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"Work" and "Play"

Author(s): Richard Burke

Source: Ethics, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Oct., 1971), pp. 33-47
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Accessed: 31-08-2018 22:20 UTC

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"Work" and "Play"

Richard Burke
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Most jingles rhyme better
than this one, but no proverb is truer. The complement is also true. I ven-
ture to add, without argument, a new item to our store of conventional
wisdom: "All play and no work makes Jack a big jerk." We don't so often
realize, however, that simply alternating between work and play is not
very satisfying either, if the work is drudgery and the play is merely re-
cuperation to enable us to go back to work again. This has been the lot of
most people throughout history, and it is not an enviable one. The lucky
few are not the leisure class, if that means "all play and no work," but those
whose activities combine elements of both. We all know someone whose
job is so satisfying, so rewarding to him that he would rather "work" than
do anything else, regardless of product or profit. And some people are so
serious about their leisure activity, whether it be golf, bridge, or the piano,
that it absorbs more of their energy and discipline than their work does.
I wish to maintain in this essay that the most satisfying kind of work shares
in the freedom and plasticity of play; that the most satisfying kind of play
(in the long run) is purposeful and disciplined, like work; and that the
good life for both individuals and societies must include plenty of both
kinds of activities. As John Dewey put it, "Both [play and work] are
equally free and intrinsically motivated, apart from false economic condi-
tions which tend to make play into idle excitement for the well to do, and
work into uncongenial labor for the poor."1


The above thesis sounds plausible, I suppose; but any attempt to jus-
tify it runs into the notorious difficulty of defining both "play" and
"work." The Random House Dictionary lists fifty-three different mean-
ings of "play" and thirty-nine of "work," not counting idiomatic uses like

1. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan Co., 1916),
pp. 205-6.


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34 Ethics

"He made a play for my girl" or "Let's give him the works."2 W
of playing a game, a role, or a musical instrument; of the solitary
infants and animals; of the play of light on the waves. Can there be any-
thing common to all these? "Work" can be physical labor, but it can also
be the functioning of a machine, any paid occupation, an artistic product,
or (in physics) any transfer of energy through force. Wittgenstein has
suggested, using the word "game" as his example, that the most we should
expect in such cases is a "family resemblance" among the various uses,
rather than a single definition applying equally to all;3 and even this may
be too much to ask for here.
To make matters worse for my thesis, the same dictionary gives only
one antonym for "play" ("work"), and only two for "work" ("play"
and "rest"). While this offers some hope for reducing the meanings of
each term to one or two basic ones, it also suggests that an activity com-
bining both work and play is somehow a contradiction in terms. And "the
man in the street" would probably bear this out. Work is difficult and
unpleasant, he might say, while play is easy and fun. But we have already
seen that neither of these is necessarily true: that they reflect what Dewey
called "false economic conditions." Some people enjoy their work, some
have easy jobs, and some even prefer work as a way of spending their
leisure time: in a recent study asking automobile workers how they would
spend additional leisure time if they were to get it, 96.8 percent mentioned
"work around the house," as compared with 48.8 percent for attending
spectator sports, 42.4 percent for hunting and fishing, 24.8 percent for
engaging in athletics, 53.6 percent for travel.4 On the other side, play
can be very demanding: think of intercollegiate football. And it can be
distinctly unpleasant when one is playing poorly or when one's compan-
ions are irritating.
Another dichotomy, equally unsatisfactory, results from defining both
in economic terms: work is whatever you get paid for, and play is every-
thing else. This idea is seldom expressed that crudely; but it lurks beneath
the assumption that a professional athlete, musician, or actor is working
rather than playing, although his activity may be distinguishable from
that of an amateur solely by the fact that he gets paid for it. The fact that
a man "plays" baseball, "plays" in an orchestra, or acts in "plays" suggests
that his activity is in some sense play, even if he is a good enough player

2. Random House Dictionary of the American Language (New York: Random

House, 1967), s.v. "play" and "work."
3. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,
1953), pp. 31-32.
4. William A. Faunce, "Automation and Leisure" (1954), reprinted in E. Smigel,
ed., Work and Leisure (New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press, 1963), p. 92.
These figures must be interpreted with caution. The workers interviewed were evi-
dently allowed to mark as many activities as they chose from a list. Also, some pre-
sumably felt they needed more time to fulfill their responsibilities at home rather than
preferred "work" as a way of spending leisure time.

