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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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An analogy between art and play, ranging from mere
metaphor to literal identification, has been asserted,
for better or worse, in an extraordinary variety of ways.
The most obvious of these contrast art and play with
work, with the “serious,” with activities carried out
under compulsion of some kind, whether moral, politi-
cal, economic, psychological, or genetic. Such anal-
ogies have been as frequently rebutted by those who
insist that art is too serious for such an equation as
they have been affirmed by those who have seen art
as only hedonic or entertaining.

Between these extremes are those who find positive
merit in both aspects of art, and we shall concentrate
our attention on such affirmative theories. Associated
with these ideas about art and its cultural significance
are: (1) the surplus energy or leisure theory of culture,
seeing art and play as products of superfluity after basic
needs have been met; (2) education, imitation, and
vicarious experience theories, whereby art and play are
valued for the way in which men can encounter harsh
realities harmlessly; (3) metaphysical theories equating
the two because of an “as if” element in both, ulti-
mately extending to epistemology and science; (4) “the
child-in-the-man” theories emphasizing naiveté and
unconscious processes as contrasted with sophisticated

It is exceedingly rare in antiquity for play to be
associated with art at all, and where it is, the connec-
tion is usually found in a condescending attitude to-
wards both, or at least towards play where the function
of art is conceived rather more loftily. For the most
part, however, play is thought of as an activity of
animals and children, and, given the relatively unsenti-
mental attitude towards both in antiquity, play is
reduced to a fairly low status. It is thought of as non-
purposive, noncognitive, frivolous, time-wasting, and
hedonic. No doubt there were in antiquity, as at all
times, those who found the highest value of art in
pleasure, relaxation, entertainment, and the like, and
if they equated art with play it was more likely to
damn the former than to praise the latter. Despite these
unpromising beginnings, however, there is early evi-
dence of some redeeming qualities and among these
may be traced the origins of ideas immensely fruitful
in the development of later theories of play and art.

The leading notions are found in the connection of
play with imitation and education, and by way of these
the affinity with art may be seen ultimately to draw
ever closer. Scattered references may be found in
Homer (e.g., Iliad XV, 363) as well as in other authors
of antiquity (cf. Pauly-Wissowa, article “Spiel”) in
which the propaedeutic value of childhood games is


brought out. Many of these references are to games
with clay, sand, and stone pre-figuring sculpture and
architecture, but their importance should not be exag-
gerated. It would be necessary at first to cast the net
rather widely to find the connections among ideas
whose interrelatedness as seen in later perspective was
scarcely apparent in earlier times, and so run the risk
of appearing to impute to our seminal thinkers a degree
of coherence on the present topic of which they were
innocent. On the other hand, the problem of play as
it is concerned with culture generally, with psycho-
logical theories of man and beast, or even with more
obviously related topics such as the drama or the agon
as “play,” are all beyond the scope of this article; for
many of these broader issues the reader is referred to
the works of Groos and Huizinga, among others. Like-
wise the connection between sympathetic magic or
religious ritual (especially in the sublimated forms of
symbolic sacrifice) and imitation cannot be explored
here even though there are obvious points of contact
between these and certain aspects of play.

In all of these something is represented or acted out
or made to stand for something else in a manner that
deliberately falls short of the literal or actual enact-
ment of the something else. To this extent, at least,
direct utilitarian or cognitive purposes are not served
(even if they are never far from the surface) and there-
with a key aspect of play as such is manifest. Against
this view it is frequently argued that the “primitive”
mind is incapable of distinguishing symbol from thing
symbolized, and so what appears to be indirect, “play-
ful,” vicarious, etc., to more sophisticated minds has
been misapprehended. The point is valid but comple-
ments rather than weakens the argument advanced
here. It is rare for the most sophisticated (or even the
most prosaic) of minds wholly to lose the ability to
be immersed in the world of fantasy and imagination,
or to abandon “reality” for the nonce, however easily
it might be recovered at need. Even where primitive
languages treat “play” as childish, frivolous, and so
forth, and do not adequately distinguish what we
should think of as play or symbolic activities from
“real” ones, people's actual conduct will display their
grasp of the distinction.

Methodologically it will always be a problem to
isolate play as it is manifested in art from the many
other factors with which play is associated, e.g., human
nature and psychology, the “leisure theory of culture,”
childish (or childlike) things, imitation, vicarious ex-
perience, education, epistemology, anticipations of
knowledge or of “serious things,” creativity, meta-
physics. For example, the references to play in Plato
display many of the entanglements of the related
themes considered above. Play is harmless enough in
very young children, but all too soon it takes on the
aspect of an irrationality (and therewith unreality) that
it becomes the task of education to remedy. Play only
becomes tolerable when it is channeled in desirable
directions. To take another example, play as vicarious
experience is significant both in Plato and Aristotle.
The emphasis in Plato lies rather in the joint subordi-
nation of art and play to education (itself in the service
of ethics and metaphysics); hence, as will become
apparent in many other writers, it is very difficult to
separate play in art from its manifestations under other
aspects. In Aristotle, the emphasis, to be discussed in
greater detail below, is on catharsis, in which the
emotions aroused and discharged by the action of the
drama are serious but harmless—two features that
almost universally are included in the concept of play
and art. Only in recent years (say, since Karl Groos
and, most notably, Huizinga) has a conscious attempt
been made to analyze the concept of play so as to elicit
its specific features. Until this century the innumerable
discussions of the subject, of which only a few impor-
tant examples can be given here, appear in contexts
displaying the leading interests of their authors; art and
play have frequently been only incidental to those
interests, however.


