realize their freedom was one of the strongest expressions of this spirit. However, this spirit collided with the still largely feudal German society. Moreover, the Jacobin terror that followed the French Revolution, caused doubts about the way the realization of human freedom should proceed.
It is against this philosophical and socio-political background that we have to situate Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism. Initially, Schelling was under the spell of Fichte and in his first writings he defends Fichte’s idealism. However, as a result of his studies in natural sciences, especially chemistry and biology, he soon no longer could accept Fichte’s view that nature is nothing more than a product of the spirit. According to Schelling, transcendental philosophy, which studies the way spirit expresses itself in nature, has to be complemented with a philosophy of nature (Naturphilosophie), which studies how unconscious nature gradually develops itself into a conscious spirit. In Schelling’s view, primordially finite nature and infinite spirit are identical. For that reason, we are equally justified to understand the world from the perspective of a history of nature or from the perspective of the history of the Spirit. Whereas his writings of the second part of the nineties were mostly devoted to the history of nature, the System of Transcendental Idealism deals with the history, or - as he calls it in this book - “the Odyssey of the Spirit” (Schelling 1978, 232).
In this book art plays a crucial role. In order to understand this, we have to take one more look at Kant’s philosophy, especially at the Critique of Judgement (1890). In this third of his three critiques of reason, Kant tries to bridge the aforementioned gulf between nature and freedom that resulted from his previous two critiques, dealing with theoretical and practical reason respectively. In the first half of the Critique of Judgement the work of art plays an important role in Kant’s attempt to bring nature and freedom into harmony. Although Kant mainly focuses on aesthetic judgments about nature, at the end of his analysis, in his discussion of the work of art, he calls it a symbol of morality (Kant 2005, 178f.). Although the work of art is part of nature, at the same time it expresses human freedom. A beautiful work of art harmonizes nature and freedom, and although it is not yet a reality it is, to quote Stendhal, une promesse de bonheur, a promise of the harmony and beatitude that we can achieve in our lives (De Mul 1999, 4f.)
Friedrich Schiller elaborated this idea in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Horrified by the Jacobin terror that followed the French Revolution, Schiller tried to explain the cause of its violent bankruptcy. In his view the terror resulted from a disharmony between what he calls the sense drive (our sensuous nature) and the form drive (our rational spirit). When one of the two dominates, a fundamental alienation ensues. The two can only be reconciled by a third drive, which Schiller calls the play drive. In his view, the play drive actually defines the essence of being human: “Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly Man when he is playing” (Schiller 2004, 80). In Schiller’s view, the play drive is the fundamental one, because it enables us to unite the sense drive and the form drive. This union causes the experience of beauty: "Beauty results from the reciprocal action of two opposed drives and from the uniting of two opposed principles. The highest ideal of beauty, therefore, to be sought in the most perfect possible union and equilibrium of reality and form" (ibid, xx).
In his writings around 1800 Schelling combines Fichte’s revolutionary spirit with Kant’s and Schiller’s belief that art is a promise of future beatitude. We find this romantic aestheticism already expressed in ‘The Oldest System Program of German Idealism’ [Das älteste Systemprogramm], a short text, dated 1796/1797, probably written by Schelling in the time that he shares his room at the dormitory of the University of Tübingen with Hölderlin and Hegel :
Lastly the idea that unites all the others, the idea of beauty, taking the word in the higher Platonic sense. I am now convinced that the highest act of reason, the one in which it embraces all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are sisters only in beauty - the philosophers must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet; our literalist philosophers are men with no aesthetic sense. The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be inspired (geistreich) in anything, one cannot even reason intelligently (geistreich) about history - without aesthetic sense. Here it will become clear what is lacking in those who have no understanding of ideas - and who admit straightforwardly enough that everything becomes obscure to them as soon as it goes beyond tables and indices.
