Epistemic Status: Really, really informal
After being told I really need to read Finite and Infinite Games for god knows how long, I finally went and did it. I’m still processing.
In my earlier post I described a polarity between “survival thinking” (which is physical-reality-oriented, man-vs-nature, serious, and non-competitive) vs “sexual-selection thinking” (which is social-reality-oriented, focuses on the human world, frivolous, and competitive.)
James Carse, in Finite and Infinite Games, sets up a completely different polarity, between infinite game-playing (which is open-ended, playful, and non-competitive) vs. finite game-playing (which is definite, serious, and competitive).
Like a lot of philosophical thinkers, he’s rather negative on trying to win social games, and believes that humanity-wide survival problems require us to set such games aside. He’s also quite positive on thinking — self-awareness, going meta, asking “do I want to be doing what I’m doing?”
The distinction with my earlier post is that he believes the key alternative to unproductive social-status games is playfulness and open-endedness, rather than seriousness, strenuousness, survival-level urgency. I think this is possible; it’s also possible that both playfulness and survival pressure provoke people into abandoning social-status jockeying; it’s possible that there are many other things that do so.
My Understanding of what James Carse Wants
Playing an infinite game, in my own words, means “Let things continue and get weird”.
Culture has a tendency to get “out of hand”, to shift definitions, to break once-hallowed rules. Living things evolve over time. Languages shift. Peoples migrate. Individuals don’t fit perfectly into demographic or ideological categories. As I understand it, an infinite player embraces change and tries to keep life/culture/humanity going, knowing that whatever future form it takes will be unfamiliar.
In human relationships this would mean keeping lines of communication open and trying to allow space for deep, weird, vulnerable, unfamiliar, or surprising interactions to arise. It would also mean questioning or poking fun at fixed or narrowly competitive behavior patterns.
In grammar this would mean being descriptivist rather than prescriptivist.
In art this would mean playing with new forms and dialoguing with old formalisms.
In technological social-engineering this would mean trying to design platforms that promote unexpected and fertile rather than reliable and predictable behavior.
In politics it would mean actively seeking to preserve diversity, questioning the assumptions of nationalism or officialness, lots of meta stuff combined with a desire not to lock anybody out of the discourse.
Carse’s examples of evil are genocides: the permanent silencing of an entire people. He’s against absolutism because it will try to destroy those parts of reality that don’t fit its system. Sometimes those parts are people. The Native Americans, or the Romany, or the Jews, didn’t fit into somebody’s system.
If you imagine actually being a 19th-century Anglo-American, and imagine that you don’t really like Indians — they’re often pagan, they’re not of your civilization, they cause you a not-insignificant amount of danger and inconvenience — and imagine what it would be like to think “yes, but they’re people, they exist, they have a point of view that may matter, it’s worth trying to work things out with them rather than utterly destroying them” — I think that gives something of the flavor of what Carse wants people to do. Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood is a good example of what cooperating with literal outer-space aliens would feel like — cooperating and trading and negotiating with creatures whose values you cannot empathize with at all and which seriously creep you out. “Mutual benefit” sounds nice when you have easy sympathy with the other party; it is stranger and less intuitive when you don’t. To keep playing with the truly alien seems to be part of what infinite games are about.
My Resistance to FIG
I have some inner resistance to pretty much all philosophical or spiritual thinkers, and Carse is no exception. He’s favorably disposed to thinking, and unfavorably disposed to most temporal rewards, like pretty much all philosophers. I like temporal rewards, and am less inclined towards detached meta-level thinking than most of the people who like these kinds of books. I like a hot meal and a soft bed and a cat to pet. So that’s one thing.
I also don’t like any creed which requires me to have unbounded energy, and “playfulness” or “openness to change and ambiguity” are both things that cost energy. (The latter because it takes cognitive effort to wrap one’s mind around complex or unpredictable things.) Carse complains that traveling in airplanes and hotels insulates you from change, from truly experiencing the foreignness of foreign places. He’s not wrong. It’s just that if you are very tired, you do not want anything to surprise you if you can possibly avoid it. I am usually tired, so an ideal of the world as being eternally surprising sounds exhausting. Finite games end, and that is a great deal of their appeal; after they’re over, you get to stop playing.
I do appreciate the message of “if you want to simplify your life, you don’t get to do it by controlling other people.” Trying to live in such a way that you don’t ruin other people’s games just because you don’t want to play.
Actual Flaws in FIG
I don’t think he has a complete theory of property. He’s talking about property as primarily a finite game that involves fairness and competition intuitions. I don’t think that’s all it is. There’s also property-as-territoriality (something that even animals have), and property as an incentive-stable way of allocating resources. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a complete and satisfying theory of why we have property and how far it can/should extend, even Locke, but I really think it’s not disposed of as easily as Carse does.
I also think the “technology is limiting, gardens are infinite-game-like” stuff could use a little more nuance. Not all technology is oriented towards centralized/standardized behavior patterns. I think Carse would have been rather interested in blockchains and 3d printers if they had existed when he wrote the book.
In a comment on my earlier post, Komponisto said “The correct dichotomy, it seems to me, is not “work” vs. “play/gossip”, but rather “work/play” vs. “gossip”.” This also seems to be something Carse would agree with. The creative stuff he values is play-like; he thinks seriousness is usually a “theatrical” device that’s basically used only for gossip-oriented status-games.
I think I was just wrong to imply that work is always serious. (And certainly if I gave the impression that art is always frivolous, that was wrong! But I’ve never really believed that.)
I like Carse’s idea of storytelling as contrasted with lecturing; using communication to open up possibilities or food for thought rather than to shut down unwanted behaviors. I was much more into that in the past (in my current state of constant exhaustion I normally don’t want to open up any future possibilities because then I’d have to deal with them) but it is genuinely beautiful to create a world for people to play in.