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History and Play: Johan Huizinga and His Critics Author(s): Robert Anchor Source: History and Theory, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Feb., 1978), pp. 63-93 Published by: Blackwell Publishing for Wesleyan University Stable URL: Accessed: 15/05/2010 13:22
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Johan Huizinga (1872-1945),the pre-eminentDutch historian of the twentieth century, publishedhis majortheoreticalwork, Homo Ludens:A Study
of the Play Element in Culture, in 1938. Since then, this controversial

pioneeringwork of culturalhistory has become a landmarkin the growing literatureon the concept of play, its role in humanaffairs, and its relevance to the study of history. Huizingawas not the first thinkerto view man and society sub specie ludi. He had a long rich philosophicaltraditionto draw upon, dating back to antiquity. At the very dawn of Western thought, Heraclitus speculated that "the course of the world is a playing child moving figureson a board- the child as absolute rulerof the universe" (Diels, Fragment 52). Huizinga was especially partial to Plato's view of play. "What I assert is this; - that a man ought to be in serious earnest about serious things, and not about trifles;and that the object really worthy of all serious and blessed effort is God, while man is created, as we said above, to be a plaything of God, and the best part of him is surely just that; and thus I say that every man and woman ought to pass throughlife in accordance with this character, playing at the noblest of pastimes, being otherwise minded than they now are" (Laws, VII, 803). Another important source of Huizinga's theory of play is the famous passage in the fifteenth letter of Schiller's Aesthetic Education of Man: "Man plays only when he
is in the full sense of the word man, and he is only wholly man when he

plays." Similarviews were expressed by Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other modern philosophers.' Although Huizinga was not the first to discover the value of play in explaininghuman behavior, he was the first to attempt an exact definition of play and of the ways in which it infuses and manifestsitself in culture, in all spheres of culture: the arts, intellectual life, politics, and even legal institutions and warfare. From the very beginning of his long and fruitful career, Huizingahad always been concerned with the theoreticalquestions of what cultureis, how and why specific cultures come into being and pass
1. Their views are discussed in Kostas Axelos, Vers la pensee planetaire (Paris, 1964), ch. 1. Play as a philosophical problem is the subject also of Eugen Fink, Spiel als Weltsymbol (Stuttgart, 1960).



away, how and why they sustain or fail to sustain themselves, and whether and how the historian is able to grasp their particular configurations. These were not merely academic questions to Huizinga, because he firmly believed that history is nothing less than "the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past."2 This definition, he held, is what distinguishes history from all other branches of learning and provides its raison d'etre. He also believed, in the tradition of Kant, that the historian helps to shape the history he writes about. "History itself, and the historical consciousness, becomes an integral constituent of the civilization; subject and object are recognized in their mutual interdependence."3 That is, the account a civilization renders to itself of its past what it includes and excludes, where the emphases fall, how it is structured and communicated - itself becomes an immanent, formative influence on that civilization. Huizinga believed that history was above all an "intellectual form" of understanding the past. But he also believed that the responsible historian could not evade the moral issues that arise in the course of the civilization's development of which his work is an "integral constituent." Late in his life, as fascism swept over Europe, Huizinga at last discovered the concept that he thought would enable him, on the one hand, to enrich history as an "intellectual form" and, on the other, to meet his moral responsibility in a time of crisis. That concept, toward which, without quite realizing it, he had been moving throughout his career, was homo ludens. But did not Huizinga's perception of man and society sub specie ludi imply, as some of his critics later charged, that historical thought itself was little more than a form of play? And, if so, was this perception compatible with the intellectual and moral responsibility that Huizinga ascribed to historical thought? In order to answer these questions and put Huizinga's position into proper perspective, we must examine how he arrived at his theory of play, what he meant by it, and whether it is intellectually valid.



As a cultural historian, Huizinga had always been more interested in the arts, literature, religion, rituals, manners and morals, styles and sentiments - phenomena more closely and obviously related to the imaginativeness and inventiveness of play - than in such "serious" subjects as politics, economics, and administrative history. Studying such phenom2. "A Definition of the Concept of History," transl. D. R. Cousin, in Philosophy and History. Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer, ed. R. Klibansky and H. J. Paton [1936] (New York, 1963), 9. 3. Ibid., 10.