Poetry thereby attains a higher dignity, in the end she becomes once again what she was in the beginning - the teacher of humanity; for there is no more philosophy, no more history, poetry alone will survive all the other sciences and arts. […] Then, for the first time, there awaits us the equal cultivation of all powers, of the individual a well as of all people. No longer shall any force be suppressed, then universal freedom and equality of spirits will reign! (Hegel, Hölderlin, and Schelling 1995, 199-200).
The reason to think this text was written by Schelling is that the System of Transcendental Idealism, written only a few years later, reads like an elaboration of these words. The System is a dazzling combination of ideas derived from Kant, Fichte, and Schiller, further fueled by the spirit of the romantic movement in Jena, where Schelling was appointed professor in 1798 at the age of 23. In the System of Transcendental Idealism Schelling attempts to prove the primordial unity of the conscious activity of the infinite spirit and the unconscious activity of finite nature, which he calls the Absolute. In the Absolute, infinite spirit and finite nature are identical or - which expresses the same idea - indifferent.
The fundamental problem to solve for Schelling in his ‘Philosophy of Identity’ is how to think the Absolute. As soon as we try to grasp it in a concept, we make it into an object for a subject, disavowing its absolute character, which is its very essence. In the final (sixth) part of the book, art turns out to be ‘the knight in shining armor’. Whereas the human spirit has no access to the Absolute, Schelling argues, the work of art embodies the unity of finite nature and infinite spirit. The work of art is a finite expression of infinity; it discloses the productive imagination that characterizes both spirit and nature:
This productive power is the same whereby art also achieves the impossible, namely to resolve an infinite opposition in a finite product. It is the poetic gift, which in its primary potentiality constitutes the primordial intuition, and conversely what we speak of as the poetic gift is merely productive intuition, reiterated to its highest power. It is one and the same capacity that is active in both, the only one whereby we are able to think and to couple together even what is contradictory - and its name is imagination. Hence, that which appears to us outside the sphere of consciousness, as real, and that which appears within it, as ideal, or as the world of art, are also products of one and the same activity. […] What we speak of as nature is a poem lying pent in a mysterious and wonderful script (Schelling 1978, 230-232).
The position Schelling develops in the System of Transcendental Idealism is, not without reason, called an ‘aesthetic absolutism’ and can be considered as one of the highlights of romantic philosophy. In the long history of Western philosophy, Schelling is the first to situate art above philosophy:
If aesthetic intuition is merely transcendental intuition become objective, it is self-evident that art is at once the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy, which ever and again continues to speak to us of what philosophy cannot depict in external form, namely the unconscious element in acting and producing, and its original identity with the conscious. Art is paramount to the philosopher, precisely because it opens to him, as it were, the holy of holies, where burns in eternal and original unity, as if in a single flame, that which in nature and history is rent asunder, and in life and action, no less than in thought, must forever fly apart. The view of nature, which the philosopher frames artificially, is for art the original and natural one. (ibid, 231-2, italics JdM)
One way in which this sublime unity of finite nature and infinite spirit expresses itself is that the work of art is “an unconscious infinity (synthesis of nature and freedom)” (ibid, 225). No single interpretation - Schelling argues, foreshadowing Gadamer’s notion of effective history (Wirkungsgeschichte) - can exhaust the meaning of the work, this would require an infinite series of interpretations and reinterpretations. But it is exactly for that very reason the work of art expresses, in a finite way, the Absolute.
2. Civilization arises and unfolds in and as play
It seems to be a long way from the metaphysical and religious heights, and the romantic aestheticism of Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) to Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play-Element in Culture of the historian Johan Huizinga. Homo Ludens, first published in Dutch in 1938, is often considered to be one of the founding texts of the profane ludology and play and game studies. Warren Motte, in an article published in New Literary History in 2009, even calls it “the key modernist statement on play”, and he adds: “Richly suggestive and admirably broad in scope, it provides the first full-blown theory of ludics, and it remains moreover, seven decades after it first appeared, an inevitable point of reference for any ‘serious’ discussion of play” (Motte 2009, 26). Many publications within this field start quoting the famous definition of play Huizinga gives in the first chapter of Homo ludens, or at least pay lip service to the book.