Plato's standard position is clear enough: play is
intimately connected with imitation: boys play at being
soldiers (Republic V, 466E ff.), and more generally,
children play at being their elders, the bard imitates
in his narrative the speech and action of heroes and,
much less acceptably, the actor does this directly; the
poet imitates the Muse who inspires him. Since the
force of imitation is construed in Plato's educational
psychology as making the imitator resemble what is
imitated, the truth of the model is all-important. At
Republic 425A “... children in their earliest play are
[to be] imbued with the spirit of law and order through
their music” (mousike here refers to the arts generally,
and not necessarily only to music); at 536E children
are to be introduced to their studies by play and not
by compulsion.

From these observations follows much of the criti-
cism of poetry and the arts for which Plato is notorious;
but we shall be concerned here only with those aspects
of the criticism that bear on play and art. Certainly
a man will not want to imitate anything unworthy of
him (Republic III, 395A ff.), “except for the sake of
play (paidia)” (396E). This last reservation finds an echo
in Laws (II, 667DE) where play is associated both with
art and pleasure. Play is here defined as harmless
pleasure doing neither good nor harm. But doubts are
at once raised by the Athenian whether the perform-


ance of a work of art, because it is primarily concerned
with imitations and representations of real things, could
ever harmlessly misrepresent those things (cf. 658E,
659E). Thus the argument returns to the standard
position in which Plato's references to art and play are
subordinated to education and moral training within
the metaphysical framework of his system.

Repeatedly, whenever the question of play, amuse-
ment, entertainment, pleasure, etc., is raised, whether
in connection with art or not, Plato allows that these
involve a certain charm if their pursuit is appropriate
to the age and mental development of the players. But
judgment is not so easily disarmed and older and wiser
heads keep knowledgeable watch, since nothing that
is not true can be beautiful, good, or even harmless.

Plato's views on art have been much attacked and,
taken superficially, they may appear disappointing.
The overtones of censorship, regimentation, and confi-
dent self-righteousness have alienated many commen-
tators. But it is always a mistake to read Plato as though
he were describing a feasible reconstruction of the
world; he repeatedly distinguishes the ideally desirable
from the actually attainable, and in so doing is playing
a game of his own—a political game realized with
consummate art within metaphysical rules asserted to
be self-evidently true for the sake of the game. Seen
in this light he has been called ludimagister (Rahner
[1967], p. 12); Plato himself refers (Letter VI, 323D),
if genuine, to “the jesting that is kin to earnest,” and
his own use of myth will bear comparison with Socratic
irony as a playful device of art. The Republic, in par-
ticular, is the model of all subsequent positive Utopias—
the negative ones are grimmer and lack the imaginative
exploitation of possibilities, even the wishful thinking,
that characterize the Republic and its successors—
qualities shared, as we shall see, by play and art.


Much that is at most implied in Plato is made explicit
by Aristotle. There is a shift in the underlying meta-
physical presuppositions and these yield a theory that
is at once richer, more accessible and comfortable, and
more “realistic.”

The main points of departure lie in two develop-
ments of Platonic positions by Aristotle: imitation and
the ultimate objectives of human existence. Imitation
is broadened so that its validity is not constrained
within the limits of the “real”; and one key concept
introduced by Aristotle to vindicate man's existence
is “leisure” (schole).

We are told in the Poetics that art imitates not only
what is (as in Plato), but what “ought to be” and what
“might be.” The latter two liberate the Platonic theory
from its offensive literalness and dogmatism. What
ought to be represents the morally ideal and only
incidentally concerns us here; but what might be refers
directly to our theme. Imagination is not bound by
the actual, but is free to range over the possible and
the plausible. The latter is given even more significance
than the former, because the mind may grant credence
to something factually impossible, but accepted as
plausible for the sake of some argument the value of
which does not rest on factual truth. Here (Poetics, Ch.
26) Aristotle relies, as Plato does (Theaetetus 191B,
Republic IX, 588C ff.) on the ability of the mind to
juxtapose images disparately drawn from experience
in order to construct monsters and other imaginary
beings and situations, sometimes for some immediate
further purpose (if only to frighten children), but not
necessarily so. Aristotle draws attention to the power
of creating metaphors as a sign of genius, “the one
thing that cannot be taught.”

