HOMO LUDENS by J. Huizinga

an outline by Neal Durando

I. Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon

Play is an active principle

Play is a constant over time and across species.

“In play there is something ‘at play’ which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action.  All play means something.”

Theories that explain play in terms of outlet for harmful impulse, of learning important (adult) activity.

Play is a totality centered on “fun”

All the above start from the assumption that play must serve something which is not play, that it must have some kind of biological purpose.

If any of them [these ideas] were really decisive it ought either to exclude all the others or comprehend them in a higher unity.

What, then, is the fun of play?  In intensity, absorption, power of meddening, lies the very essence, the primordial quality of play: tension, mirth, and fun.

“Fun” is a primary category of life.  You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God.  You can deny seriousness, but not play.

Play only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos.  The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation.

Play as a function of culture

Play existed before culture, “accompanying it and pervading it from the earliest beginnings right up to the phase of civilization we are now living in.

In the making of speech and language the spirit is continually “sparking” between matter and mind, as it were, playing with this wondrous nominative faculty.  Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest of metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words.  Thus in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature.

Myth...is a transformation or an “imagination” of the outer world, only here the process is more elaborate and ornate than is the case with individual words.  [Mythology] seeks to account for the world of phenomena by grounding it in the Divine.

Ritual [is performed] to serve to guarantee the well-being of the world, in a spirit of pure play truly understood.

As opposed to Seriousness and other categories

Play is not foolish.  It lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly....and equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil.

The more we try to make off the form we call “play” from other forms apparently related to it, the more the absolute independence of the play-concept stands out.

Can play be included in the aesthetic realm?  Many and close are the links that connect play with beauty.  All the same, we cannot say that beauty is inherent in play as such; so we must leave it at that: play is a fucntion of the living, but is not susceptible of exact definition either logically, biologically, or aesthetically.

Characteristics of Play

Play is voluntary.  By this quality of freedom alone, play marks itself off from the course of the natural process.

Play is superfluous.  The need for it is only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes it a need.  Only when play is a recognized cultural function--a rite, a ceremony--is it bound up with notions of obligation and duty.

Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.  It is rather a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own.  The “only pretending” quality of play betrays a consciousness of the inferiority of play compared with “seriousness”, a feeling that seems to be something as primary as play itself....this, however, does not prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome “only” feeling.

Play is disinterested: Not being “ordinary” life it stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites, indeed it interrupts the appetitive process.  It interprets itself as a temporary activity satisfying tin itself and ending there.  The purposes it serves are external to immediate material interests or the individual satisfaction of biological needs.

Play is secluded in locality and duration.  It is “played out” within certain limits of time and place.  It contains its own course and meaning.

While play is in progress all is movement, change, alternation, succession, association, separation.  Once played, it endures as a new-found creation of the mind, a treasure to be retained by the memory.  It is transmitted it becomes tradition.  It can be repeated at any time, whether it be child's play or a game of chess.  It holds good not only of play as a whole but also of its inner structure.  In nearly all the higher forms of play the elements of repetition and alternation (as in the refrain), are the warp and woof of fabric.

Play takes place on forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, allowed, within which special rules obtain.  All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Play creates order, is order.   Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection.  Play demand order absolute and supreme.  The least deviation from it “spoils the game”, robs it of it character and makes it worthless.  The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics.

There is an element of tension present.  Tension [here] means uncertainty, chanciness; a striving to decide the issue and so end it.  The player wants something to “go”, to “come off”; he wants to “succeed” by his own exertions.  Thought play as such is outside the range of good and bad, the element of tension imparts to it a certain ethical value in so far as it means a testing of the players prowess: his courage, tenacity, resources and, last but not least, his spiritual powers--his “fairness”; because, despite his ardent desire to win, he must still stick to the rules of the game.

Play proceeds by rules.  They determine what holds in the temporary world circumscribed by play.  The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt....as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses.

The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. (There is tension in becoming a potential spoil-sport).  By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others.  In the world of high seriousness, too, the cheat and the hypocrite have always had an easier time of it than the spoilsport, here called apostates, heretics, innovators, prophets, conscientious objectors, etc.  It sometimes happens, however, that the spoilsports in their turn make a new community with rules of its own.

Play exhibits community. A play-community generally tends to become permanent even after the game is over....there is a feeling of being “apart together” in a special situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.

It exhibits secrecy: Inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count.  The differentness and secrecy of play are most vividly expressed in dressing up.  Here the extra-ordinary nature of play reaches perfection.  The disguised or masked individual plays another part, another being.  He is another being [Ibsen after writing H.G.]

Summary: a free activity standing quite consciously aside ordinary life as being not serious, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.  It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.  It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.  It promotes the formation of social grouping which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.

Function of Play

As a contest for something or a representation of something.  These two function can unite in such a way that the game represents a contest, or else becomes a contest for the best representation of something.

Representation means display, and this may simply consist in the exhibition of something naturally given, before an audience.  If a bird accompanies this exhibition [of plumage] with dance-steps we have a performance, a stepping out of common reality into a higher order.  The child is making an image of something different, something more beautiful, or more sublime, or more dangerous than what he usually is.

The sacred performance is more than an actualization in appearance only, a sham reality; it is also more than a symbolical actualization-it is a mystical one...something invisible and inactual takes beautiful, actual, holy form.  The participants in the rite are convinced that the action actualizes and effects a definite beatification, brings about an order of things higher than that in which they customarily live.

The rite produces the effect whish is then not so much shown figuratively as actually reproduced in the action.  It is methectic “a helping-out of the action” rather than mimetic.