However, when we take a closer look, we may discern many echoes of the romantic worldview in Homo ludens. Already the title seems to refer to Schiller’s reflections on crucial role of the play drive in human life, and in his famous definition of play, Huizinga, like Schiller, emphasizes that play is an expression of human freedom:
Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not meant”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means (Huizinga 1955, 13).
Moreover, Huizinga never concealed his kinship with the romantic movement and its aestheticism. Already in his inaugural address, The Aesthetic Element in Historical Presentation (Het aesthetische bestanddeel van geschiedkundige voorstellingen, 1905), he shows his affinity with this movement, and in Homo ludens he writes that “[w]e can actually observe Romanticism being born in play, as a literary and historical fact” (Huizinga 1955, 189).
However, in order to fathom the deep connection between Homo Ludens and The System of Transcendental Idealism, we have to take a closer look. The more, because the radical thesis put forward by Huizinga in Homo Ludens has not been absorbed by all readers. This is not only due to the fact that Homo Ludens is one of those books to which many scholars refer without actually having read it, but also because the English translation of Homo Ludens contains gross errors, already starting with the subtitle of the book. In this translation, first published in London by Routledge & Keagan Paul in 1949, and, from 1950 on, reprinted several times by Beacon Press in Boston, the subtitle reads “A study of the play-element in culture” (italics JdM). However, if we translate the Dutch title literally, the translation should read “A study of the play-element of culture”. Those who continue reading after glancing over the cover of the book, soon find out about the errors, at least the one in the title, because Huizinga himself points at it in the Foreword he wrote for the English edition shortly before his death in 1945. In this Foreword Huizinga recounts that when lecturing about Homo Ludens in Zürich, Vienna, and London, each time the title of his lecture - “The Play Element of Culture” – met with protests by his hosts. Huizinga continues: “Each time my hosts wanted to correct it to ‘in’ Culture, and each time I protested and clung to the genitive, because it was not my object to define the place of play among all the other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play.” (Huizinga 1955, xix). Strangely enough, Huizinga’s protest did not prevent the translator (and the publisher) to stick to the erroneous title.
This is especially strange because the erroneous sub-title completely obscures the radical claim made by Huizinga in Homo ludens, namely that “civilization arises and unfolds in and as play” (ibid, 5, italics JdM). In the second to the last chapter - ‘Western Civilization Sub Specie Ludi’ – Huizinga summarizes his argument as follows:
It has not been difficult to show that a certain play-factor was extremely active all through the cultural process and that it produces many of the fundamental forms of social life. The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play. Wisdom and philosophy found expression in words and forms derived from religious contests. The rules of warfare, the conventions of noble living were built up on play-patterns. We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it (ibid., 173).
Huizinga’s book, thus, offers a radical ludic ontology of culture. Here, the play phenomenon becomes the very key to understand the fundamental structure of culture. Like in the case of the romantics, Huizinga distinguishes the realm of nature - the world defined by “physical necessity” and “the necessities and seriousness of everyday life” (ibid. 8-9) – from the realm of freedom. And whereas Schiller and Schelling considered art (understood as an expression of our play drive) the domain which is able to harmonize the domains of nature and freedom, Huizinga considers play – which for him, like Schiller, underpins art - as the domain in which nature and freedom are in harmony. And whereas the Romantics plea for a fundamental aesthetization of life, Huizinga advocates the ludification of life.
However, at first sight, there is an important difference: whereas for the Romantics plea that aesthetization is a future project, for Huizinga it is gradually becoming a thing of the past. Although he emphasizes that all culture “arises and unfolds in and as play”, he does not claim that cultures always keep playing. On the contrary. Echoing the pessimistic tone of Spengler’s The Decline of the West, which was published in 1918-1923 (Spengler 1926), Huizinga argues that cultures are most playful in their youth, and gradually become more serious and lose their playfulness as they grow more mature (Huizinga 1955, 75). For Huizinga, Romanticism was the last stage in Western culture that still had a playful spirit. The 19th century society, “seems to leave little room for play” (ibid., 191). And in the dark-toned last chapter of the book, on the play-element in 20th culture, Huizinga states the play element in culture is “on the wane”: “civilization to-day is no longer played” (ibid., 206).
