One of Aesop’s fables goes as follows:
The ants were spending a fine winter’s day drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food. The Ants inquired of him, “Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?’ He replied, “I had not leisure enough. I passed the days in singing.” They then said in derision: “If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supperless to bed in the winter.”Aesop, “The Ants and the Grasshopper,” trans. George Fyler Townsend
Aesop lived a century or two before Socrates. A couple thousand years later, a philosopher teaching in Canada, named Bernard Suits, wrote a book based on the fable above. It was published by the University of Toronto Press in 1978, but you can now also get it from Broadview Press.
Suits called his book, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, and that was probably the biggest mistake of his life. After all, no one is ever going to see the subtitle. All they’ll see is a book about grasshoppers. But I think it’s high time more people saw past the cover.
In what is now a strange move for a philosopher, Suits wrote The Grasshopper as a story modeled on Plato’s dialogues. And I would like to go through it, section by section.
We’ll start with the Preface.
Suits starts his Preface by saying Aesop was wrong about the grasshopper. While Aesop treated the grasshopper as “a model of improvidence,” Suits thinks the Grasshopper is “a working Utopian whose time has not yet come.” Indeed, the Grasshopper in Suits book will be the “exemplification . . . of the life most worth living” (p. ix).
To prove that such a life centers around playing games, Suits says the Grasshopper is going to have to give us a definition of games (p. ix). The problem with that, however, is that one of Wittgenstein‘s most famous contributions to philosophy is the idea that some concepts have no singular definition.
For example, while the 100m dash and a football match both involve competitive running, a game of poker is a different sort of competition. And while poker and solitaire both employ cards, it’s more difficult to see any competition in a game you play by yourself.
The word “game,” therefore, is not one you should hope to find a definition for. Everything we call a game is called a game not because it has some essential property that all other games share — but because it shares at least one property with at least one other thing we also call a “game.”
Suits, however, disagrees.
‘Don’t say,’ Wittgenstein admonishes us, ‘ “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 unexceptionable advice. Unfortunately, Wittgenstein himself did not follow it. He looked, to be sure, but because he had decided beforehand that games are indefinable, his look was fleeting, and he saw very little.Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper, p. x
That, my friends, is what we call a “burn.”
Next time, we’ll examine Chapter 1, where Suits begins his attempt to look longer and see more.