What are we to make of a mental process that begins with an unexpressed experience of cosmic phenomena and ends in an imaginative rendering of them in play?

Frobenius rejects as a vestige of obsolete thinking the tendency to explain every advance in culture in terms of a special purpose, a why, and a wherefore thrust down the throat of the culture-creating community.  “Tyranny of causality at its worst,” “Antiquated utilitarianism” he calls such a point of view.

Frobenius: heretofore unexpressed experience takes the form of a seizure.  “The creative faculty in a people as in the child or every creative person, springs from this state of being seized.”  The thrill...is condensed by reflex action, as it were, to poetic expression and art.  The mental road from aesthetic or mystical perception of cosmic order to ritual play remains as dark as before.

In the form and function of play, itself an independent entity which is senseless and irrational, man’s consciousness that he is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression.

Does the idea of Play extend to ritual?

We are accustomed to think of play and seriousness as an absolute antithesis.  It would seem, however, that this does not go to the heart of the matter.

The child plays in complete--we can well say, in sacred--earnest.  but it plays and knows that it plays. The ritual act has all the formal and essential characteristics of play which we enumerated above, particularly in so far as it transports the participants to another world.

Plato: I say that a man must be serious with the serious.  god alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him.  Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games and be of another mind from what they are at present...For they deem war a serious thing, though in war there is neither play nor culture worthy the name, which are the things we deem most serious.  Hence all must live in peace as well as they possibly can.  What, then, is the right way of living?  Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, signing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest.

The Platonic identification of play and holiness does not defile the latter by calling it play, rather it exalts the concept of play to the highest regions of the spirit.  In play we may move below the level of the serious, as the child does; but we can also move above it--in the realm of the beautiful and the sacred.

As we all know, one of the most important basic ideas with which every student of comparative religion has to acquaint himself is the following.  when a certain form of religion accepts a sacred identity between two things of a different order, say a human being and an animal, this relationship is not adequately expressed by calling it a symbolical correspondence as we conceive this.  The identity, the essential oneness of the two goes far deeper than the correspondence between a substance and its symbolic image.  It is a mystic unity.  The one has become the other. [Totemic power of art for the artist, putting objects to rest, owning them]


Characteristic differences in how the play-concept is expressed across languages

Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”.

All peoples play, and play remarkably alike; but their languages differ widely in their conception of play, conceiving it neither as distinctly nor as broadly as modern European languages do.

No matter what language we think in we have a constant tendency to tone down the idea of play to a merely general activity connected with play proper only by one of its various attributes, such as lightness, tension and uncertainty as to the outcome, orderly alternation, free choice, etc.

It is probably no accident that in Middle High German play (spiel) and its compounds were much favored in the language of the mystics; for certain domains of thought have a special demand for these hazy play-terms.  Compare Kant’s evident predilection for expressions like “the play of imagination”, “the play of ideas”, “the whole dialectical play of cosmological ideas”.

Who can deny that in all these concepts--challenge, danger, contest, etc.--we are very close to the play-sphere?  Play and danger, risk, chance feat--it is all in a single field of action where something is at stake.

The conceptual value of a word is always conditioned by the word which expresses its opposite.  For us, the opposite of play is earnest, also used in the more special sense of work; while the opposite of earnest can either be play or jesting, joking.

The need for a comprehensive term expressing “not-play” must have been rather feeble, and the various expressions for “seriousness” are but a secondary attempt on the part of language to invent the conceptual opposite of “play”....Play is a thing by itself.  The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness.  For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness.

VI. Playing and Knowing

Questions may be put demanding an answer. The competition may take the form of an oracle, a wager, a lawsuit, a vow or a riddle.  But in whatever shape it comes it is always play, and it is from this point of view that we have to interpret its cultural function.

In what does Knowing consist?

The orderly processing of things, decreed by the gods and maintained in being by ritual for the preservation of life and the salvation of man...is safeguarded by nothing more potently than by the knowledge of holy things, their secret names, and the origin of the world.

Competitions in esoteric knowledge are deeply rooted in ritual and form an essential part of it.

Archaic thought, brooding in rapture on the mysteries of Being, is hovering here over the border-line between sacred poetry, profoundest wisdom, mysticism and sheer verbal mystification....The poet-priest is continually knocking at the door of the Unknowable, closed to him as to us.


The riddle is a sacred thing full of secret power, hence a dangerous thing....A corollary of this is that it is accounted the highest wisdom to put  a riddle nobody can answer.


The answer to an enigmatic question is not found by reflection or logical reasoning.  It comes quite literally as a sudden solution--a loosening of the tie by which the questioner holds you bound.  The corollary of this is that by giving the correct answer you strike him powerless.  In principle there is only one answer to every question.  It can be found if you know the rules of the game.  These are grammatical, poetical, or ritualistic as the case may be...Should it prove that a second answer is possible, in accord with the rules but not suspected by the questioner, then it will go badly with him: e is caught in his own trap...Often the solution depends wholly on the knowledge of the secret or sacred names of things...

We are only concerned with the riddle...and its play-quality and its function in culture.

The riddle...was originally a sacred game and as such it cut clean across any possible distinction between play and seriousness.  It was both at once: a ritual element of the highest importance and yet essentially a game.  As civilization develops, the riddle branches out in two directions: mystic philosophy on the one hand and recreation on the other.  but in this development we must not think of seriousness degenerating into play or of play rising to the level of seriousness.  It is rather that civilization gradually brings about a certain division between two modes of mental life which we distinguish as play and seriousness respectively, but which originally formed a continuous mental medium wherein that civilization arose.