This particularly becomes clear in his analysis of war, a phenomenon he devotes a whole chapter to. Just like other manifestations of culture, war has to be considered a playful domestication of nature. Whereas in the state of nature, conflicts – we hear a loud echo of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) here (Hobbes 1976) – might easily result in endless brutish violence, the play drive transforms these conflicts into a rule-governed war “Fighting, as a cultural function”, Huizinga writes, “always presupposes limiting rules, and it requires, to a certain extent anyway, the recognition of its play-quality” (ibid 90). This separates “the state of war – by declaring it – from peace on the one hand and criminal violence on the other” (ibid., 91). Although Huizinga admits that play, as an expression of human freedom in the realm of nature, can be violent (war is probably the most obvious case, but certainly not the only), he clearly distinguishes it from the excess of violence that characterizes the state of nature. Not violence as such, but the unlimited use of it is what characterizes the state of nature. However, according to Huizinga, in the 20th century we witness a return of this state of nature. Referring to the terror of the World War I, Huizinga adds: “It remained for the theory of ‘total war’ to banish war’s cultural function and extinguish the last vestige of the play-element” (ibid., 91). Here, he echoes Schelling’s post-Enlightenment realism in his Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809), in which the author emphasizes the fact that real, living freedom is the ability to choose for the good or the bad (Schelling 2006). Although Schelling and Huizinga differ with respect to the question when the blissful harmony is realized (respectively as something still to be realized in the future of something of the past), they agree in the cause of the disruption of harmony: an abundance of theoretical reason, and its accompanying technological rationality, instrumentalism, and commercialism. “This independence of external goals”, Schelling sighs in the System of transcendcental Idealism, “is the source of that holiness and purity of art, which goes so far that it not only rules out relationship with all mere sensory pleasure, to demand which of art is the true nature of barbarism; or with the useful, to require which of art is possible only in an age which supposes the highest efforts of the human spirit to consist in economic discoveries”, such as – he adds laconically in a footnote – “the beet root [Runkelrüben]” (Schelling 1978, 227).
Huizinga, too, points at “external factors independent of culture proper” (Huizinga 1955, 199) responsible for the decay of playful culture. He especially refers to the global commercialization of culture, the emergence of puerilism (a “blend of adolescence and barbarity which has been rampant all over the world for the last two or three decades” (ibid., 205)), “caused or supported by the technology of modern communication” [“veroorzaakt of in de hand gewerkt door de techniek van het modern geestelijke verkeer” (Huizinga 1950, 237).] “Technology, publicity and propaganda everywhere promote the competitive spirit and afford means of satisfying it on an unprecedented scale. Commercial competition does not, of course, belong to the immemorial sacred play-forms” (ibid., 199-200).
Both in the work of Schelling and Huizinga this aversion of instrumental reason and technology seem to cause a strange contradiction in their worldview. Whereas Schelling claims that the work of art embodies the Absolute, the products of instrumental reason and technology seem to fall outside the Absolute (which is rather unlikely for an Absolute which takes its absolute character seriously). And while the work of art is “the true organon of philosophy” it causes at the same time – we hear the echoes of Kant here – a completely disinterested experience.
And in the case of Huizinga, despite of his radical claim that culture “arises in and as play, and never leaves it”, his remarks about the absence of play in the 19th and 20th century seem to narrow his conception of culture in a rather problematic way. It results in several contradictions. Although Huizinga repeatedly emphasizes that culture is only possible “in and as play”, elsewhere in Homo Ludens, such as in his afore quoted definition of play, he argues that that play entirely takes place outside everyday life – in the famous magic circle and cycle - and is nothing more than a “disinterested interlude” (ibid, 9). And while he holds that play is “indispensable for the well-being of the community, fecund of cosmic insight and social development”, it is at the same time only pretending, “make-believe” (ibid., 25) – and for that reason is inconsequential to real life. Because of its reality, we play in “holy earnest” (ibid, 23), yet our play is completely non-serious, and not meant.
