Approaching the Interworld of Play in Sports

Ejgil Jespersen
Department of Health Sciences (Biała Podlaska)
Józef Piłsudski University of Physical Education, Warsaw

Emily Ryall, Wendy Russell & Malcolm MacLean (red)
The Philosophy of Play
202 pages, inb.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2013
ISBN 978-0-415-53835-0
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The best of all worlds

Children want to play, and it is very good for their development. Thus, the playground appears to be an ideal place. This is what Darijana Hahn finds in a study of how the playground epitomizes visions of play, childhood, and societal longings.

If play is the best of all worlds, then it is no wonder that we are always longing to get back to play. But if play is also very good for the development of children, then it is certainly curious that life in schools is mostly characterized by a play gap.

Play is, furthermore, very often called for in the world of sport. It seems like we have almost lost the element of play in sports and, therefore, play is longed for everywhere, especially when we feel the pressure to adapt and conform to society. We want, rather, to escape society and go ‘back to nature’ (Rousseau) in terms of autotelic play.

‘Between Utopia and Arcadia’ is the title of Hahn’s essay on the playground, and this title captures nicely the scope of play between searching for Utopia – hopes for today’s children’s future – and longing for Arcadia – adult’s memories of the past.

A trilogy on the philosophy of play

Hahn’s essay is one of several inspiring contributions in a trilogy of works on the philosophy of play. Most of the in total 47 essays by philosophers, scholars or practitioners of play were initially presented at Philosophy at Play conferences in 2011, 2013 and 2015 held at the University of Gloucestershire, UK, to which the three editors – Emily Ryall, Wendy Russell and Malcolm Maclean – are affiliated. The 4th Philosophy at Play conference was also held at the University of Gloucestershire in 2017, while the 5th Philosophy at Play conference is scheduled to 2019 at the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague; see While looking forward to this event and awaiting the publication of some of the papers from the 4th Philosophy at Play conference, I want to review the first three volumes from a sportive point of view.

Malcolm MacLean, Wendy Russell & Emily Ryall (red)
Philosophical Perspectives on Play
224 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2016
ISBN 978-1-138-84143-7
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Play far out or?

The editors are introducing the discussion of philosophy of play by considering play as ‘a ubiquitous phenomenon that is often seen as beyond reason’, since – as they write – it is not work and often seen as childlike, which ‘places it either in the context of learning or diversion, meaning that it is paradoxically justified (for children) and condemned (for children and adults) in instrumentalist terms’ (I:1)[1]. In the educational perspective, the players are usually on a path to somewhere else.

If we reverse the perspective and take the player’s point of view, then there is a risk, they assert, that this approach ‘may imply support for the assumption that a defining and necessary characteristic of play is that it is freely chosen’ (I:2). However, if play is straightforward neither voluntary nor useful for other purposes, then we are left with an interesting philosophical problem of a phenomenon in between – like the one depicted by Hahn.

Some of the philosophically inspired essays are first movers in particular subjects like child care, gaming, literature, space and art while others are dealing with educational and ethical issues of play work; but most of them try to capture the basic ideas of leading scholars of play like Huizinga, Caillois, and Sutton-Smith or philosophers like Gadamer, Wittgenstein, Deleuze and several others, who are offering thought-provoking understandings of the phenomenon of play.

In this way, the three volumes are serving as a classic smorgasbord, where there is something for everyone. If one is missing play in life, then it is easy for ardent readers of The Philosophy of Play, Philosophical Perspectives on Play and The Philosophy of Play as Life to find or at the least imagine play in many spheres of life. When play is conceived as life, then play is everywhere – and nowhere.

Therefore, I will limit my attention to look at how the contributors to the three volumes of play are dealing with the question of play in the context of sport. Are there any signs of an “interworld” of play in sport somewhere between Utopia and Arcadia?

