Bernard Suits: The Grasshopper

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein said ‘Don’t say “there must be something common or they would not be called ‘games'”- but look and see whether there is anything common to all.’

This is excellent advice, but Wittgenstein himself did not follow it. He famously declared that when it comes to games, instead of a definition, there is only a “complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.” Thus, Wittgenstein used games as an example par excellence that there are at best ” family resemblances” characterizing the definitions of most words, instead of necessary and sufficient conditions.

In his supremely witty and delightful book The Grasshopper:Games, Life, and Utopia, Bernard Suits takes up Wittgenstein’s advice and actually looks to see if it is possible to define games. Suit’s definition is as follows:

To play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity…playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

By engaging in brilliant parodies of Platonic dialogues, Suits runs through many counter-examples and deftly defends his definition against the objection that it is too broad or too narrow. I would only be spoiling the book if I attempted to summarize some of the pithy and playful dialogues, so I can only suggest that you read it yourself! I leave you with a quote from Simon Blackburn, who says says that Suits “engages not only Wittgenstein but human life itself at the highest level, in a book that challenges philosophical orthodoxies, while all the time flowing like honey.”

Normal Geras has a good review of it here and Nigel Warburton has a shorter review of it here



Filed under Philosophy

11 responses to “Bernard Suits: The Grasshopper

  1. You might be interested in my comments about The Grasshopper.

  2. Thanks for the link, you make some valid points.

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  8. This reminds me of the attempts to define a number — for instance how do you define ‘twelve’? The usual answer is that it’s the number following eleven, which, with a little math, isn’t quite as dodgy as it seems.

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