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35 "Work" and "Play"

to earn a living at it. And of course a great deal of work is not paid
our society, as any housewife would be quick to point out. Whether w
or play is remunerated seems to be purely a matter of convention, var
from one society to another (how would it apply in premonetary cul-
tures?) and having little to do with the nature of the activities themselves.
What might be called the "common-sense dichotomy" between work
and play, then, need not detain us very long. The two terms are not neces-
sarily mutually exclusive, despite the fact that they are often antonyms.
Nor are they exhaustive of the range of human activities: eating, sleeping,
praying, fighting are normally neither work nor play, and this list could
easily be extended. They are simply two of the activities of man, each
with a characteristic structure which I am trying to discover.
A number of recent theories give more cause for despair, by using
both terms in such extended or paradoxical ways that they threaten to rob
them of all meaning. Everyone seems to be talking about "playing games"
these days. The mathematical "game theory" of von Neumann and Mor-
ganstern is used by some social scientists as a model of rational behavior,
useful in devising strategies for business, international diplomacy, and
war:5 a range of activities about as far from "play" as one can imagine.
Eric Berne, on the other hand, in his best-selling Games People Play, de-
fines a "game" as an interpersonal transaction in which the participants
are governed by ulterior motives of which they are unaware and which
are invariably self-destructive.6 Such behavior is utterly serious and utterly
irrational; indeed, Berne's purpose is to get us to stop playing games with
each other. In philosophy, Wittgenstein's introduction of the term "lan-
guage game" is having an enormous influence. Even morality, which
Kant considered the ultimate in seriousness and therefore diametrically
opposed to play,8 is now being treated as a kind of game with rules, strate-
gies, spectators, etc.9
David Riesman has shown that Freud, reflecting a widespread bour-
geois attitude, associated the world of work with the "reality principle"
and regarded play as wish fulfillment through fantasy-tolerable and even
useful in childhood but hardly appropriate for mature adults.10 Piaget,
after defining intelligence as an equilibrium between accommodation (to
reality) and assimilation (to the self), defines play as "the primacy of as-

5. John von Neumann and Oscar Morganstern, Theory of Games and Economic
Behavior (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1944).
6. Eric Berne, Games People Play (New York: Grove Press, 1964), pp. 48-50.
7. Wittgenstein, p. 23.
8. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner
Publishing Co., 1951), pp. 176-77.
9. For example, John Rawls, "Two Concepts of Rules," Philosophical Review,
vol. 64 (1955).
10. David Riesman, "The Themes of Work and Play in the Structure of Freud
Thought" (1950), reprinted in Individualism Reconsidered (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press
1954), pp. 326-31.

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36 Ethics

similation over accommodation."1 There is an important idea here, as we

shall see, but it is vastly oversimplified and far too broad, since it would
presumably include autistic behavior of all kinds, even that of psychotics.
Many studies of animal and human development have emphasized the
function of play in the development of physical and mental faculties and
in the socialization process. In some species, play even seems to be neces-
sary for normal development.12 Isn't there a paradox here? Finally, Johan
Huizinga's classic Homo Ludens goes even further, concluding that all of
man's most serious activities-religion, art, philosophy, government, war-
must be regarded as forms of play.13
In such a confusing situation, it would really help if we could attach
some clear and consistent definitions to these terms. But what kind of
definition is appropriate here? We have seen that lexical definitions, of
the kind found in a dictionary, do not take us far: there are too many dif-
ferent uses of these terms, and some of them are already highly metaphori-
cal. I have dismissed several common-sense notions, on the ground that
they were not necessary or not sufficient (or both) to account for com-
mon usage. But is this not assuming just what I questioned above, that each
term must have one and only one basic meaning? Why couldn't we simply
agree to stipulate a pair of definitions and accept the consequence that
some of their ordinary uses will fall outside? Logic textbooks often assert
that this is the process of definition employed in the sciences and suggest
that it should also be followed in all rigorous thinking. I will not venture
into the controversial issue of the nature of definitions in science;14 surely
what we want here is to move back and forth, dialectically, between lexical
and stipulative definitions-to clarify the meanings of play and work by
finding formulations which include as many of their actual uses as pos-
sible, especially the most common ones, under as few as possible clear,
consistent concepts-preferably those which suggest why each term has
the range of uses it does. For this purpose, we must agree on a few para-
digm uses of each term which any acceptable definition must include.