In the Introduction to Playful Identities. The Ludification of Digital Media Culture, we have argued that we should try to overcome the sharp modernist opposition between – on the level of attitude – between play and seriousness – and – on the ontological level – between play and reality. Only in that case Schelling’s aesthetic absolutism and Huizinga’s ludic absolutism – his attempt to view man and world sub specie ludi in a radical way – can be rescued. Referring to authors like Helmuth Plessner, Gregory Bateson and Eugen Fink (especially to his book Play as Symbol of the World, 1960), I have pleaded for a view in which play is understood as a double existence phenomenon. Play is not so much a spatial and temporal order completely outside or beyond everyday reality, but rather a layer of meaning that during play is superimposed on reality (Bateson 1955, Fink 1960, 1968), or rather, to phrase it in Schellingian terms: the eternal recurrence of play, its endless repetition, embodies the unity of finite nature and infinite spirit.
As a consequence, in our technological age we should not try to find this unity of finite nature and infinite spirit outside the dominant technological sphere, but look for it in the technology itself. Only then we will be able to understand that play is the key feature for understanding and constructing the world and ourselves, and that the computer game may be considered as the true organon of 21st century philosophy.
3. Playful libraries and ontologies
In order to elucidate and underpin this claim, in this last section, I will ask your attention for a third text which, in my opinion, is a key text for understanding the playful dimension of our technological word. I refer to ‘The Library of Babel’, a seven-page short story by Jorge Luis Borges, published in 1941. What makes this work especially suitable within the context of my talk, is that the ‘Library of Babel’ not only is a work of art, but also has been multiple times adapted as, or transformed into, a computer game on the Internet.
The very first sentence of ‘The Library of Babel’ already makes clear that Borges shares Schelling’s romantic preoccupation with the infinite: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries”. The narrator in the story continues:
In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first—identical in fact to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one’s physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance. In the vestibule there is a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances (Borges 1999, 112).
If we would try to visualize the Library of Babel, it would look like this (we have to keep in mind that this is of course just a small part of the library, as the number of hexagonal galleries is “indefinite, perhaps infinite” (ibid., 112):
Each of the hexagons contains is similar to the other ones and contains a fixed number of books of the same size: “Each wall of each hexagon is furnished with five bookshelves; each bookshelf holds thirty-two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters” (ibid., 113).
The narrator of the story tells that the inhabitants of the Library of Babel have been puzzled by the books in the library, as their content and order seems to be completely random. The vast majority of the books contain are filled with nonsensical strings of letters. Only once in a while an existing word appears. However, as the narrator explains, some five hundred years ago, “a librarian of genius” has discovered the secret of the Library.
This philosopher observed that all books, however different from one another they might be, consist of identical elements: the space, the period, the comma, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also posited a fact which all travelers have since confirmed: In all the Library, there are no two identical books. From those incontrovertible premises, the librarian deduced that the Library is "total"—perfect, complete, and whole—and that its bookshelves contain all possible combinations of the twenty-two orthographic symbols (a number which, though unimaginably vast, is not infinite)—that is, all that is able to be expressed, in every language (ibid. 115).
The narrator gives us a fascinating insight in the contents of those books:
All - the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon the gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all the books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus (ibid.).
When we try to image the total number of books in the library, we are confronted with a combinatorial explosion. Given the fact that each book contains four hundred and ten pages; each page, forty lines, and each line eighty black letters, each book contains 1,312,000 symbols. As there are 25 different characters, this means that the number of books in the library must be 251,312,000. This is a hyper-astronomical number of books. The number of atoms in the universe (estimated by physicists to be roughly 1080) is negligible compared to the unimaginable number of possible (re)combinations of the 25 symbols we find in the Library Already the collection consisting of one single book, together with all of the copies of this book with one to twelve misprints of a single letter, is bigger than the number of atoms in the universe. For that very reason, the Library of Babel is physically impossible. Even when we would be able to store a book in every sub-atomic particle, only an extremely tiny part of all possible books would be part of our physical universe.