from the artifacts of culture themselves (since none could be found. 1872-1972. antiquities. "Cultural history is distinct from political and economic history in that it is worthy of the name only to the extent that it concentrates on deeper. 6. Huizinga relates that his interest in history was first aroused when. was a concept that did not derive. he thought). v. a playful preoccupation with heraldry. 155-175. ed. of Edzard. therefore. and the like. R. Essays by Johan Huizinga. His interest in history continued in the form of a hobby. The state and commerce exist as configurations. coin collecting."6 In his wry and amusing autobiographical essay. Holmes and H. 1973). and thought taken all together can there actually be a question of cultural history. 1959). folklore. coats of arms. Guggisberg. customs. E. Count of East Friesland. For a comparison of the two. .HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 65 ena sensitized him. Idem." published posthumously in 1947. or derive wholly. in 1506. The pageantry and colorful costumes. R. But the study of these play-related phenomena also sensitized him to their apparently irrational and illusory. Marle (New York. defined cultural history so as virtually to deprive it of any possibility of grasping with certainty the configurations which. as it had his great predecessor. at the age of seven. he claimed. to be explained? And what did they signify? Huizinga's problem was complicated by the fact that he had. in his major essay on historical method. The nature of these patterns is not set. Koops. J. general themes. "Only when the scholar turns to determining the patterns of life. Papers Delivered to the Johan Huizinga Conference. Kossmann. and Gees van der Plaat (The Hague.4 to the seemingly endless profusion of forms which culture assumes. H. H. transl. unpredictable and sometimes escapist aspects. he witnessed a carnival celebrating the entry. were its proper domain. the masquerade and mock heroism of this celebration of his country's colorful past caught Huizinga's young imagination and nurtured his own childish sense of play. The details of cultural history belong to the realm of morals. Groningen 11-15 December 1972."5 What Huizinga required. How were such phenomena. W. Culture exists only as a configuration. They obtain their form only beneath our hands. Jacob Burckhardt. but rather a concept that would apply to culture as a whole and serve to synthesize its various elements (even the apparently senseless and superfluous ones) in the manner of a Kantian regulative idea or a Goethean Urphiinotnen. but also in their details. "The Task of Cultural History" (1929). which produced a "secret vice" that Huizinga confessed he was never able to shake off: "a hankering for patrician origins 4. S. and easily degenerate into curios. where Huizinga was born and raised. 28. 5. Zwei Historiker in der Krise ihrer Zeit" in Johan Huizinga. "My Path to History. art. which Huizinga found in abundance in late medieval Burgundian culture. into the city of Groningen. "The Task of Cultural History" in Men and Ideas. see H. "Burckhardt und Huizinga.

"12 attacked the then fashionable positivist historical methods of Karl Lamprecht13 and came to the defense of the theories of the autonomy of the humanities as held by Dilthey." which he described as "a rather long and difficult affair that bored most of my audience prodigiously. Ibid. Pomerans (London.66 ROBERT ANCHOR and names. 13. The inaugural address Huizinga delivered in honor of the occasion. Ibid. who were influenced by Kant and Hegel."9 Huizinga completed his doctoral dissertation in Leipzig in 1897 on the subject of the court jester in Sanskrit drama. "My Path to History" in Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century and Other Essays. all too obviously plebeian. "The Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought" in Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century.but he did not yet regard it as "solid intellectual fare. see G. and the same year he was appointed professor of history at the university of his native Groningen. Ibid."it continued to haunt me as it had in childhood" . 270. A. 251. but he still considered himself a linguist and Sanskritist. and other German thinkers around the turn of the century. his childhood interest in history gave way to a love of languages and literature.. Lamprecht und die deutsche Geschichtsphilosophie. he had fallen under the influence of the new Dutch literary movement known as the Tachtigers. The Origins of Haarlem. transl. For practical reasons he then accepted a job as high school teacher of Dutch history. as Huizinga grew older. a longing fed mainly on artistic notions and greatly re-inforced by the Bruges exhibition of Old Dutch paintings in the summer of 1902.. 1872-1972." 10 Only after Huizinga became lecturer on the history of Ancient Indian Culture and Literature at the University of Amsterdam in 1903 did his interest begin to shift away from the ancient East to the medieval West. As the title of this first of Huizinga's important commentaries on historical method indicates. J. Ibid. and a certain scorn for my own. For an analysis of their respective positions. Oestreich. 246. 263. 11. "The Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought. which seemed more suitable and potentially satisfying to an adolescent "prone to lyrical and sentimental moods. Windelband. "Huizinga. History had not lost its hold on Huizinga ."'l Huizinga's first historical work.. 12. was published in 1905. 10. which "rated literature far higher than science. 9. Huizingas Groninger Antrittsvorlesung von 1905" in Johan Huizinga. Simmel."7 But."8 By the time he entered the University of Groningen in 1891.. This shift grew out of "a vague longing. he considered the study of history to 7. . 266-267. 1-29. 8. Rickert. 252. descent from Baptist pastors and provincial farmers. which sought the meaning of life within ourselves (which was a great blessing) and completely ignored politics and allied topics (which was a grave fault). 1968).