I submit that the following activities are all clearly examples of "play"
and that a definition which excludes any of them is therefore inadequate.
1. A one-year-old child rolling a toy across the floor or wearing his cereal
on his head instead of eating it-or a kitten, puppy, or young chim-
panzee doing the same things

11. Jean Piaget, Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood, trans. C. Gattegno and
F.M. Hodgson (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1962), p. 87.
12. See Susanna Millar, The Psychology of Play (New York: Penguin Books,
1968), chaps. 3-7.
13. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, English trans. (London: Paladin, 1970).
14. See Peter Achinstein, Concepts of Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press,
1968), chaps. 1-2.

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37 "Work" and "Play"

2. A five-year-old boy engrossed in building a tower by himself or a girl

making a dress for her doll
3. A pair of ten-year-old boys wrestling but laughing and taking care not
to hurt one another-or two wolves doing the same thing
4. Two or more people of any age playing a game or sport, whether of
skill or of chance, whether for money, for a prize, for the satisfaction
of winning, or simply "for the fun of it"
5. A lone person playing a game or sport, etc.
6. Impersonation of someone or something else ("playing a role") without
the intent to deceive
7. Variation for the sake of novelty, such as "doodling" while taking notes
or decoration of a utilitarian object
8. Making a game out of a monotonous activity to avoid boredom, such as
counting the red cars passed while driving home from the country
9. Putting on a performance for the amusement of an audience, whether
for money, etc. (see no. 4)

This list is not intended to be exhaustive or exclusive: numbers 7 and 8

may be the same phenomenon, or numbers 6 and 9. It is simply a list of
examples of play, chosen to be as uncontroversial as possible. There are
interesting borderline cases, such as hiking or swimming, an evening of
casual conversation, practicing a musical instrument, sexual "foreplay,"
the song of birds.15 For our purpose, however, the above list is long
enough. Several observations follow directly from it:
a) Play cannot be a distinct type of observable behavior, since several of
the paradigms (nos. 2, 6, 9) can involve almost any sort of behavior.
A Martian would often fail to recognize play when he saw it, without
some knowledge of the motives of the participants. This rules out a
behaviorist approach.
b) Adults play as well as children, and not only when they are being
childish (nos. 4-9); so we cannot define play as essentially a prepara-
tion for more mature activity.
c) Not all play is competitive, or social, or governed by rules (nos. 1, 2, 5,
7, 8); our definition must include free exploration of one's environment
and experimentation with one's own faculties.16

Let me try to formulate a definition that will include all the paradigms
on the list. A few common features emerge: freedom from compulsion,
completeness of the activity itself apart from its result, and a certain arti-
ficial or "pretend" quality which is unobservable and hard to pin down
but which is nevertheless present, I think, in the organized games and

15. Even more interesting is the case of reading for pleasure, which is not nor-
mally considered play, although it is hard to see why not. The absence of bodily activ-
ity, perhaps; but what about chess? Or someone pretending to be a statue?
16. By this formula, the fine arts are forms of play, whether professional or amateur
(but see pp. 46-47).

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3 8 Ethics

performances of adults, and even in the random exuberance of the ch

I would define "play," therefore, as activity which is free, complete
itself, and artificial or unrealistic. I might add that play is often gove
by rules, either explicit (as in a game) or implicit (there are rules of
personation, for example); and that it often involves a test or contest.
These two are not necessary criteria, nor are they sufficient. Morality is
governed by rules, and war is a contest; but I would distinguish both from
play.17 The three criteria I have given-freedom, intrinsic completeness,
and artificiality-are necessary, and together I think they are sufficient, to
set play apart from man's other activities. Each of them requires further
By "free," I mean free from both inner and external compulsion. If
an activity is dictated by instinct, like the mating behavior of insects and
fish, it is not play. (The song of birds probably falls in this category.) If
one is hungry or frightened enough, play becomes impossible. An inter-
esting illustration of this is the transition from sexual "foreplay" (which
I would consider play) to the orgasm itself: normally a smile gives way to
a serious expression, and bodily movements become less exploratory, more
stereotyped. Likewise, if one is forced to engage in an activity by someone
else, either directly or through fear of consequences, it ceases to be play.
A spy whose life depends on his successfully impersonating someone is not
playing; nor is a girl raped at gunpoint, whatever she may be required to
do. Friedrich Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man is still
well worth reading on the relationship between play and freedom. "Man,"
he says, "plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is
only wholly man when he is playing." The "play impulse" combines sensi-
bility, which as part of nature is governed by physical necessity, with
reason, which in itself is ruled by logical and moral necessities. In play,
man gives shape to the former by means of the latter, and the result of
this is Beauty. Only in this way does he achieve true freedom.18
My second criterion, that play is complete in itself and pursued for
its own sake, may seem to be contradicted by professional athletes and
performers (paradigms 4 and 9), by gambling for money (paradigm 4),
by the biological and socializing functions of the play of the young (para-
digms 1-3), and by the very wording of. paradigms 7 and 8. I will take
up each of these challenges in order.
A professional baseball player or actor must in some sense be playing,
as I said earlier. (He is also working: my thesis, remember, is that the
most satisfying activities combine elements of both work and play, and
these are prime examples.) He is playing because the activity is in itself
"artificial or symbolic" (see below) and because he enjoyed it so much

