Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.35

Alexander Aichele, Philosophie als Spiel. Platon-Kant-Nietzsche.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2000.  Pp. 195.  ISBN 3-05-003512-9.  EUR 49.80.  

Reviewed by Dirk t. D. Held, Connecticut College (
Word count: 1971 words

According to Xenophanes (D-K B 31) mortals can never grasp the truth even if they unwittingly stumble on it. We can respond in three ways. Deny it; agree and retreat into scepticism; or adopt epistemic humility and give up rational certainty. Xenophanes chose the third (D-K B 18). Alexander Aichele in his revised Halle dissertation argues that the resolution to do without certainty comprises a philosophical tradition found in the Presocratics, Plato, Kant and Nietzsche, adding that it emerges in the twentieth century through the later Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Gadamer. (Resonances also turn up in contemporary Anglo-American dismissals of foundationalism and debates over the limits of philosophy.) Nietzsche is the guiding light for this study, and the three figures in Aichele's title are deployed to support the thesis that the Nietzschean goal of ending metaphysics has deep roots in western philosophy. Much of the discussion of Nietzsche focuses on his response to the Greeks. The metaphor of philosophy as Spiel, that is game, play or contest (which terms I will use somewhat unsystematically), is taken from Nietzsche who characterizes this as an activity well suited to "free spirits."

Aichele begins his project by examining Heraclitus' fragment B 52 which he considers "paradigmatic" for Heraclitean thought. This fragment states that time/lifetime (Aiôn) is a child playing at draughts and that kingship belongs to the child. How is that? Heraclitus' well-known obscurity and fondness for polysemy attest to constrictions on language's efficacy and stability. The many paradoxes on the unity of opposites, a feature of the logos itself, oblige Heraclitus' listener or reader to concede that unity (and the logos) are not expressible in bipolar propositions which are either completely true or completely false. Aichele concludes that Heraclitus is a philosopher who destabilizes human claims to knowledge by exposing the intrinsically problematic status of language. Heraclitus adopts an Apollonian mantic style utilizing gnomic statements paradoxical in content. He says in fragment B 31 that the god at Delphi neither reveals nor hides, but gives signs. The oracle, which has associations with Dionysus -- that god with a penchant for uniting oppositions as well as inciting frenzy, proffers a mix of directness and distancing allusion. Hermeneutic skill alone does not suffice to exhaust the possible meanings of Apollonian or Heraclitean gnomai. Consequently neither the suppliant to the oracle nor anyone seeking wisdom from Heraclitus can forego the act of interpretation if meaning is to be derived from the received signs.

Success demands more than skill in the child's game as well. The child in fragment B 52 plays pesseia or draughts, a board game which employs dice. The game has no necessary outcome, and a given move can bring opposite results at different times. Uncertainty is inherent in playing the game which can be evaluated only on completion. What is true for assessing the game is true for assessing a life guided by the oracle since uncertainty is an inevitable residue of interpretation. Indeterminacy presses down on the games of both life and art, and we mortals have to play them as best we can.

At Phaedrus 276e the philosopher is said to play the most beautiful game (paidia) of all. Play is hardly an overlooked topic in the literature on Plato. Its prominence raises the question of whether Plato thought his dialogues were adequate for communicating serious philosophical thoughts. The prevalence of Platonic play also supports the case that he is a non-dogmatic philosopher.1 Aichele refines Thomas Szlezák's reading of Socrates' metaphor of the rational farmer selecting and planting seeds at Phaedrus 276b. Whereas Szlezák posited a polarity between activities that do and do not have a yield, between writing wanting in seriousness and the seriousness of oral dialectic, Aichele insists that Plato draws no hard and fast distinction between play and seriousness. Texts written by the true philosopher are recognizable as Spiel, to be justified by their beauty. For this reason when the genuine philosopher undertakes to write he must make himself a poet. Writing uses images, and even the language of the wise man can only intimate or indicate. It cannot convey clear or decisive evidence because language clothes true being without capturing it propositionally. This compels the philosopher to resort to myth.

Aichele argues that the Platonic dialogue is a deceptive type of poetry, specifically drama. It is the imitation of a live discussion, an image of the external circumstances wherein one moves towards knowledge. Philosophy for Plato is activity, an ongoing process whose goal, truth, is not explicable through propositions and cannot be adequately expressed in language. Externalized in the philosopher's play of speech and writing, language remains severed from truth. The sense of play is deepened by Plato's use of the mask of irony. Platonic play therefore forces us to reflect on philosophy's self-deception over its capacity for grasping the truth. The genuine dialectician has insight into non-propositional knowledge and its ineffability, but, when the philosophical writer proceeds to the act of imitating live discussion, he must do so in the form of play or game. Hence no text communicates truth directly.

The significance Aichele gives to play allows him to rescue his Plato from what otherwise might be a plunge into scepticism. His depiction of Plato will not win over everyone, and those diffident towards the Tübingen commitment to an "unwritten" Platonic philosophy will likely be unsympathetic. Nonetheless Aichele advances a consistent argument which should be considered in the evolving debate regarding the nature and function of the dialogue form. A limitation in Aichele's presentation is the near total exclusion from his analysis of works of Plato other than the Phaedrus. The reader would like to see whether the "radical metaphysical structure" he discerns stands up when applied to perhaps less tractable parts of the Platonic corpus.

