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The Grasshopper in Suits (10)

Posted in Friendly Philosophy

Chapter 7 begins with an objection that Skepticus derives from a paper by Aurel Kolnai. The import of the objection is that competitive games can have no coherent definition. And if they can have no coherent definition, then the Grasshopper’s definition of games must be wrong when applied to competitive games (pp. 69-70).

We’re Gonna Talk about What Now?

In general, I think it’s best to move from the more specific to the more general. Want to understand what mammals are? Start by studying a particular species of mammal. Want to know what love is? Start by studying a particular loving couple’s relationship.

But in this case, it feels like conceptual whiplash to me. Suits has us ask, “Does the Grasshopper’s definition of games work for this particular competitive game?” and answers, “It does!” . . . only to ask, “But is a definition of competitive games even possible?” We just saw that it was, didn’t we?

In other words, I think we have another case The Grasshopper‘s occasionally-poor organization. And not only is chapter 7 out of place in the sequence of chapters — the topics within chapter 7 don’t seem to follow any sequence. Nevertheless, they are all potential or apparent paradoxes raised by thinking about competitive games.

The Main Objection

The problem with which chapter 7 begins is one I personally struggle with. Playing a competitive game requires you to, apparently, have two contradictory goals: to work with your opponent in playing a good, fun game . . . and to devote all your energy to working against/defeating your opponent (pp. 74-75).

This tension, however, is not a contradiction, the Grasshopper argues. It does not require us both to want something and to want the negation of that same thing. Instead, it requires us to want to play a game with someone (which they also want) and to be the winner of that game (which they also want for themselves, but not for you). And if it is not a contradiction, then playing competitive games involves no paradox (pp. 75-76).

Other Paradoxes with Competitive Games

One of Those “Paradoxes

The Grasshopper admits, however, that there can be a conflict between wanting to play a game with another person and wanting to win that game, since winning a game brings it to an end. That is, if you succeed in winning a game you immediately start failing to playing the game, since the game is now over (pp. 78-79).

The reason this isn’t a problem, the Grasshopper argues, is that a person who both wants to play and wants to win wants to win well. They don’t want to win too quickly or too easily (pp. 77-80).

Another one of them

The Grasshopper winds up the chapter with a discussion of whether it is paradoxical that in games, even losing is a kind of success. After all, if you finish the game, that is an accomplishment. Many other things could have happened that could have either knocked you out of the game or interrupted the game such that it could not be completed (p. 80).

The putative reason for bringing this up seems to be the following: the Grasshopper is worried that someone might think — after listening to the Grasshopper — that sexual intercourse counts as a competitive game. While the Grasshopper is able to describe some parallels between the two sorts of activity (pp. 79-80), I don’t see any reason to think his account would entail that the two are the same.

Some Comments

The accomplishment of the final section, I think, is to deepen the Grasshopper’s analysis of game playing, rather than to defend that analysis. The new insight we obtain from this section is that we have multiple levels of goals, and thus multiple levels of success, in playing a competitive game.

Our first goal is to be playing the game (engaging in the activity created by the rules). This is a goal in the “present continuous” or “present progressive” tense, we might say. We achieve this goal at each moment we are actually playing the game. (Compare this to what Aristotle says about activities that are their own ends, in Nicomachean Ethics I [see also his discussion of pleasure in Nicomachean Ethics X.4, and of motion/action in Metaphysics IX.7].)

Our second goal is to achieve the goal of the game: we want to win the game. However, this involves an implicit goal “between” the playing and the winning of the game: to complete the game. And just as both the game’s winner and loser achieve the first goal so long as they are playing it, both achieve the second insofar as they see the game through to the end (without getting thrown out, injured, etc.).

So, we have three goals: to be playing the game (achieved at each moment during the game), to play the whole game (achieved by playing the game all the way through to its end), and to win the game (achieved by reaching the game’s goal). And fulfilling the second and third goals count as accomplishments, even if it’s winning that is the ultimate accomplishment.

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