17. In saying this, I am disagreeing with Huizinga. I will discuss the matter further
in connection with my third criterion.
18. Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. R. Shell (New
Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954), pp. 74-80.

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39 "Work" and "Play"

that he got good enough at it to be paid. The pay is extrinsic to the ac-
tivity, which was engaged in for its own sake long before the idea of be-
coming a professional suggested itself and would most likely be engaged in
whether paid or not. The determining perspective should not be that of
the economist, who treats all activities from one point of view (exchange
value), but that of the participant, who distinguishes them according to
their experiential structures. A professional athlete's or performer's work
may become burdensome to him, of course, and probably does to all of
them at times; but it remains an activity which is by its nature intrinsi-
cally complete and satisfying, apart from external rewards like money or
Roger Caillois, in his otherwise admirable little book Les jeux et les
hommes, simply assumes that "professionals ... are not players but work-
ers." He also stresses the importance of games of chance in many cultures,
and the necessity for any definition of play to take into account the fact
that the player is far from disinterested in the results of his activity.20
Here, unlike the stakes in baseball, the stakes are the raisin d'etre of the
game. We cannot define play, then, as activity having no consequences at
all; but we can call it activity pursued for its own sake, and in that sense
complete in itself. Many people enjoy gambling when they break even,
and even when they lose. When the stakes become so high that one can-
not afford to lose, or if someone perfects a "system" that assures him of
winning, he passes beyond "play" to more realistic activities.
The same sort of answer can be given to the argument that, since the
play of young children (and animals) serves to develop their abilities, it
is not pursued for its own sake. This time it is the perspective of the biolo-
gist, anthropologist, or developmental psychologist which is falsely given
priority over that of the participant. A parallel fallacy is common in the
treatment of religion by social scientists: the fact that religion forms a
social bond or gives an individual a feeling of security is taken to imply
that this is what religion "really" is, despite the protests of believers that
this misses the essence of the phenomenon. There is a basic issue in epis-
temology here, which I cannot go into further without hopelessly distort-
ing the balance of this essay. I will simply say that some sort of phenome-
nology seems more appropriate to the study of play (and work) than any
form of reductionism, and that phenomenologically play is complete in
itself, although it may serve other purposes as well.
Paradigms 7 and 8 mention what seem to be extrinsic purposes in their
very wording: "for the sake of novelty," "to avoid boredom." Here- the
ulterior motive seems to be a part of the phenomenological structure of the
act itself. They are far from trivial cases for my general thesis, too: the

19. Paul Weiss, Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Uni-
versity Press, 1969), chap. 12.
20. Roger Caillois, Man, Play, and Games, trans. M. Barash (Glencoe, Ill.: Free
Press, 1961), pp. 5-6.