Returning to Shelling, we could say that this short story of Borges is a finite expression of the infinite – and therefor sublime - in a twofold way. Not only in the sense that the story invites endless interpretations (the secondary literature on ‘The Library of Babel’ already is impressive– the mathematician William Goldbloom Bloch even wrote an entire book on this short story, entitled The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel (Bloch 2008), but also because the subject of the story evokes, or rather almost touches the infinite.
I make this qualification, because although the number of books is hyper-astronomical, it is still finite, as is the Library itself. According to the narrator, the library is “unlimited but periodic. If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder—which, repeated, becomes order: the Order.” (Borges 1999, 118).
The reason for this repetition is that the Library – like the earth, and probably also like the universe as a whole– is spherical: “The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable” (ibid., 113). In fact, the Library of Babel is a spatial representation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal Recurrence of the Same’. Assuming that the number of atoms and their possible combination in molecules in the universe is finite, he believed that within infinite time, the atoms must therefore assume every possible combination, and so, eventually, repeat themselves, and the universe along with them. Of course, we find much earlier versions of this idea of a cyclical, repeating universe long before Nietzsche, for example in the Buddhist and Hindu ‘wheel of time’ and in the idea of reincarnation. And in the Western world we find it expressed in pre-Socratic thinkers like Heraclitus, who thought that the universe renews itself completely every 10,000 years. Interestingly, in the case of Heraclitus this idea was already closely connected with a playful ontology, as he speculated that “the course of the world is a playing child moving figures on a board – the child as absolute ruler of the universe” (Fragment 52, quoted by Fink 1968, 29).
Although ‘The Library of Babel’ without doubt can be called a playful story, it is not a play or game in the usual sense. However, on the internet we find several computer simulations of Borges’ Library of Babel (see e.g. https://libraryofbabel.info/). These are fascinating, because they enable the user to access every single volume in Borges’ Library. One can open a book randomly, or search for specific words or strings of words. (For example, the title of this text).
At first, the claim that this simulation gives us access to all books in the Library appears to be implausible, because – as explained before – the number of books exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe. The answer to this doubt is that the books in this simulated Library of Babel are not stored on a hard disk, but created on the fly (either randomly or based on a specific search operation, like in the case of the search for the title of this text). Moreover, the user is able to save only 30 books at the most. Otherwise soon the hard disk of the server, soon all hard disks in the world, and finally the universe as a whole would be filled by (still only a very tiny) part of the Library. Actually, the computer simulation of the Library of Babel is a database. This Database of Babel does contain all of the books in the Library, but only in a virtual way, as a possibility. As such it is – literary - a finite expression of the (almost) infinite, which enables the user to traverse the Library in an infinite number of ways.
What makes the story of Borges and the simulations based on it so fascinating, is that they express the worldview of the computer age in a very apt way. As I have explained in more detail elsewhere, in a world were computers have become the most important instrument, everything becomes a database (De Mul 2009). For example, when we think about the life sciences, life has become a database of genes (a gene pool), and each individual a specific path through the genetic database. Like the Library of Babel, ‘the book of life’ – as the genetic code is often called, though ‘the database of life’ would be a much more apt metaphor (Noble 2006) - shows a hyper-astronomical number of possible recombinations. If we take into account that the human genome alone consists of roughly three billion nucleotides, written in a four-letter language, we realize that the number of possible (re)combinations (43,000,000,000) of the human genome is much larger and sublime than the number of books in Borges’ Library (De Mul 2013).
