Thursday, September 20, 2018

Getting into the Literature on Play

I am now (somewhat) settled into my sabbatical term in Manoa, at the University of Hawaii. I haven't done any site seeing yet but I definitely will given the beauty of this island.

Within the first two weeks of my sabbatical I have attended to the matters of getting a fridge for my residence room, filling it with food, and getting a gym membership to the impressive Warrior Recreation Center. I also made revisions to a forthcoming publication on aging and freedom, and wrote a 1500 word commentary piece on gene patents and justice.

My focus is now turning to the scientific literature on play, to get some foundational research completed for what I hope will result (one day!) in a new book on play and a realistic utopia.

Yesterday I spent the day reading Sutton-Smith's (SS) masterful book The Ambiguity of Play. Some important take away notes for me: SS identifies 7 "rhetorics" of play:

(1) play as progress
(2) play as fate
(3) play as power
(4) play as identity
(5) play as the imaginary
(6) rhetoric of the self
(7) play as frivolous

The rhetorics I am most interested in for my argument are (1) [the most crucial]; (3) [which shows play is not always positive and beneficial!]; (4) [a great way to link justice concerns and play to communitarianism, deliberative democracy and multiculturalism); (5) [especially linked to a virtue epistemological defence of democracy, which I want to do in the book]

(1) involves many interesting and contentious issues. My argument is predicated upon the idea that play helps us adapt and develop by facilitating moral and intellectual virtue. Fagan (Animal Play Behavior) characterizes play as flexibility, quoting Fagen (p. 31 of SS), he says "play was selected to develop complex social and generalized cognitive abilities including the potential to innovate and to maintain or enhance the flexibility of existing skills at the cost of their efficiency in particular contexts".

SS does not believe the evidence supports the rhetoric of play as progress. What SS endorses is what he calls the rhetoric of play as adaptive variability. The finer details of this scientific debate goes beyond what I, as a political theorist, will need to get into. What I want to ensure is that what I argue about (1) is "empirically credible", that (1) humans are, at our core, a playful species (in contrast to the starting assumption of many other political theories), and (2) that play does have important developmental benefits (for motor development, social roles, information, creativity, cognitive abilities, etc. and, ultimately, for moral and epistemic virtue!). I am confident that a loosely "functional explanation" that posits that play helps us flourish as individuals and collectively as societies will be sufficient to generate the type of "emancipatory knowledge" my theory seeks to yield. It doesn't have to detail every scientific insight, debate and nuance. Provided it tracks some "credible insights" from evolutionary biology, physiology, psychology, and neuorscience then I think I will meet the "empirically informed" bar I set myself for this book, which is a work in normative political theory.

The starting premise of this project (independent of the methodological issues related to utopian thinking, which will take up 1/3 of the book) is that play is essential to our wellbeing (both as individuals and collectively as a society). The potential benefits go much further than the obvious ones- like promoting our health and happiness, but also moral and epistemic virtue in ways that can promote important societal aspirations relating to solidarity and community, fairness, reciprocity, etc.

After reading through SS yesterday, today I starting making my way through this 500 page tome on play by Burghardt (B), and I think his arguments might prove more helpful to me than SS's. B notes the search for "the" major function of play continues. Many of the proposed benefits are controversial and largely unsupported empirically. I am only through the first 100 pages of his book. So I may post again on it when I have a better sense of what his conclusions are.

If you are interested in hearing Burghardt give a talk on play there is a detailed one here.