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40 Ethics

opportunity to introduce novelty into one's work or to make a game out

of it is just what distinguishes many satisfying occupations from dispiriting
ones (see below). On closer examination, however, the difficulty turns out
to be purely verbal. In both cases, by "playing" with an activity which is
in itself a mere means to something else, we transform it into something
interesting in its own right. From an objection, this point becomes another
argument in favor of my definition.
Now I must defend my assertion that play is artificial, or less than
fully realistic. Here I have ranged against me the current uses of the term
"game" in mathematical game theory, in psychological role theory, and in
Wittgensteinian linguistic analysis. Needless to say, I am not questioning
the value of any of these as intellectual tools; I am simply trying to clarify
the concepts of "play" and "game" involved. Games are ordinarily thought
of as one kind of play: one may play without playing a game, but one may
not participate in a game without playing.21 What von Neumann and
Morganstern, Berne, and Wittgenstein have done is notice analogies be-
tween games and serious, realistic activities and extend the term "game"
to cover the entire field of the analogies. This is misleading, because either
they must extend "play" also, creating intolerable paradoxes-insanity or
war as forms of play-or they must violate usage by speaking of games
which are participated in but not "played." If the analogies are really
strong enough-and this is still a controversial question in each case-I
think it would have been better to coin a cumbersome term like "gamelike
Huizinga's thesis is different, because he specifically insists on the
play element in cultural activities like religion, art, and war. By this he
means not only the "gamelike" element but also the qualities of freedom
and intrinsic satisfaction that I have been discussing as essential to play.
He demonstrates that the words for play, game, contest, and ritual inter-
penetrate in many languages. Drawing on Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy
and Granet's studies of ancient China, he detects "agonistic" forms (strug-
gle, contest) in music, drama, sculpture, prosody, myths, rituals, aristo-
cratic manners, legal procedures, usages of war, and the dialectical method
in philosophy, which he traces to the riddle contests of ancient India and
Europe. I regard all this as extremely valuable. But it is one thing to dis-
cover an element of play in all these things, as he puts it in more cautious
moments, and another to say that they are nothing but play. When he
says that civilization "does not come from play like a babe detaching itself
from the womb: it arises in and as play and never leaves it,"22 I must
Huizinga himself, in his last chapter, bemoans the fact that "civilization
today [i.e., since the nineteenth century] is no longer played, and even

21. Random House Dictionary of the American Language, s.v. "game."

22. Huizinga, P. 198.

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41 "Work" and "Play"

where it still seems to play it is false play."23 But even in chapter 1, in t

course of formulating his definition of play, he says that one of its defi
characteristics is that "play is not 'ordinary' or 'real' life. It is rather a
stepping out of 'real' life into a temporary sphere of activity with a dis-
position all of its own." This is exactly the point I am trying to make. He

Every child knows perfectly well that he is "only pretending," or that it was
"only for fun." . . . This "only pretending" quality of play betrays a conscious-
ness of the inferiority of play compared with "seriousness," a feeling that seems
to be something as primary as play itself. Nevertheless . . . the consciousness of
play being "only a pretend" does not by any means prevent it from proceeding
with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into
rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome "only"
feeling. . . . The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corre-
sponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns to seriousness and seriousness
to play. Play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness
far beneath.24

Huizinga first admits too much-I doubt that every playing child
knows "perfectly well" that he is only pretending-then gets hopelessly
confused by using "serious" in two different senses in the same paragraph,
so that play is both serious and not serious, both "inferior" and "superior"
to seriousness. The passage is useful, however, because this distinction be-
tween two senses of "serious" is just what I need to justify my claim that
play is "artificial" activity.
The distinction is between the nature of an activity in itself and the
attitude of the participants on a given occasion. In itself, play is "not seri-
ous" in the sense that it contrasts with hard, everyday reality; with more
earthy activities like eating, working, fighting, sex. It can be, however, and
often is pursued with an attitude of rapt concentration and dogged per-
sistence that surpasses these "more serious" activities. The difference is not
in the degree of absorption involved, or in the value placed on the activity
by the participant, but in its relationship to the life of man. Play is not
just an attitude of mind: it is a type of activity in the world, normally
associated with a certain attitude but not reducible to it. Play involves a
representation or rehearsal of life, especially its agonistic aspects, according
to tacit rules of simplification and projection.25 A child's play world is
composed of elements drawn from his experience but rearranged so as to
be more manageable and meaningful. The same is true of many sports and
games, whether of skill or chance: each generates a finite microcosm,
where the things that can happen are strictly delimited. Not only do they
take place in delimited areas-stadium, court, casino, board, etc.-and with-

23. Ibid., p. 233.

24. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
25. See Richard Grathoff, The Structure of Social Inconsistencies (The Hague:
M. Nijhoff, 1970), chaps. 6-7, for a fuller discussion of the "symbolic" nature of play.