This position does not differ significantly from the
Kantian notion of the free play of the imagination, and
it also anticipates a further element of great impor-
tance in later thought. This is the balance between
factual (or logical) and aesthetic truth. The former is
“objective” and serious; the latter “subjective” and
playful. Yet if the latter is to be redeemed of frivolity
and childishness some connection with factual truth
must be maintained. In Aristotle the connection is
somewhat stronger than Coleridge's “willing suspen-
sion of disbelief.” It was Aristotle who first drew atten-
tion to the confusion between the two, as illustrated
by the yokel in the audience who rushes on stage to
prevent one character from killing another. This in-
volves the inability to follow out all the implications
of a situation allowed ex hypothesi; or to follow a set
of self-imposed rules or conventions not sanctioned by
external reality: yet these are features of play at every

The interrelation of art and play in drama is illus-
trated by two senses of vicarious experience: (1) what
can I learn from what has happened to another, and
(2) what can be learned from the imaginable alterna-
tives to any given situation. Both senses rely on the
assumption that art is justified by its indirect service
to knowledge and individual resource in facing future
situations; and as such may be seen as a development
of the propaedeutic justification for children's play and
the adult agon. The manner of art, i.e., the depiction
of universals, further enhances its usefulness for these
ends. By stripping away the fortuitous and accidental
circumstances in which individual occurrences arise,
“poetry is more universal than history” because it can
crystallize the essence of a situation. We are thus
exposed to all the advantages of the widest conceivable
range of experience without exposure to dangers that


might rather crush than edify. The notable difference
between Greek and Roman sports and plays supports
this view: Greek games were never bloody, nor was
bloodshed ever directly shown in the Greek theater.

The doctrine of catharsis may be viewed in the same
context as applicable to the emotions aroused by ideal
situations. Pity edifies though terror crushes, and the
two together perform the function of play—serious but
harmless. Pity or compassion is the emotion by which
we empathize with the tragic hero, seeing ourselves
in him. We use him as surrogate for what we dare not
do ourselves. He carries out in a postulated reality all
our secret desires, our blasphemies, our impossible
quests. Our elation is intensified by his temporary
successes: almost we could wish to follow him, but our
fascination is no less morbid and we as much desire
his failure. His daring is a reproach to our mediocrity,
and so the inevitability of his doom reflects our con-
sciousness of human limitations as much as the jealousy
of the gods.

The play element lies in a series of “as if” proposi-
tions pursued with logical rigor to an inevitable con-
clusion: let there be a hero nobler by birth and breed-
ing than any member of the audience; let him be wiser,
stronger, shrewder, prideful as befits these qualities, but
still recognizably human; let him challenge the peace
of the gods; and let the gods prove the power of their
sanctions. We are content with the thought that if the
hero, preeminently possessed of all human virtues,
cannot succeed, then how much less can we expect
of ourselves. We are thus reconciled to the governance
of the cosmos and of our lowly role in its economy.

Aristotle seems to be the originator of, or at least
the first to write about, leisure as the basis of culture.
The discussion in Politics II is long, but a few major
points should be presented. A truly human nature can
be fulfilled only on the assumption that an environment
can be created within which the individual can actu-
alize all his potentialities. But an individual who is
obliged to satisfy his needs by his own resources alone
would be forced to function at a very limited level
of activity, living from hand to mouth with no respite
from those activities needed merely to sustain life. The
division of labor serves the dual function of enabling
the individual to confine his activities to what he can
do best, and of furnishing leisure for some individuals
in a society to think of matters that transcend the
exigencies of the moment. There will be many ways
in which such thought accrues to the benefit of the
society; only some of these, of course, will bear directly
on play and art.

There is a typology of human nature in Aristotle,
not unlike the class structure of the Republic: some
people will be content with practical and productive
activities, and for these the value of art and play lies
largely in recreation and entertainment, the restoration
of energies exhausted in labor, or the dissipation of
excess energy when no purposive activity is needed,
as in the interval between seeding and harvesting crops,
or for simple variety or change of pace, or to keep
physical and mental capacities sharpened. But other
individuals have superior needs: theoretical and
mythopoetic; and these point to the stationing of some
men in Aristotle's hierarchy of being above common
men and below the gods, though following his advice
“to be as divine as they can be” (Nicomachean Ethics
X. vii). For these the object of all lower activities is
to provide the leisure needed for contemplation and
those modes of creation appropriate to such men: both
part of and operating upon nature. The relationship
in Aristotle between activities instrumental for some
higher ends and those intrinsically good in themselves
is not always clear—nor, perhaps, can it be, in view
of his well-known antipathy to infinite regress. At the
end of the line, as concerns human activity, are found
such notions as happiness and leisure. The latter he
mostly (e.g., Ethics X. vii) speaks of as instrumental,
enabling further happiness-inducing activities distin-
guished by their not being engaged in under the duress
of need (and thus sharing a key aspect of play); indeed,
leisure comes close to being an end itself and a goal
of human existence, which in its moments of leisure
enjoys the highest felicity. Aristotle quotes with ap-
proval (Ethics X. vi) “The maxim of Anacharsis, 'Play
so that you may be serious.'”