Wendy Russell, Emily Ryall & Malcolm MacLean (red)
The Philosophy of Play as Life
252 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2018
ISBN 978-1-138-21087-5
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Enchanting possibilities of sport

In the opening essay on ‘A Pluralist Conception of Play’ Randolph Feezell is asking if sport is an expression of play. He stresses a multi-faceted conception of play by distinguishing between play as behaviour or action, as motive, attitude, or state of mind, as form or structure, as meaningful experience and as an ontological distinctive phenomenon. Giving the multiplicity of possible approaches to play and the legitimacy of each to tell us something important about the concept of play, play is easily found under nearly every rock in the social landscape.

Even if professional sports are not accepted as play, since play for pay isn’t play but work, amateur sports may at the least qualify for being play since “the activities embody many properties that are associated with play: freedom, separateness, absorption, purposelessness, etc.” (I:28).

Likewise, it is often argued, that the widespread desire to win in sports is incompatible with the notion that play must be engaged in as an end in itself. But, as Feezell is stressing, “there is no essence of play” (I:28), and, therefore, he is favouring an open-ended account of play without, however, conflating sport and play. He thinks, rather, that “sport is found in the neighbourhood of play” (I:29), and that we should “encourage the enchanting possibilities of sport, play, and life itself” (I:29).

Playful engagement

An open-ended account of play may also be considered as an open-minded account, in which play is not reduced to an end in itself in terms of a mindless state of affairs. Thus, Sandra Lynch, in her essay on ‘Philosophy, play and ethics in education’, is referring to the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who was distinguishing between ‘playful engagement’ and ‘play’ in order not to forget about attitudes of mind.

As already noted, play and work/professional sport is usually separated by saying that we are interested in play activity for its own sake, while in work it is the product or outcome of the activity which is of interest to us. In Dewey’s view, this creates a bad separation between process and product, between activity and achieved outcome.

The true distinction is not between an interest in activity for its own sake and interest in the external result of that activity, but between an interest in an activity just as it flows on from moment to moment, and an interest in an activity as tending to a culmination, to an outcome and therefore possessing a thread of continuity binding together its successive stages (Dewey in How we think, 1910, cited in II, 183).

A playful engagement in sport does not exclude a successful outcome just as sex is often associated with a happy end.

A playful engagement not in sport, but in doing an artwork of a moving athlete is also noticed by Ilinca Damian in her analysis of the classical Greek sculpture by Myron, the Discus Thrower, while Daniel A. Dombrowski’s understanding of sport’s general character of competitive play helps him to read Homer more insightfully. Sporting events are depicted at least three times in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey from the ancient Greek period about 3,000 years ago, ranging from sport as a type of pure play over competitive play, which involves a blend of seriousness and nonseriousness, to sport as an ultra-serious, even warlike affair.

Paidia in ludus

Competitive or agonic playfulness is also in focus in an essay by Imara Felkers, Ellen Mulder and Malcolm MacLean. They claim that we are physically active because we want to play, and that is why we remain homo ludens despite the exhortation to health through instrumentalized activity.

All sports belong to the category of agon, in which the attraction for the player is, according to Roger Caillois, ‘to have his superiority in a given area recognized” (II:126), but, in addition, Caillois is distinguishing between the Greek notions of paidia and ludus. Paidia means ‘play activities that children play’, while ludus is ‘complementary to and a refinement of paidia’ (II:126) by emerging into a desire to demonstrate skills explicitly within the rules of a given game.

While Caillois is putting paidia and ludus on a continuum that stresses linearity – ‘the paidia element is constantly decreasing while the ludus element is ever increasing’ – Felkers, Mulder and MacLean are looking for the potential for paidia in ludus by bringing the players back into the game.

According to Mary Midgley, games are not at all closed rule systems discontinuous with the life around them. Motives and reasons for playing are part of the ordinary meaning of a game, and there are a lot of features of a game that cannot be read about in rule books. Take, for example, the celebratory behaviour of an athlete after a scored point and the kind and degree of friendliness called for between players. Paidia

arises in the gaps the actuality of play finds in the formal rules of a game. (…) All sport activities are ludus, but it is paidia, the unregulated and unprepared form of bodily energy, that brings the player into play. It is this energy that expresses lust, fun and creativity (II:133).