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42 Ethics

in fixed time limits, but according to rules which artificially equalize the
conditions of competition between players and specify which few of their
countless characteristics and actions will count as relevant to each game.
The result is an artificially simplified world, in which each act has one and
only one meaning. Each game is a system of symbolic acts, the meanings
of which are drawn from real life but then refined and purified of conno-
tations and ambiguities so that they can be combined in new and interest-
ing ways. The best example is probably chess, drawn from military tactics
in ancient India. Performances and impersonations likewise take place in
microcosms, governed by the symbols and conventions of the theater.
This description applies equally well, however, to the exploratory play of
small children, except that the simplification is not for the sake of novelty
and amusement but results from the child's inability to deal with more
complex situations. Freud and Piaget are relevant here, but they adopt a
patronizing attitude toward those who love this simpler world of symbols
and conventions. As Huizinga has shown, the kinship between this world
and the equally symbolic worlds of the arts, of myth and ritual, and of
philosophical speculation is a close one.
Here lies the true significance of play in the life of man: in its more
complex forms, it develops his creative, imaginative ability, enabling him
to live not only in the "real" world but also in countless symbolic worlds
of his own making. No doubt this makes him a more efficient solver of
practical problems; but it also enables him to endow his life with form and
meaning. What art, religion, and philosophy are for the few, play is for
the many: a free, intrinsically satisfying activity governed by rules of
man's own making and giving rise to a finite, meaningful world that man
can call his own. Perhaps this is what Plato meant in a fascinating passage
in The Laws: "What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived
as play [7rat~a], playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and danc-
ing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself
against his enemies, and win in the contest."26
One more problem about my definition remains to be faced. On page
36 I assumed that animals as well as humans play. My discussion through-
out, however, has referred to mental states; and what do we know of the
mental states of animals? Although I argued (on p. 41) that play is not
just an attitude but a type of activity, without the attitude the activity
would be fundamentally different. It seems I must either modify the defi-
nition or refuse to apply it to animals. But anyone who has watched a
kitten with a ball of yarn knows it is playing, just as surely as he knows it
about a boy with a toy truck. Or does he? The kitten certainly seems to
be playing, by which I think we mean that it seems to have the same atti-
tude as, or at least an attitude similar to, that of humans at play. But isn't

26. Plato The Laws 7, 803. Huizinga (pp. 37-38) quotes this passage in support
of his own thesis apparently failing to notice the contrast with seriousness implied in
the last lines.

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43 "Work" and "Play"

it after all conceivable that its consciousness is quite different from any-
thing we imagine and that there is nothing remotely resembling the human
play attitude in it? Descartes must have seen young animals gamboling
about; yet it was his considered opinion that they are mere automatons,
devoid of thought and even feelings. Experiments may some day be de-
vised which prove that a kitten cannot distinguish between a ball of yarn
and a mouse and that what we call "playing with a mouse" is inherited,
functional, and impossible to extinguish; would we still want to call it
play? All we can say, I think, is that certain animals engage in playlike
activity, but we cannot be sure that they are really playing. One or two
of our paradigms (nos. 1, 3) must yield in the end, then, to the definition
reached with their help. Thus does philosophical dialectic differ from a
formal system!


We have already established certain things about work: it is not nec-

essarily difficult or unpleasant, and it is not necessarily paid (pp. 33-34, 38-
39). Some of our other conclusions about play, such as that it is better de-
fined phenomenologically than behaviorally, with the corollary that animals
only seem to play, may also apply to work. It is tempting to define work
as simply the opposite of play: Activity which is compulsory, a means to
an extrinsic end, and realistic. But we cannot assume that the two terms
are parallel just because the dictionary defines them as antonyms. My main
thesis, that some highly satisfying activities partake in both work and
play, obviously depends on their being compatible.
Perhaps "work" refers to an entirely different aspect of activity, dif-
ferent from play but not incompatible with it. In order to see whether
this is true, let me begin again and assemble another list of paradigms, this
time of work:

1. Physical toil, such as digging, hauling or lifting heavy objects, etc.

2. Physical toil performed by an ant or a mule27
3. Physical toil performed by a machine
4. Any repetitive task, physical or mental, such as turning a screw on an
assembly line or adding up columns of figures in an office
5. Assembling, arranging, or shaping materials into a product (and the
product of such assembling or shaping)28
6. Problem solving, practical or theoretical, such as untying a knot or
designing a scientific experiment
7. Supervising the work of others
8. The proper functioning of any part of any machine

27. I include this, although we may have to retract it later, because it is unques-
tionably a paradigmatic use of the word.
28. This too is performed by some animals (e.g., nest building), and by machines.

