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October 4, 2006 » 7:50 am

More on Spiel

Mark Oehlert dug up the reference on play he cited at last week’s CIA workshop. (Thanks, Mark!) It’s a quote from David Miller taken from a Smithsonian exhibit on “Invention at Play” a few years ago. Miller tells the following anecdote about the Heidelberg philosopher, Hans Georg Gadamer:    (LAK)

Not long after the book’s publication, Gadamer came to be a visiting professor at Syracuse University where I was teaching. Every Thursday afternoon, after his seminar on Aristotle, he and I would go to a local country club bar to drink German beer and to talk. I knew that he had read my book, and it is not difficult to imagine my growing anxiety when week after week went by without him saying a word to me about it.    (LAL)

Finally, after many weeks–what seemed an eternity to a young professor in the thrall of a wise mentor–he turned to the topic of my book. I was full of fear and trepidation, as it turned out that well I should have been. He said: “Professor Miller, you almost got the point!” I was crushed! What was wrong? It did little good for him to aver that it was not entirely my fault. “English,” he explained, “has a doublet for the idea: play, the verb, and game, the noun, are different words in English, whereas German says it with one and the same word, ein Spiel spielen, as does French, jouer un jeu.” So, he explained to me that I had wrongly thought that play has something to do with fun and games. “Very American!” he said in a way that was not at all reassuring.    (LAM)

So what was the point of play? Gadamer asked me if I rode a bicycle. I said that I did. Then he asked me about the front wheel, the axle, and the nuts. He remarked that I probably knew that it was important not to tighten the nuts too tightly, else the wheel could not turn. “It has to have some play!” he announced pedagogically and a little exultantly, I thought. And then he added, ” . . . and not too much play, or the wheel with fall off.” “You know,” he said, “Spielraum.”    (LAN)

So that was it: it is not a matter of games (which are the domain of specialists and not of bricoleurs). It is rather a matter of what we, in English, call “leeway.” “Lee” is the sheltered side of any object, so it is the side of a ship that is turned away from the wind. The point is to have som leeway, some play, as in a bicycle wheel, a little space, some distance, Gelassenheit: education and teaching without why.    (LAO)

Alex Schroeder and Christoph Sauer were right (of course): I must have misinterpreted Mark’s original point. Spiel has two meanings in German, and although both meanings apply to the English word “play” as well, the second usage is not as commonly used. That said, I’m glad I posed the question the way I did, because it turned up Rick Thomas’s very interesting reference on Leik.    (LAP)

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