In the age of the computer, our knowledge of the world has changed from a static representation of a particular state of reality, into a playful dynamic simulation. Science has become modal in the sense that it is no longer primarily focused on reality as to possibility. Or, as Heidegger expresses it in Time and Being: “Higher than actuality stands possibility” (Heidegger 1996, 34). As Borges’ enumeration of possible books already evokes in an imaginative way, computer simulations are not only able to simulate actual reality, but also multiple possible pasts and futures. And as technologies like genetic modification show, these simulations also play a crucial role in the actualization of these possible worlds. Like the Library of Babel simulation can create every possible book, biotechnologies in principle can create all possible genetic modifications. In computer simulations the ‘almost infinite’ character of the universe gets its most sublime finite expression.
Here too we should realize that the database ontology underpinning simulations are closely connected with developments in other parts of culture. We might think about the increased social, economic and geographical mobility in the aftermath of the French Revolution, especially in the second part of the 20th century. According to Heidegger human beings are thrown projects (ibid., 139). Although we have to realize our possibilities, we do not start from scratch, but are always situated from the very beginning by the time and place where we are born, our gender, ethnicity, character, etc. Whereas in the feudal age the emphasis with regard to the thrown project was om the first term (our thrownness), in modernity the emphasis shifts to the element of projectivity (De Mul 2005). As Ulrich, the protagonist of Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities expresses it, whereas in former times it was useful to have a ‘sense of reality’ in the present time we should focus instead of our ‘sense of possibility’ (Musil 1979, 11-14, cf. De Mul 2010, 103ff.).
Although computer games are just one specific type of simulations among a broad variety, they may be called the true organon of philosophy in the sense that they express the playful ontology of the computer age in its purest form. However, we should not forget that the practical division between serious and non-serious games is a semi-permeable one at the very best. The same simulation that constitutes the game engine of a tank in American Army¸ is used in the computer simulations that train soldiers to control real thanks on the battle field (Allen 2017).
This brings me to some final observations. Claiming that the computer age is characterized by a playful ontology is not claiming that this makes the world better. As both Schelling and Huizinga argue, play can be very cruel and as an expression of human freedom, that can create both wonderful and destructive games, both in- and outside so-called leisure time. And as we all know from the Chinese ‘gold farmers’ play and work, as well as freedom and force, in the computer age become entangled in the most curious of ways (Dibbell 2008). The seductive character of this playful identity also can lead to game addiction violence. Moreover, as the narrator in Borges’ story makes also clear, knowing the secret of the Library of Babel does not open the way to happiness. The initial euphoria about the discovery of the secret of the Library, the realization that all possible truths about the world and ourselves are to be found somewhere in the Library, the narrator explains, was followed by a severe depression, because the chance for the finite beings that we are to find a meaningful book in this hyper-astronomical Library is hyper-astronomical small.
While preparing this text this depressing truth again urged itself upon me. I know that somewhere in the Library the perfect version of this text is waiting for me, but the only way to find it, would be to insert it completely as a query. Although I tried to do so, so far my search, as I showed you, only brought me its title. The only thing which remains, is the romantic hope as expressed by the narrator of Borges’ story, while explaining the architecture of the Library:
In the vestibule there is a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances. Men often infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite—if it were, what need would there be for that illusory replication? I prefer to dream that burnished surfaces are a figuration and promise of the infinite.... (Borges 1999, 118).
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 In the English translation the Dutch phrase “niet gemeend” (literally: “not meant”) is incorrectly translated as “not serious”. For that reason we have replaced the incorrect English translation by the correct one.
 The translator defends this decision with a stylistic argument: “Logically, of course, Huizinga is correct; but as English prepositions are not governed by logic I have retained the more euphonious ablative in this sub-title” (Huizinga 1955, xix). Other confusions caused by the translation published by Routledge Keagan Paul was that it was based on the German edition published in Switzerland in 1944 and on Huizinga’s own English translation of the text. In his own translation, Huizinga abbreviated the original text and did not always follow the Dutch original ad verbum (some of the changes reflect the outbreak of World War II). In my talk, I quote from the Beacon Press paperback edition of 1955 (which is identical to the Routledge Keagan Paul edition), but in cases where the English translation is incorrect or incomplete, I offer my own translations of the Dutch original (1938), as it has been reprinted in Huizinga’s collected writings in 1950.