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The Study of Play (April 2019): Philosophy of Play

By Charles Kroncke and Ronald F. White

Philosophy of Play

Philosophers often disagree on what they do and how they do it. Since the time of Plato, philosophers have quibbled over the meanings of words and how those meanings affect arguments and theories.  For playtime philosophers, two fundamental questions still dominate research: What is play? How is playful activity distinguished from non-play?

Luther Halsey Gulick’s A Philosophy of Play appeared early in the 20th century, but it remains useful (and available, in reprint and online) and should be considered a key resource. But the most rigorous treatment is The Philosophy of Play, edited by Emily Ryall, Wendy Russell, and Malcolm MacLean, which comprises essays that explore play in the context of the history of philosophy and bring Plato, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Sartre into the discussion.

Many playtime philosophers come down on the side of natural law theory, which argues that child’s play is natural and therefore good, and that recent forms of play have drifted away from this natural foundation. Nathaniel Cross Gindele’s doctoral dissertation A Naturalistic Philosophy of Play, which can be downloaded from the internet through Duke University Libraries, is an excellent and useful example of applied natural law philosophy. Finally, some playtime philosophers are interested in aesthetics, and they explore the relationships between play and the human sense of beauty. Those interested in the aesthetics of play will find Mihai Spariosu’s Dionysus Reborn: Play and the Aesthetic Dimension in Modern Philosophical and Scientific Discourse a good, albeit somewhat dated, starting point.