One searches the literature of later antiquity in vain
for the development of these ideas. It is not merely
that the epigoni of the post-Aristotelian schools lacked
originality, rather the topic seems to lapse into neglect.
There are, to be sure, scattered references to children's
play, to gaiety of spirit and the like, e.g., in Lucian,
Horace, Pliny, Plutarch, and even in Cicero; and the
history of aesthetics continued to be served, but the
connection between them is broken. Play as such is
not neglected but passes into the fierce competition
of the agon to make a Roman holiday. The magic child
of many pagan traditions is absorbed, especially by
Augustine, into Christianity, and combines great sim-
plicity and wisdom as before (cf. Boas, 1966), but there
is no connection with art.

Perhaps too much joy had escaped the life of reason
in the sequence of Greek collapse, stern Ciceronian
injunctions to duty, Roman decline, and Christian
asceticism. Even Roman comedy displays little of the
lightness of touch that might suggest that a practical
connection continued even though the theory might


be lacking. The Church Fathers frowned on anything
that might distract the Christian from the grim search
for salvation: Chrysostom, for example, in the Sixth
Homily of his Commentary on Matthew, tells us “It
is not God who gives us the chance to play, but the
devil” (PG 57, 70D). These strictures of course had
a target, for while the dominant theories to govern
human nature had changed, that nature no doubt
remained the same.

A contribution to our theme is to be found, therefore,
only by default, for the same antipathy to play is also
directed against art. The latter was only to be re-
deemed by the subordination of its subject matter to
doctrinally sound topics expressed in a rigid formal
perfection taken to be the microcosm of the universe.
Not until we reach Aquinas do we find a revival of
the generous Aristotelian view: in his commentary on
the Nicomachean Ethics Saint Thomas favorably
explicates the concept of eutrapelia, a lightness of spirit
midway between boorishness and frivolity (cf. Rahner
[1967], p. 99). The emphasis here, as in the Summa
(II-II, q. 168 a. 2), is however on play as
relaxation from labor and tension, without reference
to art.

For a long time there seems to have been little
patience with play as a feature of imagination, crea-
tivity, and art, whether we search among British
empiricists or continental rationalists, or among think-
ers not so easily labeled. For one thing all these shared
in common a view that is in essence hostile to the
innocence of art (or simply hostile to innocence) and
so we find three aspects, variously emphasized, all of
which illustrate the decline of interest in play. The
first is rarely explicit, since it treats some forms of art
as scarcely worthy of notice: the sort of art that might
be associated with play is taken as childish, vulgar
(popular), primarily time-killing entertainment, and
thus not a fit subject for intellectual inquiry (Schleier-

The second and third views involve even loftier
pretensions in which art is justified predominantly with
reference to cognition and morality. The position of
Leibniz usefully exemplifies the second view: such
validity as art possesses lies in its anticipation of posi-
tive knowledge. Aesthetic vision yields petites percep-
as the first of four grades of perceiving reality
in the world. As the mind advances toward fully ra-
tional knowledge the lower grades are superseded.
Moses Mendelssohn pointed out in criticism of this
view that art is thus assumed to have no intrinsic value
of its own; and that therefore as positive knowledge
increases, the significance of art will decline. The third
aspect is found more frequently where the concept of
taste and its educability comes to the fore, e.g., in
Hume, Burke, Vico, Lessing, and Herder, among
others. Here taste becomes a function of sophistication
and wide experience, and so cannot be assimilated to
the play theory. Where formal perfection is a major
objective of art (e.g., in the theory and practice of
Dryden or Pope) this further militates against an
analogy with play. For that formal perfection is not
infrequently seen as the aesthetic counterpart of a
wholly rational world (conceived not only scientifically,
but as part of a theodicy) such that art is not an explo-
ration beyond what is currently known, so much as
a confirmation of the philosophically demonstrable.

Such views may be mathematically static (as in
Leibniz) or historically dynamic (as in Vico). One could
quote indefinitely, but Vico may speak for all:

The studies of metaphysics and poetry are in natural oppo-
sition one to the other; for the former purges the mind of
childish prejudice and the latter immerses and drowns it
in the same: the former offers resistance to the judgment
of the senses, while the latter makes this its chief rule...
the former strives that the learned may know the truth of
things stripped of all passion: the latter that the vulgar may
act only by means of intense excitement of the senses,
without which stimulant they assuredly would not act at

(Scienza Nuova I, iii, 26; in Croce, Aesthetic, pp. 221-22).

A whole family of related views subordinates the
culture role of play: historically oriented figures like
Vico, Herder, Hegel, Croce, to name only a few, all
treat art as something to be superseded—a fortiori
imagination and play will be left behind for if ontogeny
recapitulates phylogeny, they belong to infancy:
“Whoever turns to writing poetry in an age of reflec-
tion is returning to childhood and putting his mind
in fetters” (Vico: letter to De Angelis of Dec. 25, 1725).
Perhaps, after all, the theory of an analogy between
play and art did not lapse, but was merely pursued to
the detriment of both! But, happily, more affirmative
positions are near.


