Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Where the Action Is: On the Site of the "Playful" Life

Lately I have been swamped finishing off a few ongoing projects and preparing a new course for the Fall term. So I haven't posted many substantive posts for a few weeks now. Today I want to just say a few words about a newish interest I am now tackling (which arose out of my perfectionist ethics and interest in love) and plan to start seriously posting about here as I switch gears a bit with my research interests. And that new topic is...- PLAY!

I came across the topic of play via many overlapping personal and professional interests- my experiences as a husband and father, my interests in positive psychology, virtue ethics, evolutionary biology and deliberative democracy.

In particular I am interested in three big questions:

(1) what is play?
(2) why play? and
(3) what constitutes the "playful society"?

My fellow political philosophers might wonder why I have decided to concern myself with play. "Why not chose a topic like socio-economic inequality or multiculturalism?" they might ask. "Besides, how important is "play" anyways?" they might continue. One seldom hears political theorists (at least the theorists of today... the Ancient Greeks knew all too well the value and importance of play) worry about the health of play in a fair and humane society. But I beleive that is a reflection on the poverty of the discipline rather than being a reflection on the importance of play.

What is play? Play encompasses many different activities (physical play, social play, etc.) that help humans develop the emotional and intellectual skills necessary for flourishing. Play ranges from activities like learning to ride a bike to reading novels, dating, blogging and debating politics. I won't offer anything like a comprehensive definition of play here. But there are different kinds of play and the common features of these activities is that they are (a) enjoyable (b) often do not have an obvious immediate function (c) they can be energetically expensive, etc.

To bring home the magnitude of the stakes involved with play, consider what a society would be like that is devoid of play. Stuart Brown makes this point in his excellent new book Play and says:

It's not just an absence of games or sports. Life without play is life without books, without movies, art, music, jokes, dramatic stories. Imagine a world with no flirting, no day dreaming, no comedy, no irony. Such a world would be a pretty grim place to life. p. 6

In fact things would probably been even more dire than this. A world without play would probably come closer to Hobbes's description of life in the state of nature in Leviathan:

In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture on the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by the Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.

So play is important! Why play? That is also a very important question, one that raises questions about human nature and the ultimate cause of our playful inclinations. I will post something more substantive on this in the future. For now the short answer is that play helps us live more successful and happy lives.

And that takes us to the really vital issue of what kinds of institutions and society help promote different forms of play. I'll post more thoughts about these issues in the weeks and months to come. But for now I highly recommend you watch Stuart Brown's excellent talk on play over at Ted Talks.