Monday, 20 July 2015

On games, brilliance and philosophy

Here are some thoughts inspired by this article, in which David Papineau asks why there are so few women in philosophy (a fair comparison being academic English literature or history).
First, I wish to introduce the concept of a "game" as an activity defined by its inherent pointlessness. Or, more precisely, by having no purpose outside the pursuit of the activity itself. Games are activities. The activity might be primarily mental (chess, noughts and crosses) or primarily physical (sports) or might have elements of both (computer games, snooker). Games might have spillover effects such as increasing fitness (mental or physical) or learning to be a good loser or earning money, but these are not the point of the game itself. The aim of football is not to be fit or to lose well, it is to score more goals than the opposition - the aim is internal to the activity and the activity can be completed successfully without (for example) any money having been earned or moral lessons learned. These spillover effects might explain why games are pursued, privileged or prohibited (as the case may be) in societies but they are strictly ulterior to the games themselves. Note in particular that 'entertainment' is not the purpose of any game: entertainment (of either the spectator or the participant) is nothing more than the pursuit or performance of the activity being enjoyed.

Games can therefore be distinguished from activities which have ends outside themselves. Compare knitting. Knitting can also create skills and teach one to learn stoicism in the face of unpicking row after row to correct a mistake. But the purpose of the exercise is to create a garment which persists after the completion of the activity. (A recorded game of football or chess might in some sense exist after it has been completed, but the aim of playing was not to create a subject for subsequent study.)

Perhaps any activity with a purpose outside itself can be converted into a game by abandoning the external end. Hunting is a good example: dropping the purpose of acquiring food turns it into a (mere) game. Perhaps the converse is also true: testing a computer game for flaws might look like playing but has a purpose beyond participating in the game itself.

We might test whether something is a game in this sense by asking whether there would be any purpose in having a machine do (all of) it: hunting for food - yes; hunting for sport - no; playing computer games - no; testing them - yes. There are knitting machines; there are no machines designed to dispose of clay pigeons more effectively than humans. (Two potential grey areas: (a) there might be some interest in getting computers to play (e.g.) chess against each other to see how well the game can be played and to give insight into human thoughts on strategies, etc; and (b) training - there is interest in getting robots to play football against each other as a test for their readiness to do other work involving similar skills, and equally humans may play games of (e.g.) mooting (mock legal disputes) as practice for professional life. Let us leave these to one side.)

Whether this is the correct definition of 'game' for all purposes is unclear (see here, also by Papineau, for more on games and sport, and a different approach to 'game'). However, I think it captures something important in the concept. Take, for example, the phrase 'this is just a game to you'. This accuses someone of pursuing an activity merely for its own sake and with no regard to the consequences for other people.

Second, let us take the concept of brilliance. This I find much harder to define. Like obscenity, one knows it when one sees it. I would say that it is constituted by short-term, obviously and dramatically high performance. The analogy is to a sparkling jewel - small but impressive. A goal might be brilliant, or a particular shot in a tennis match, but it is odd to use the term to describe a whole tennis match or cricketing innings. (An innings might be 'sparkling', perhaps, the next level down.) A brilliancy in chess is spectacular, but no more than one game long. A 'virtuoso' might have a 'brilliant' performance, but over a longer timescale we might expect a 'majestic' or 'magnificent' body of work from a 'maestro'.

Third, I would suggest that brilliance is particularly a feature of games. Most of the examples in the previous paragraph were taken from games. They are not the only examples: musical performances can be brilliant, as can scientific insights, (serious) sword-fights and witticisms. But I think that games are where we most commonly find instances of brilliance.

This might be only because top professional sports are widely watched and so any instance of brilliance is more likely to be seen in, say, the Wimbledon Final than in the top levels of other human endeavours (e.g. in the best laboratories or highest courtrooms). However, I think there is more to it than that: there is something about pursuing an activity for its own sake that makes brilliance in the performance of that activity more valued and/or more likely: brilliance is particularly 'at home' in the world of games.

Taking those three points, I now turn to philosophy and the article I linked to above. Papineau himself brings in Steve Davis and snooker. Davis says that women are not commonly found at the upper ranks of professional snooker because ",.. as a group they are disinclined to devote obsessive effort to “something that must be said is a complete waste of time – trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick”." It's not a waste of time in snooker - it's the point of the game. In snooker, not trying to pot the balls would be a waste of time. But you see what Davis is saying: potting the balls has no purpose outside snooker. Snooker is a game. So why does Papineau talk about it?

Next: "Just as philosophy employs unusually few women, so too does economics among the social sciences .... Leslie and her co- authors found a common feature to all the subjects with fewer women. These disciplines are distinguished by the view that “brilliance” is necessary for success." And here is Papineau: "I wonder whether a yet further mechanism might not be doing most of the damage. Philosophy and economics are both distinguished from similar disciplines by a marked tendency towards scholasticism." Might we define 'scholasticism' (in this derogatory sense) as turning an academic subject into a game, a suitable place to find brilliance?

Now, economics has a purpose beyond itself. (People argue about whether economics as currently practised achieves any part of its purpose, but that is another matter: academic medicine spent many centuries with its obvious purposes unfulfilled.) Economics is not inherently a game (or scholastic in that sense). It clearly would be worth having a machine that could predict economic crises or even just work out how to reduce unemployment. Keynes was right about economics and dentistry.

Which leaves this question: is philosophy inherently a game? If we could create Deep Thought and get it to print out the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, would it be as pointless as getting a robot to pot all the snooker balls?

It is clear to me that at least part of the point of philosophy is to do philosophy. (Perhaps that is why the history of philosophy is a subject within philosophy.) At some level, it is a game. But then, of course, there are those who say that life is a game. 

No comments:

Post a Comment