In Kant the term “play” occurs so often in the
discussion of art that some commentators have been
led to exaggerate the importance in his system of “the
free play of imagination” or of ideas. Yet while no
well-articulated theory can be attributed directly to
Kant, it remains true all the same that the connections
among play, art, and freedom to be found explicitly
in the Critique of Judgment are the primary source
of Schiller's position, and therewith of all subsequent
views on the question before us—to the possible exclu-
sion of “surplus energy” theories.

The point of departure lies in the significance of
“freedom” in Kant's position. Cognitive judgments are
bound by the necessity of their conformity to the


modalities by which the human mind forms concepts,
i.e., by the forms of intuition and the categories. These
impose a logical structure on concepts and the relations
among them that in turn leads to the uniformity of
the knowledge possessed by all minds and thus justifies
the claim for the possibility of a science of the phe-
nomenal world. Ethical judgments, while not bound
by fact (which would make ethics merely empirical)
are bound by the nature of reason such that certain
“ideas of pure reason” are binding on all rational minds
so that, on Kant's view, a science of ethics is also

But aesthetic judgments are not bound in either of
these ways: they are not referable back in any neces-
sary way to concepts depending on experience, nor
are they such as to be uniform for all rational minds.
They are necessarily subjective (Critique of Judgment
hereafter CJ—Bernard trans., §2, p. 39). Satisfaction in
the beautiful must not only be distinguished from
cognition and morality, but also from sensory pleasure
(§3, 40) which exerts its own tyranny. In all these cases
we have an interest in the existence of the object that
gives rise to these judgments and feelings; but aesthetic
judgment is disinterested and contemplative, i.e., it is
free of constraint whether coerced by fact or logic or
pain and pleasure: “The cognitive powers, which are
involved by this representation, are here in free play,
because no definite concept limits them to a definite
rule of cognition” (§9, 52).

It should be noted that, at the same time that Kant
stresses the freedom (and therewith the subjectivity)
of aesthetic judgment, he is not prepared to abandon
altogether the notion of the uniformity of such judg-
ments (they ought to be necessary and universal): “We
are conscious that this subjective relation, suitable for
cognition in general, must be valid for everyone, and
thus must be universally communicable, just as if it
were a definite cognition, resting always on that rela-
tion as its subjective condition” (ibid.). And this leads
him to claim a “universal subjective validity” that
restores the possibility of rational discourse on aesthetic

In the “Analytic of the Sublime” (ibid.) Kant returns
to the question of play as it more specifically applies
to art. We find him here furnishing support to those
who find the notion of art as play profoundly offensive.
Indeed, as we noted earlier, art is often viewed as play
only when it is intended to disparage both; but where
art is assigned a nobler role, there is a tendency to
emphasize the rational (cognitive and ethical) aspects
at the expense of play. Kant's position reflects the
dialectical tension of these extremes. In §43 he draws
distinctions between art and nature, science, and
handicraft on the one hand, but warns (p. 147) against
“many modern educators” who “believe that the best
way to produce a free art is to remove it from all
constraint, and thus to change it from work into mere
play.” What redeems art from this charge, as we see
from numerous other passages, is that the ideas with
which imagination plays must have appeal to under-
standing and reason: so much for the content of art;
as to its form, “e.g., in poetry there must be an accu-
racy and wealth of language, and also prosody and
measure.” Kant's rationalism and formalism are not
lightly to be cast aside, and thus we find him balancing
the claims of freedom against those of the rule of reason
which may be thought by those “modern educators”
(to say nothing of even more modern artists) to con-
strict imagination within the framework either of drab
representationism or of decaying forms:

[Poetry] plays with illusion (Schein), which it produces at
pleasure, but without deceiving by it; for it declares its
exercise to be mere play, which however can be purposively
used by the understanding

(§53, p. 171).

A final observation before we continue to trace the
later fate of these influential ideas. In the Critique of
Pure Reason
(A141-42 = B180-81) we read that while

... the image is a product of the empirical faculty of
reproductive imagination, the schema of sensible concepts,
such as of figures in space, is a product and, as it were,
a monogram, of pure a priori imagination, through which,
and in accordance with which, images themselves first
become possible.

