Part I: Gadamer on Play, the Play of Art, and the Reality of the Work in its Presentation

Gadamer, of course, is not the first thinker to highlight play as basic to human experience. Johan Huizinga in his famous work, Homo Ludens, attempts to show how play permeates all aspects of culture: art, politics, religion, and even warfare.[1] Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger also have much to say about play, art, and the significant of both to human life. Like Huizinga, Gadamer too understands play as fundamental to human experience and believes that a phenomenological examination of its structure will yield important insights into the nature of art as such and will thus likewise provide a way to better understand contemporary art and its relation to classical art. One key aspect of play is the back and forth of repeated movement. We observe this movement frequently in children’s games, such as when two children toss or bounce a ball back and forth. Here the movement to and fro is not coordinated for some further aim or goal. In contrast, the movement of my arm up and down when hammering a nail has the particular goal of bringing forth a bookshelf.Kasimir Malevich "Composition with the Mona Lisa"

In addition, the movement involves a certain flexibility and freedom, which Gadamer links to Aristotle’s discussion of self-movement. That is, for Aristotle self-movement is an essential characteristic of living beings. Extending Aristotle’s thoughts to the concept of play, Gadamer states that play as form of self-movement “does not pursue any particular end or purpose so much as movement as movement, exhibiting so to speak a phenomenon of excess, of living self-representation.”[2] Our play is a self-manifestation beyond the “necessary” of our aliveness! Of course, we encounter such playful, non-purposive movement in the animal world, whether in the to and fro flight patterns of butterflies or the back and forth playfulness of young puppies. However, in Gadamer’s view, human play involves the distinctively human capacity of reason, “which allows us to set ourselves aims and pursue them consciously, and to outplay this capacity for purposive rationality.”[3] In other words, human play is marked by our ability to create and stipulate rules and order our movements such that they are invested with our self-imposed aims and goals. For example, a child may challenge himself to see how many times in a row he can juggle three balls in a certain pattern before one falls to the ground. When the child beats his own record, he is pleased with himself; when he falls short of his own “top score,” he is disappointed and often repeats the activity until he is satisfied with his performance.

Gadamer further describes and clarifies the notion of nonpurposive rationality in human play as a form of self-representation.

The end pursued is certainly a nonpurposive activity, but this activity is itself intended. It is what the play intends. In this fashion we actually intend something with effort, ambition, and profound commitment. This is one step on the road to human communication; […] The function of the representation of play is ultimately to establish, not just any movement whatsoever, but rather the movement of play determined in a specific way. In the end, play is thus the self-representation of its own movement.[4]

But Gadamer is quick to add that his definition of the movement of play is not simply about self-representation or self-expression; play also involves a “playing along with” and thus a participation in the movement of play on the part of those observing. Whether this takes the form of a mother watching her children toss a ball back and forth or a baseball fan jumping out of his seat to see whether the batter’s hit cleared the outfield wall, there is genuine sense of “playing with” that occurs for those observing the game or playful activity. The audience member, in other words, is not a distanced spectator but an active participant, who takes part in the play of the game.

Of course, the play of art is more complex than the play of games; yet Gadamer sets the stage for connecting the two by highlighting an important common feature of play: “namely, the fact that something is intended as something, even if it is not something conceptual, useful, or purposive, but only the pure autonomous regulation of movement.”[5] Rather than conclude—as many aesthetic theorists and art critics have done—that in modern art what we have is a renunciation of the unity of the work, Gadamer affirms the work’s “hermeneutic identity,” which is an identity that necessarily involves difference and makes it possible for multiple variations of the work to be revealed over time. That is, for Gadamer, the being of a work of art is inseparable from its presentations, as the various presentations allow the identity of the work to come forth; it is part of the work’s being, as Gadamer says, “to be dependent on self-presentation.”[6] Thus, in every presentation of a work—even a distorted presentation—the identity of the work is not destroyed. In the case of a distorted work, we know it as the (malformed) structure of the work in view—even if we judge it a failed or poor presentation. Every presentation has a relation to the work’s structure and must “submit itself to the criterion of correctness that derives from it.”[7] Furthermore, even though the same work is repeated in each new presentation, the presentations are not a mere “copy” or strict reduplication of the so-called “original.” Here we have the phenomenon of repetition in presentation that, like the phenomenon of play, allows for flexibility and freedom that does not negate the work’s unity or identity but is instead an intrinsic feature of the work’s ontology.[8] The work comes to light, in other words, only in its presentations, performances, or interpretations.


[1] See, for example, Robert Anchor, “History and Play: Johan Huizinga and His Critics,” History and Theory 17 (1978): 63­–93.

[2] Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful, 23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 24.

[6] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 122.

[7] Ibid., 122.

[8] See also, Donatella Di Cesare, Gadamer: A Philosophical Portrait, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013, esp. 59­–60. As Di Cesare explains, “[a]ny new identity that comes to light is an identity that forms itself only in difference. Thus difference becomes indispensable for identity” (60).