Play is not likely the first thing to cross our minds when we reflect on the Prussian born Kant, the stern philosopher of duty and the Categorical Imperative. Aichele's study is limited to the Critique of Judgement, a fundamental text for German Romanticism. This work is distinguished by its treatment of judgements of taste which by their nature are non-cognitive. When we exercise judgements about empirical matters we make use of cognitive concepts, doing so correctly or incorrectly, but judgements of taste are subjective and grounded in feelings of pleasure. That is, they depend on a "non-cognitive affective response."2 The object of pleasure is not conceptualized, although it is treated as suitable for conceptualization and is presented for the mind's scrutiny through the faculty of imagination.3 Imagination establishes an expansive realm of freedom for Kant, who designates as play (Spiel) the activity of the imaginative faculty. The exercise of imaginative power enables the autonomous human subject to aspire to freedom even within a world governed by causal laws.

Kant's arguments in the Critique of Judgement are subtle, complex, and open to more than one interpretation. If I understand Aichele correctly, he holds that the free play of imaginative power schematizes but without looking to an idea (Begriff) and without employing the Kantian categories. Since ideas are not part of its activity imagination cannot become knowledge (Erkenntniss). Instead, the outcome of aesthetic reflection is understanding (Verstehen). There is a kind of lawfulness to understanding, yet aesthetic judgements are free since they are not bound to some single determinate logical function. We can freely choose our principles. The process is dynamic and only after the fact does categorization take place. The reasoning activity itself, not the outcome, is at the heart of aesthetic judgement. Aichele points out that for Kant the distinction between play and serious transaction (Geschaft) depends on the absence or presence of a specific goal. The free play (freies Spiel, a phrase Aichele denies is redundant) of pure aesthetic judgement is an activity without a determinate goal. Even so this activity promotes beauty, which in turns promotes human life. Beauty is made possible not by logical judgements or judgements of reason but through the free play of aesthetic judgement.

The importance of play and contest to Nietzsche's work has been widely discussed. Aichele's specific interest here is its relation to language. The fundamental deception which language brings about is the imposition of a conceptual order on the free flow of becoming. This outlook lies at the heart of Nietzsche's reading of Heraclitus B 52: it privileges becoming over being. Nietzsche saw in the fragment a Heraclitean advance from war to game and contest. Aichele notes Nietzsche's interest in the dominance of the agon in Greek culture, including his view that dialectic and rhetoric constituted a new kind of agon. Nietzsche interpreted the agon as the culture-driven repression of natural human drives. Thus Achilles' rage is a reversion to a latent precultural condition. The agon serves the function for Nietzsche of providing the means for portraying life as a non-teleological, purely aesthetic phenomenon.

For Nietzsche, Socratic dialectic is a new but false agon because it is no longer undirected but seeks positive results. Socrates forsakes indifference to ends -- playing the game for its own sake -- for the earnestness that Nietzsche proclaimed should be removed from philosophy. This causes the rich and full possibilities of phenomenal experience to be lost to the constrictions of form and logic.4 In other words, Socrates subordinated the aesthetic to the teleological, and philosophy in his hands becomes goal-directed moral philosophy striving for human betterment. But becoming cannot be captured propositionally since it is by nature ineffable. The movement of becoming can only be captured in the form of agonal play. Play is an activity which lacks any grounding outside itself. It is an autonomous, non-moral phenomenon. The only order belonging to the world of becoming and appearances is wholly aesthetic.

Aichele argues that Plato without Socrates devises yet another kind of agon. Plato is said to restore the original agonal impulse to philosophy, and his dialectic becomes a pleasure filled game. This Plato has no system and lives on artfulness. Thus is Nietzsche strangely likened to a Platonist, but only after Plato along with Kant had been radicalized by Nietzsche to establish an understanding of philosophy as a means of constructing the world through language. Nietzsche stresses the metaphorical nature of language, its separateness from what is and its autonomous set of rules. Aichele thus puts forward the case that Nietzsche's break with metaphysics is the work of his Sprachkritik.

The ground of life in Nietzsche's view resides in the spontaneous play of imaginative power. We fight the contest of life through language, through the artistic, world-making activities of poetry and philosophy. There are artistic, linguistic, even logical rules but there is no one specific set of rules to be followed. Hence the spirit is free. The criterion of value for whatever rules are adopted and for whatever worlds are constructed is their beauty. Aichele summarizes with a free and (he suggests) Nietzschean paraphrase of the Heraclitus fragment with which he began. World-building is an act of playing which using language destroys worlds, and in accordance with its own rules builds anew for itself ... and invites [us] to play using these rules. The philosopher is the only world creator.

Aichele turns to texts of Heraclitus, Plato, Kant and Nietzsche to advance a (Nietzschean) thesis of what philosophy should be. He is quite open about his intentions in this regard, so it would be unfair to chide him for presenting a partial view of his historical subjects.

The vision which Aichele draws from his examination of Plato, Kant and Nietzsche is not that philosophy should isolate itself from the world in pointless speculations but that the activity of philosophy will enable us to keep open a space in which the mind can freely imagine alterative forms of knowledge and design alternative ways of acting. This is a freedom the world cannot afford to abandon.


1.   See for example Rosemary Desjardins, "Why Dialogues? Plato's Serious Play" in Charles Griswold edit. Platonic Writings Platonic Readings New York 1988
2.   R. Hopkins, "Kant, Quasi-realism, and the Autonomy of Aesthetic Judgement", European Journal of Philosophy 9, 2001, p. 169.
3.   Hopkins, p. 170.
4.   A similar theme is found in Paul Feyerabend's posthumously published Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being, Chicago 1999.

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:06, Friday, 03 April 2009