This doctrine of schematism strongly suggests Kant's
philosophical motives for retaining a rational founda-
tion for art. It is that the mind can propose forms to
itself that in turn make images of particulars possible;
but given the structure of the human mind and its
uniformity, there are limitations as to the forms that
can be entertained, and these have (or ought to have)
universal appeal, constituting the basis for communi-
cation and meaningfulness. Yet he clearly confused
historically and culturally determined forms (e.g., in
poetry and painting) for existentially determined ones,
and so placed fortuitous restrictions on what might
properly constitute art as well as on the power of
imagination to propose other forms (whether in art or
in science). We may therefore expect to find in his
successors an attack on these restrictions, as well as
on the necessary uniformity of human rationality. The
farthest-reaching attack, however, will derive from
implications of his metaphysics that he could hardly
have foreseen (e.g., the unknowability of the thing-
in-itself and the “as if” aspects of our explanations of



The most important theory in the entire history of
this topic is found in the aesthetic writings of Friedrich
Schiller. It is odd but worthy of note that the signifi-
cance of his contribution has been seriously underes-
timated both by students of Schiller and of play theory.
His originality in the matter, despite the obvious debts
to Kant and to Rousseau's educational theories, to say
nothing of those of Lessing and Herder, lies in the
breadth of the metaphysical claims he makes on behalf
of the aesthetic, and in his modifications of the Kantian

The most important of these are: (1) in the absence
of access to the “thing-in-itself,” metaphysical pre-
suppositions are in principle unverifiable—hence man
is free to construct explanatory schemes of various
kinds to render his experience comprehensible to him-
self; (2) such schemes in the first place reflect typologi-
cal differences of temperament (Naive and Sentimental
—hereafter NS—176) in which particular
“modes of perception” (Empfindungsweisen) result in
diverse accounts of reality, each compatible with facts
and logic though incompatible with each other—two
such types are the “realist” and the “idealist,” each
of whom is persuaded by his idiosyncratic perspective
that the other is wrong, but in view of (1) above, both
are wrong; (3) thus, instead of the uniform human
nature presupposed by Kant as the foundation of “ob-
jective” knowledge, Schiller's postulation of two
human natures accounts for the insolubility of meta-
physical, ethical, and political questions and for the
dogmatic assertion by each type of the truth of its own
position at the expense of the other; (4) a crucial aspect
of Schiller's account of human nature follows from the
importance of form and content in Kant. These are
seen by Schiller as distinctive features of human modes
of experience in terms of impulses (Triebe). The form
impulse is seen as the tendency of the human mind
to structure experience in particular ways and is con-
nected with predominantly rationalist explanations of
the world (the idealist position), while the material
impulse (Stofftrieb) supposes its explanations to be
given along with concrete facts (the realist position).
A third principle, the play impulse (Spieltrieb) is ad-
vanced as mediating between these two. (Two paren-
thetical observations: (a) these Triebe are not to be
confused with the impulses or drives of more recent
psychologies, though many commentators have mis-
takenly praised Schiller for anticipating Freud, while
others have denounced him for not being enough of
a Freudian; the impulses are rather “dispositions,”
tendencies to think and act in characteristic ways; (b)
it is typical of Schiller's dialectical method to find a
third principle to mediate between and reconcile the
differences between polar opposites); (5) the divergen-
cies of perspective do not arise at the level of fact
or logic, but in disputed interpretations of facts them-
selves not in dispute.

From these divergencies from Kant, Schiller adum-
brates, but does not fully develop, a remarkable theory.
Schiller has often been called the poet of freedom; in
his Aesthetic Letters this is manifested by his search
for a means to liberate man from the coercion of
industrialized society, and in NS from the compulsion
of genetic endowment, environment, and tempera-
ment. On the Sublime seeks to overcome the ultimate
compulsion, that of a fixed unalterable reality (whether
conceived of as Nature, Fate, or the laws of physics).
The concepts of reality produced by the theologian,
the historian, the scientist, or the metaphysician are
all simply an illusion or appearance (Schein); they are
inventions, not discoveries about the world. Nonethe-
less they are all too frequently mistaken for ultimate
truths, and this in turn leads to the dogmatism and
even fanaticism that appear justified by premature
ontological commitment to their truth.

Only the artist is free of illusions about his illusions;
in his creations no claim to reality is made. Rather
he plays with the appearances he constructs; what he
proposes is without ontological commitment, it is a
game operating within self-imposed rules, as well as
within the limiting conditions of fact and logic. It is
contemplative and detached as befits aesthetic crea-
tion; but it is also carried out for its own sake as befits
a game. (Schiller also makes use of the role of play
as preparation for “serious” activity, and of re-creation
following the tensions of labor, but neither of these
is central.) The Kantian notions of heuristic devices
are thus brought a stage further. The aesthetic attitude
becomes the paradigm of all human perspectives on
the world. Schiller sharply attacks the philosopher who
dogmatically insists on all the details of an elaborate
system erected on metaphysical assumptions whose
origin and validity have never been investigated: “The
philosopher is a caricature compared with the poet.”