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44 Ethics

9. Providing a service for others, as does a butler or a babysitter

10. Any occupation for which one gets paid, either in money or in kind29

This list tells us that work can be either physical or mental, either
repetitive drudgery (nos. 1, 4) or creative activity (nos. 5, 6). It can ap-
parently be performed by persons, animals, or machines (nos. 2-5, 8, even
6). Note that it need not be active in any overt way (nos. 6, 7, and some
forms of nos. 9 and 10), so that a Martian would also fail to recognize
these types of work when he saw them. The most striking thing about
this list, however, is the way the various activities fall into clusters: para-
digms 1-4 are of exhausting or repetitive activity; 5-7 all involve arranging
parts (materials, ideas, or people) so that they form a whole; and 8-10
refer to the functioning of a part in a whole. In paradigms 9 and 10, the
"whole" is a social nexus in which one person takes the part (or part of
the part) of another, or in which people participate in a common task and
share in a common product (wealth). Is there a common idea underlying
all three clusters?
The last two clusters are obviously related; let us see whether the first
is related to the others. There are really only two paradigms of work here:
physical toil and repetitive labor. But why does one engage in either of
these unappetizing activities? Clearly because they add up to a result
which is desired and because this is the only available means to that end.
The act, then, should be defined in terms of the desired result ("digging
a grave," "keeping the books"), and the digging or adding is simply the
series of parts making up the whole act. The only difference between this
and paradigms 5 or 6 is that here all the parts are the same, whereas in
building a house or solving a scientific problem a variety of different acts
are required. The same principle applies to repetitive acts performed by a
lone individual: a boxer punching a bag or a musician practicing scales is
working, not because the activity is boring and unpleasant-he may even
enjoy it-but because it is part of the larger task of perfecting his skill.
A single formula, then, seems to cover all types of work: activity
which is part of a larger whole or serves to unite parts into a whole.30 This
applies to intellectual as well as physical work and to supervisory as well
as menial functions. At the minimum, being paid for any activity proves
that one is at least part of an economic whole to which others are willing
to acknowledge one's contribution, even if the activity itself seems quite
unproductive, like that of a business or government sinecure. An activity
can be for the sake of the whole, then, regardless of whether this is the
motive of the participant on any given occasion.

29. Not all work is paid, but all paid activity is work-in one important sense,
anyway. I objected to defining work in terms of pay, but this is surely one of the
paradigmatic uses of the word.
30. To define work in terms of "means to an end" in general, as some writers
have, is too broad: it includes all purposive activity whatsoever, such as reaching for
a cigarette.

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45 "Work" and "Play"

If this is indeed a necessary characteristic of work, is it also suff

Can one function as part of a whole, or arrange parts to make a whole,
without working? Of course, we are all parts of a thousand "wholes": the
population of our community, of our nation, of the world; various eco-
logical systems; the set of people with brown (or blue) eyes; etc. Like-
wise, we create verbal syntheses every time we speak; our bodies are
continually synthesizing chemical compounds; and in dozens of other
ways we "unite parts into a whole" every day without "working" at it.
Our definition is still too broad. There must also be a factor of effort in-
volved; of consciousness of an end and an attempt to achieve it. The ac-
tivity need not be guided at every moment by a clear idea of its purpose,
but the idea must be there at some time, and the whole activity becomes
disciplined or structured by that end. Work, then, is activity which is
part of a whole and which is governed by a discipline imposed on the parts
by that whole.
Like play, then, work must be defined partly in terms of an attitude
of mind. It follows that we should say of animals that they (sometimes)
engage in "worklike" activities, but we cannot tell whether they are really
working because they may not be conscious of the whole. To be con-
sistent, this must apply not only to a beaver "building a dam," and to a
-bird "building a nest," but also to a draft horse pulling a plow. That seems
strange, because we want to say that the farmer arranged to have the horse
do the work instead of him, and the work got done, so the horse must
have done it. A more accurate formulation, I submit, is that the farmer
separated the work into its two components, neither of which alone is
work: the consciousness of the whole and the activity making up the
whole. The farmer uses the horse in his own work, but the horse's activity
by itself is not strictly work.
The same analysis applies to machines (paradigms 3, 4, 8, and even 6).
They have been designed by men to help them in their work-to perform
one part of the task with less effort, more speed, regularity, etc.-but by
themselves the machines do not really work, any more than a computer
programmed to make the optimal responses in checkers or chess is really
playing. What is missing in both cases is the consciousness of what one is
doing and the implied freedom not to do it.
Work has turned out not to be the simple opposite of play. Like play,
work is the activity of a free agent. The discipline imposed on work by the
whole of which it is a part, or which it is producing, is a freely accepted
discipline; indeed, the concept of "discipline" applies only to a will that
is free not to accept it. Play, too, may involve acceptance of the discipline
of a whole-as a member of a team, or with an effort to perfect one's
game-and to this extent it shares in the nature of work. The term "team-
work" is perfectly accurate and points to a whole range of activities which
partake in both work and play.
Nor is work necessarily an activity incomplete and unsatisfying in