If it is hard to recognize play in the ludus of rationally instrumental, agonic play, it may be because the players are not taken seriously due to sheer prejudice of the objective world of sport. Henning Eichberg is demonstrating such point of view when he compares the modern phenomenon of sport “to industrial production and its stressful competition for each centimetre, gram, second – citius, altius, fortius, as the Olympic motto goes (‘faster, higher, stronger’)” (III:210).

When looking for alternatives to alienation and acceleration, Eichberg claims that sport is part of the problem rather than a playful solution in terms of a time out in a world of stress: ‘Play and games themselves underlie social changes, and in this context, alienation also enters into the world. This is especially visible in the transformation from play to sport, which happened during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ (III:220).

While people from inside of the world of sport are usually fond of playing games, an outsider like Eichberg is certainly not taking a participant point of view. As a keen observer of changing patterns of bodily behaviour, he is, rather, freely looking for the slightest signs of chaos in the institutionalized order of sport. This spoilsport attitude may be interpreted as a sort of terror.

The composer Igor Stravinsky asserts that ‘the more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free’, and he confesses that he experiences ‘a sort of terror’ when he finds himself facing ‘the infinitude of possibilities… that everything is permissible’ while composing (II:171). In this perspective, ‘the real hindrance to freedom is not the rules but rather the set of infinite possibilities’ (II:171), as Damla Dönmez is claiming when writing about the paradox of rules and freedom in art.

The least possessive attitude

Play against the project-of-trying-to-be-God. This is Jean-Paul Sartre’s interpretation of play in the context of sport according to Rebecca Pitt in her essay on play and being, where she is dealing with a few notes on play in the existential philosopher’s study of Being and Nothingness from 1943.

The project-of-trying-to-be-God has a role-model in the Greek mythological hero Prometheus (meaning ‘forethought’), who is credited with the creation of man from clay, and who defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. Ever since there has been a widespread tendency to enable proficiency and control, progress and civilization in an appropriative manner.

Play as a phenomenon of being-in-itself, however, is not – without further action – part of this serious endeavour, but is, rather, opposing forethought. Play as a happening may even be a potential threat to the absolute exercise of freedom. In any case, for Sartre play ‘appears to be the least possessive attitude’ (I:114), although ‘it is seldom that play is pure of all appropriative tendency’ (I:115). In this way, the instrumentalization of play for learning and progress is hard to avoid completely.

Sport in which ‘there is always (…) an appropriative component’ (I:116), is, thus, a powerful expression of the transcendence of play, but most often a playful attitude has, nevertheless, not simply vanished. If sport is a demonstration of the limits to absolute proficiency, one can even explain sport as a mysterious play of the world.

Play in between

If we are not the playthings of gods, but ready to be taken by play in, among other things, sports, then we are neither objects nor subjects. A richer understanding of the concept and nature of play thus points towards of a notion of an ‘interworld’ like the one Merleau-Ponty has unfolded in his rejection of a subject-object dualism. The interworld is where objects and subjects intersect, merge and are transformed. When play is localized in between, say, inertia and pure spontaneity, it is also understandable why play is so often characterized by lived ambiguity and a lot of paradoxes. Play is transcending our usual way of reasoning by threatening our quest for freedom without ending in necessity. It really looks as if the best of all worlds is an interworld in terms of play mediating between subjects and objects, the self and others.

This is just my responsive reading of some of the essays in the comprehensive trilogy on philosophy of play, and I am sure that many other scholars and practitioners of play may be enchanted by reading here and there in this much welcome and highly commendable, and recommendable work of play and play of work. The Philosophy at Play conference organizers and book editors, Emily Ryall, Wendy Russell, and Malcolm Maclean deserve high praise indeed for their great efforts in reviving play.

Copyright © Ejgil Jespersen 2018

[1] In the references, “I” refers to The Philosophy of Play, “II” to Philosophical Perspectives on Play, and “III” to The Philosophy of Play as Life.


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