Schiller is well aware of the dangers of such a posi-
tion and is at pains to forestall criticisms of solipsism
and aestheticism, to say nothing of self-indulgent
daydreaming and triviality. By his insistence on the
Kantian foundations of objective knowledge, the facts
are, as it were, stipulated by all parties, so that the
Kantian notion of “objective,” or at least “universally
subjective” knowledge is preserved—nothing is the
case simply because someone says so. Nor is a retreat
into fantasy permissible, for this too belies the facts.
Instead, much the way the hero in tragedy preserves


his dignity intact amid physical defeat, so the aesthetic
attitude permits moral superiority to the facts, not
empirical subordination to them. Nor will the charge
of triviality stand, for, as Schiller puts it, “Man is never
so serious as when he plays.” A quite extraordinary
demand is being made here: at the metaphysical level
it is that we somehow resolve the problem how to
maintain our deepest and most serious beliefs strongly
enough to be able to act on them, while at the same
time recognizing that those beliefs have no final justifi-
cation. The latter part of this proposition is closest to
play, and such a prospect will seem melancholy to
some, but Schiller chooses to be exhilarated by it; we
are free to build tragedy or comedy indifferently on
the same data. There will be poignant exceptions, but
under ideal conditions man “is wholly man only when
he plays” (15th of the Aesthetic Letters). Then man
possesses the childlike quality of grace, aesthetic edu-
cation is complete, and in spontaneity and harmony
one plays the game of life.

Of those directly influenced by Schiller the most
notable are Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Schopen-
hauer, in particular, after condemning metaphysical
explanations of the world as illusory, finds almost the
only redemption in art, because we are aware that we
are playing a game, and also because we are contem-
plating Platonic ideas, and the illusion is harmless. But
perhaps the most consummate realization of Schiller's
ideas is found in Hermann Hesse's Glasperlenspiel
(Magister Ludi): the account of the Music Master is
closest of all.


A shallow reflection of Schiller's views is found in
Herbert Spencer, who vaguely remembers reading
about the play theory in some German author whose
name escaped him. While what he has to say has little
bearing on art, it is included in a simple version of
the “surplus energy” theory:

We find that time and strength are not wholly absorbed
in providing for immediate needs... Hence play of all
kinds—hence the tendency to superfluous and useless ex-
ercise of faculties that have been quiescent


About the turn of this century there was a significant
revival of interest in the topic of play, with some
bearing on art. Karl Groos' two books chiefly rely on
the role of imitation, empathy, and education in the
learning and socialization process:

... play leads from what is easy to more difficult tasks,
since only deliberate conquest can produce the feeling of
pleasure in success

(1901, p. 8).

Lange, who follows Groos fairly closely, stresses the
structure of self-imposed rules which call for the exer-
cise of imagination. He opposes the passivity of the
spectator to the activity of the creator, and extends
his argument from play to art in pointing to the inven-
tion of a context developed in the course of creation
of a work of art.

Of the many commentaries on the surplus energy
and education theories a few examples may be cited.
Dessoir (pp. 318ff.) treats the Kant-Schiller approaches
favorably and with great penetration. Croce (p. 83),
followed by Collingwood, accepts the “freedom from
causality” argument of Schiller as “possible,” but finds
the surplus energy argument, especially as found in
Spencer “outrageous.” Guyau, on the other hand (p.
174), accepts the latter argument, but sees “art as too
involved with life to be mere play.” And Huizinga,
whose splendid book goes much beyond our scope here,
treats Schiller quite harshly (p. 168), having evidently
misunderstood his case.

A lengthy literature from the utopian socialists to
the 1960's expands the leisure theory to incorporate
art and play into the activities appropriate to an in-
creasingly affluent society. The education theories are
currently in the uncertain stewardship of the schools
of education and the learning psychologists; a stagger-
ing array of studies pursue the related problems of
value-free finger-painting and learning by playing in
a manner that has gone far to discredit the whole

The metaphysical and psychological theories remain
worthy of serious consideration. As to the first there
has been a significant tendency to extend creativity,
innovation, conventional (self-imposed) rule-making as
obvious features of play and art beyond these to scien-
tific and even to cosmological explanations. Charles S.
Peirce, who acknowledges his debt to Friedrich Schiller
(p. 401), develops (pp. 360f.) a notion of free aesthetic
contemplation—“Pure Play”—culminating in “Muse-
ment” concerning “some wonder in one of the Uni-
verses.” Koestler (1964, especially pp. 509ff.) displays
the interconnectedness of humor, art, and science with
a wealth of illustration. But the most succinct statement
in recent literature on the subject is found in Kroeber
(1948, p. 357):

Generically, all the discoveries and innovations of pure
science and fine art—those intellectual and aesthetic pur-
suits which are carried on without reference to technology
or utility—may be credited to functioning of the human
play impulses.... They rest on the play impulse, which
is connected with growth but is dissociated from preser-
vation, comfort, or utility, and which in science and art
is translated into the realm of imagination, abstraction,
relations, and sensuous form.