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46 Ethics

itself, a mere means to an end. At the outset we noted that there i

of satisfaction from many kinds of work: Veblen called it "the ins
of workmanship." We can now see that this satisfaction must be d
from having helped to bring a new "whole" into existence. Wheth
whole is a "work of art" or not, the feeling is an aesthetic one.
Finally, there is a kind of work which is not "realistic": in which the
imagination soars to create ideal realms of truth, goodness, and beauty
which give order and purpose to our mundane lives. In religion, art, sci-
ence, and philosophy man creates symbols and values which transcend
actual existence and are thus "artifice"; but there is no activity which better
''serves to unite parts into a whole'."


What, then, is the true relationship between work and play? We

must conclude, I think, that each is a characteristic human activity asso-
ciated with a characteristic attitude but that these are such as to be per-
fectly compatible with each other in the same activity at the same time.
An athlete or a musician striving to perfect his technique, or to function
smoothly in a team or an orchestra-regardless of whether he is a profes-
sional-can be said to be "working at playing." An architect experimenting
with aesthetic effects, or a factory worker making a game out of his
monotonous task, might equally well be said to be "playing at working"
(except that in English, at least, this suggests that he is only pretending
to work).
Caillois has shown that play can be ranged on a continuum from
paidia, or childlike exuberance, to ludus, or strictly organized and regu-
lated games; and that the impulse to create artificial constraints and chal-
lenges, turning paidia into ludus, coincides with the development of civili-
zation.3' The effect of this channeling of the play impulse is to introduce
an element of work into play, thus lending tension and fiber to what would
otherwise become tedious for mature adults. Conversely, critics of indus-
trial society from Fourier and Marx to Daniel Bell and Hannah Arendt
have stressed the dehumanizing nature of modern labor and the need to
provide workers with more scope for imagination and creativity.32
There are some activities which are either "working at play" or "play-
ing at work," and it is hard to tell which. The fine arts have all the char-
acteristics of play, but people work so hard at them and typically take
them so seriously-in our culture, anyway-that they seem to pass beyond
the bounds of my definition. It is difficult to think of Michelangelo or
Dostoevsky as "playing" when they created their somber masterpieces;
but how about Paul Klee? Or John Cage? Twentieth-century art in gen-

31. Caillois, chap. 2.

32. Daniel Bell, "Work and Its Discontents," in The End of Ideology (Glencoe,
Ill.: Free Press, 1960); Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1958).

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47 "Work" and "Play"

eral seems to be recapturing the spirit of play, together with discip

that has characterized the arts among many peoples. Similarly, while
free play of imagination is essential to creativity in mathematics, ph
ophy, and the sciences, the element of discipline is so important th
seems impertinent to call them forms of play.
There are occupations which allow for autonomy, intrinsic satis
tion, and creativity, thus participating in the nature of play. My own
occupation, that of a college professor, is one of these; and there are many
others (but not enough) in business and the professions, in the arts and
journalism, in certain crafts. There are also games which call for every
ounce of intelligence, resourcefulness, and perseverance a man can muster.
These continue to fascinate whole populations of mature adults; they are
not just "recreation" but valuable activities in their own right.
I have tried to show that there are elements of both work and play
in certain very satisfying activities and that it is the combination of these
elements that accounts for their powerful and lasting fascination. In order
to do this, I have had to define both terms and to show that there is no
contradiction in applying both of them to the same activity at the same
time. What matters is not to decide whether a free, satisfying, creative
activity in which parts are disciplined by participation in a whole should
be called basically "work" or "play" but to see to it that more people get
to spend more of their time this way! My formula for utopia is simple:
it is a community in which everyone plays at work and works at play.
Anything less would fail to satisfy me for long.

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