Blogging through Truth and Method, post 4: Play as the Clue to Ontological Explanation (101-134)

Gadamer’s analysis of aesthetics will be oriented around the notion of play, but he wants to liberate the concept from the subjective bearing that it finds in the work of Kant and Schiller. Were we thinking subjectively, we would talk about play being a state of mind of the player herself; instead, Gadamer is interested in “the mode of being of the work of art” (102) itself, which exists apart from the creator or the consumer. (Side note: I hate calling the people who experience a work of art its consumers, but when we’re talking about art across media, I don’t know of a better word to use. Any suggestions?)

He begins by examining the metaphorical uses of the word play, as in “the play of light.” What is meant here is movement without specific purpose—play without a player. This metaphorical usage gets closer to the notion of the playing of games than Kant’s subjective analysis; and in fact what is most important about it is specifically that no player is required, that “the actual subject of play is obviously not the subjectivity of an individual who, among other activities, also plays but is instead the play itself” (104). This will be true of human games, as well—and, of course, of art.

Games can never be played alone, strictly speaking, though this doesn’t mean that a person has to be playing with another person. But it does mean that “In order for there to be a game, there always has to be, not necessarily literally another player, but something else with which the player plays and which automatically responds to his move with a countermove” (105-106). The game, in other words, plays the player even as the player plays the game; to play a game is to submit oneself to the structure and the rules of the game that one plays. It is to cede one’s freedom–or at least a part of it–to the spirit of the game.

Since all play is performing a task, all play is ultimately self-presentation—and it is at least potentially presentation for the sake of someone else. In traditional games, of course, there is no audience, and Gadamer even says that performing a game for an audience can destroy the game, as we know from professional sports and televised singing competitions. But art, from its origins in religious ritual to its more secular modern manifestations, is a game performed for the sake of an audience. The audience is in this sense the real player of the game of art—the actual actors in the play, the scriptwriter, the set designers are closer to the tokens in a board game than to the children playing it.
Transformation into Structure

The change that Gadamer has been describing can be called “transformation into structure” (110). The play of the work of art transforms the people involved in that play. He has chosen his words carefully here, for the work of art does not alter them, which would involve accidental changes within a larger static structure of being; it transforms them, which means that it turns them suddenly into something else.

The player, then, no longer has his existence in himself; he becomes defined by the work of art. The actor disappears into the role, and if I am reading Gadamer correctly, the spectator also disappears into the play. It is at this point that the play is capable of bringing forth truth: “It produces and brings to light what is otherwise constantly hidden and withdrawn” (112). This is Heidegger’s truth as alētheia, uncovering, and Gadamer is giving art an important job to do.

His fundamental precept, as should be clear from all this talk of play, is that art cannot be understood apart from performance. This is especially true of drama and music, which do not really even exist until they are embodied by performers. It is in the performance that structure and play come together and create each other.

Every performance is, of course, an interpretation, but no interpretation is ever ultimately free, just as no playing of a game is ever ultimately free. Just as the person who plays a game is bound to the rules of the game, the performer is in a limited sense bound to the tradition of performance:

But this has nothing to do with blind imitation. Although the tradition created by a great actor, director, or musician remains effective as a model, it is not a brake on free creation, but has become so fused with the work that concern with this model stimulates an artist’s creative interpretative powers no less than does concern with the work itself. The performing arts have this special quality: that the works they deal with are explicitly left open to such re-creation and thus visibly hold the identity and continuity of the work of art open towards its future. (119)

Interpretation is thus simultaneously free and bound—one cannot do just anything, but neither is one bound to some fixed and canonical interpretation that determines all future interpretations. I got excited reading this part of the section because, once it’s applied to hermeneutics, Gadamer could offer an alternative to some interpretive methods that I am attracted to but which I find inadequate: formalism, poststructuralism, and so on.

Art and Time

It is customary to think of the work of art in terms of timelessness, and Gadamer agrees that we should—but only inasmuch as we also think of it in terms of temporality. He reminds me here of Charles Baudelaire, who argues in “The Painter of Modern Life” that the role of the artist is always “to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the transitory.” The eternal must be sought—but it can be sought only within the transitory. Gadamer seems to be saying something quite similar.

Gadamer prefers to think of the timelessness and temporality of the work of art in terms of the festival—which exists to be endlessly repeated, but each repetition of which is different than all that came before. The nature of the festival is thus unity in multiplicity; it exists in order to be different in each iteration of its existence. This is also how drama works.

What’s more, the play exists in order to be presented to spectators—and yet it does not receive its essence from the spectators. It’s more accurate, in fact, to say that the spectators receive their essences from watching the play and that in watching they participate in it. Participation is a mode of “being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees” (125)—not in the sense of curiosity, where a person seeks only novelty and doesn’t care about the actual thing he’s chasing, but in the sense that the work of art he is participating in is the center of the experience.

Ultimately, the temporality of the work of art takes the form of contemporaneity, which must be distinguished from simultaneity. Simultaneity

simply means that several objects of aesthetic experience are all held in consciousness at the same time—all indifferently, with the same claim to validity. “Contemporaneity,” on the other hand, means that in its presentation this particular thing that presents itself to us achieves full presence, however remote its origin may be. (127)

To put this in literary-critical terms: What matters in the experience of art is neither the creator of the art nor the person who experiences it; what matters is the artwork itself, which centers both of these others around itself and, needless to say, recreates both of them in this recentering.
Tragedy as the Representative Art Form

The tragic goes beyond formal tragedy; in fact, it arguably goes beyond art itself. If we look for the essence of tragedy across the centuries, we will find that no stable essence itself; instead, “the phenomenon presents itself in an outline drawn together in a historical unity” (129). Even so, Aristotle’s Poetics is the place to look, for it contains an overview of the entire outline.

Gadamer is immensely pleased that Aristotle defines tragedy as drama that contains “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (1449b) because this definition puts the essence of tragedy on the spectator, which of course fits in with Gadamer’s own theories about art. But he doesn’t like the translations of ἐλεέω and φόβος as pity and fear; these terms are too subjective. In fact, ἐλεέω and φόβος are events that overwhelm the spectator—almost forms of sublimity.

Watching tragedy purges these events in the spectator. Once we get past its familiarity, this is an odd claim to make:

[B]eing overcome by misery and horror involves a painful division. There is a disjunction from what is happening, a refusal to accept that rebels against the agonizing events. But the effect of the tragic catastrophe is precisely to dissolve this disjunction from what is. It effects the total total liberation of the constrained heart. We are freed not only from the spell in which the misery and horror of the tragic fate had bound us, but at the same time we are free from everything that divides us from what is. (131)

The tragic events thus hand us back to ourselves; another way of saying this is that they allow us, as they allow the main character in a tragedy, to accept our fate. And fate is the right word, because what we accept is not a just punishment for the crimes of the hero but a punishment out of proportion with those crimes.

When we watch tragedy, we see our own lives in it; it hands our own stories to us, filtered through religious, historical, and aesthetic tradition. But this means that the writer of tragedies is writing out of this tradition as much or more than he is writing from his own imagination.


When I read the section about play as inherently "presentation," especially after Gadamer's warnings about spectator sports, I tended to take the metaphor less as presentation-to-audience and more as making-present.  In other words, the abstraction "basketball" is posterior, logically and phenomenologically, to all of the embodied moments in which somebody is playing basketball, whether that be a kid shooting alone in the suburbs or the Pacers and the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.  The distinction I came away with is between work, which is for-the-sake-of some product, and play, which does not have any final aim (even as the spectator sports attempt to define such an aim).