Finally, there is another area, almost too vague to
document precisely, but pervasive enough in recent
decades, in which certain childlike qualities (including
playfulness) are assimilated to some desirable features
of art. While its origins may be traced back to Plato
at least, the combination is modern, especially in its
emphasis on the unconscious nature of creativity. If,
as Ellen Key argued in her famous book, this is The
Century of the Child
(1909), much that is relevant to
our theme will be displayed in what George Boas has
called The Cult of Childhood (1966). Emphasis is laid
on the child's naiveté, spontaneity, and unconscious-
ness, and on the self-absorption of the child's activi-
ties—these are preferred to the calculation and pur-
posiveness of adult behavior. The child's vision is taken
to be innocent, fresh, unencumbered by conceptual
fixity or subordination to cognitive or moral criteria.
The artist (e.g., Rilke, Klee) is seen as liberated from
the exigencies either of representationalism in content
or of set formal patterns. It would be a mistake to insist
that all aspects of this shift in aesthetic objectives are
connected with nostalgia for childlike simplicity and
still less with play. In part it must be associated rather
will the metaphysical anarchy currently fashionable
and that dates from some of the post-Kantian develop-
ments we have traced. Among relevant contemporary
positions in aesthetics mention must be made at least
of Freudian psychology and proponents of “aesthetic

An important paper of Freud's, “Creative Writers
and Day-Dreaming,” associates imagination, creativity,
and play, and draws on a parallelism between the child
and the writer, each of whom creates a world of his
own. This world is taken seriously, for the opposite
of play is not the serious but the real. (Freud makes
the further point that this play is not wholly uncon-
nected with the real, otherwise we have fantasy not
play.) From this it follows that features of the real
world are rearranged by the child in his play and by
the artist in his creation. The difference between these
and day-dreaming is that the latter entails a degree
of wish-fulfilment that moves in the direction of neuro-
sis or psychosis; but the differences appear to be of
degree not kind: “... a piece of creative writing, like
a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for,
what was once the play of childhood.” The elaboration
of these insights by the various psychoanalytic schools,
particularly by Jung and Rank, is immensely detailed.
And it is but a step from these to a great variety of
perspectives advanced by existentialist and phenome-
nological writers on aesthetics who make a great deal
of the “child's vision.”

This brings us close to the notion of “aesthetic sur-
face” (D. W. Prall, Aesthetic Analysis, New York,
1929) and “sheer appearance” (S. Langer, Philosophy
in a New Key
..., Cambridge, Mass., 1942). Again,
the emphasis here is on the avoidance of conceptual
rigidity, allowing the object to speak to imagination,
a playing with the possible things the aesthetic object
might be, as in Dada for example. These illustrate the
tendency in art and play for forms and structures to
be explored and exploited more than the specific con-
tent of the artwork or game; much is made of the
paradoxical status of “commitment” in the sense that
play and aesthetic experience are contemplative, i.e.,
they do not require that what is encountered be trans-
lated into action, yet they furnish a rich stock of
paradigm situations in largely vicarious experience that
is in fact deployed where knowledge and action are
called for. The “high seriousness” of play and aesthetic
immersion is one of the ways in which many thinkers
have tried to give expression to this phenomenon; and
it derives from the dual capacity of art to be directly
an end-in-itself yet indirectly a means to irrelevant or
seemingly opposed ends.


G. Boas, The Cult of Childhood (London, 1966).
R. Caillois, Man, Play and Games (New York, 1961). R. G.
Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford, 1938). B. Croce,
Aesthetic (London, 1922). M. Dessoir, Aesthetik und all-
gemeine Kunstwissenschaft in den Grundzügen
1906). J. Dewey, Art as Experience (New York, 1934). C. J.
Ducasse, The Philosophy of Art (New York, 1929).
S. Freud, “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” in Standard
Vol. IX., trans. James Strachey (London, 1959). K.
Groos, The Play of Man, trans. E. L. Baldwin (New York,
1901). J. M. Guyau, The Problems of Contemporary Aes-
(Los Angeles, 1947). J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, A
Study of the Play-Element in Culture
(Boston, 1950). Im-
manuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard
(London, 1892; New York, 1951). Arthur Koestler, The Act
of Creation
(London and New York, 1964). A. L. Kroeber,
Anthropology (New York, 1948). K. Lange, Das Wesen der
(Berlin, 1901). H. Noack, “Das Spiel: über die Ver-
suche seiner Erklärung und die Aufgaben seiner Sinn-
deutung,” Zeitschrift für Aesthetik, 27 (1933), 97-131.
Pauly-Wissowa, Reallexikon des klassischen Altertums, arti-
cle “Spiel”. C. S. Peirce, Selected Writings, ed. P. P. Wiener
(New York, 1958). Hugo Rahner, Man at Play (New York,
1967). Friedrich Schiller, Naive and Sentimental Poetry and
On the Sublime, trans. J. A. Elias (New York, 1966). Winfried
Sdun, “Zum Begriff des Spiels bei Kant und Schiller,”
Kant-Studien, 57 (1966), 500-18. Herbert Spencer, Principles
of Psychology
(London, 1870-72).


[See also Comic; Creativity in Art; Culture; Education;
Empathy; Happiness and Pleasure; Primitivism; Utopia;
Wisdom of the Fool.]