and the language he uses to communicate his findings. 18. 241... 19."18 Or. The Waning of the Middle Ages 14. 237. the tendency is toward abstraction. and history. he discovered. 229. Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought. and the historical sense is "but a very general. again: "For the historian there is only one ethical demand that predominates over all others: to present the truth. the aesthetic imagination and historical thought are not identical. whereas the natural sciences formulate abstract laws and treat their subject matter as examples of general classifications. highly developed sensibility. Ibid.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 67 be more of an art than a science in that history and the arts form images and treat their subject matter in its individuality. 17. which are essential to the natural sciences. in historical imagination it is toward visualization. or what he understands by the truth.. Huizinga did not mean that history is only imaginative. "The Ibid. "What the study of history and artistic creation have in common is a mode of forming images. and analysis because the final historical unit to which it must apply itself is itself a complex problem par excellence: man and his actions. therefore. but nor are they separable. but only that imagination is indispensable in interpreting the past. 16."19 On Huizinga's view. Ibid."14 "In natural science. the selection and interpretation of data.. Ibid."16 Huizinga's own playful childhood fascination with the past and his education in the arts bore fruit in this recognition of the importance of the aesthetic element to historical method. . 242. as Windelband has pointed out. 15." 226. at the very origin of the historian's work . The importance of aesthetic intuition is that it paves the way for rational explanation. Although art and history both originate in the imagination. do we risk falsifying the past. Huizinga's thoughts on the relationship between history and aesthetics came to fruition in his best known work. Huizinga always distinguished clearly between art.. 237." 17 the two are by no means synonymous."15 Why this distinction? Because historical phenomena resist comparison and analysis. Ibid. "Historical analysis and comparison are greatly impeded by the fact that the whole of history is an irreducible complex comparison because it is impossible ever to find any kind of elementary similarity between the objects compared. which makes use of the imagination to discover the truth about the his perception of the uniqueness and complexity of historical phenomena and in all the subsequent stages of his activity: the formation of concepts and images. "Only when we deliberately encourage our imagination to transcend the bounds of historical imagination and to soar into the realms of pure fantasy. For it comes into play. which is purely subjective.

Ibid. had distorted reality precisely in correcting this delusion. was that the Christian teaching of renunciation had so captivated men's minds by that time as to have inculcated a deep." but rather in the chronicles. that "the late Middle Ages was not so much a prelude to the future as an epoch of fading and decay. 23.. as he reflected on the art of the brothers Van Eyck. its fancies. The Waning of the Middle Ages. and other characteristic medieval institutions and practices already giving way to new material. therefore. political. this incongruity between the real conditions of life in the fifteenth century and what men of the time thought they were. The idea for this study came to him on a Sunday stroll in the Groningen countryside. 57. N. 15. The reason Huizinga gave for this tension. which left little room for coping with unpleas20. it sufficed to know its real and hidden sources and not its illusions. and the harsh realities of the time was the key to understanding the true spirit of the period and its correct relationship to the past and future. as expressed most purely in the chivalric code of conduct. 24. ed. always keep before us "the vehement pathos of medieval life. "which rarely refer to the passions. when it suddenly occurred to him. 1954). 94. 1924). the absolute authority of the Church.. 22. they continued to impress the mind as dominant forms of life. They persisted in regarding the nobility as the foremost of social forces and attributed a very exaggerated importance to it."23 Huizinga concluded. that modern historians. however faulty in other respects. A Study of the Forms of Life.Y. Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the Dawn of'the Renaissance (Garden City.."24 The chronicles convinced Huizinga that the tension between the ideals of Northern Europe in the fifteenth century. . relying on official documents.. But for the history of civilization every delusion or opinion of an epoch has the value of an important fact. 57. and cultural conditions that betokened the Renaissance? This view would be correct."22 What Huizinga discovered in the chronicles was that "long after the nobility and feudalism had ceased to be really essential factors in the state and society. and its errors. "My Path to History. undervaluing altogether the social significance of the lower classes. to understand the spirit of an age. which. 21. Ibid."20 But how was he to test this hypothesis? By the fifteenth century. The men of the fifteenth century could not understand that the real moving powers of political and social evolution might be looked for anywhere else than in the doings of a warlike courtly nobility.68 ROBERT ANCHOR (1919. Ibid. chivalry.'"21 But where were such facts to be found? Not in the official documents.' 273.. were not feudalism. pervasive pessimism. "There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. "if. and why he thought it had dominated the late Middle Ages. first Eng. Huizinga reckoned.

. and the gloomier the present is. it was by no means confined to that period." was escape into dream. S. that they are in fear of losing it. Godman (New York. 29. 91-104. For critiques of The Waning of the Middle Ages. 27.. Essays in Honor of Laurence Bradford Packard. and it served an important purpose. while this "poetical" solution was the one adopted by the fifteenth century. 1872-1972. Forsaking the world out of disgust would have been inconsistent with the Christian teaching of the basic goodness of God's creation. which is marred only by man's sinfulness. like the eighteenth-century court nobility and the nineteenth-century urban middle classes. After the religious and social solution we have the poetical. fantasies. E. H. we have only to color life with fancy.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 69 ant and menacing surroundings other than escape into dream and fantasy. to enter upon the quest for oblivion. "A promise of escape from the gloomy actual is held out to all. the easiest and most tempting ways to escape a harsh and uncertain existence. 1954). This solution first made its appearance during the Renaissance and did not become a significant historical force until the eighteenth century. . was unknown to the Middle Ages. Arnold Hauser has pointed out.. ed. 38. Ward. at any given time. vol. "Huizinga and the Autumn of the Middle Ages" in Essays in Later Medieval History (New York. Renunciation of the world is also the most difficult and ungratifying solution. 8. and not in another. The Social History of Art. fantasy. Hugenholtz.29 25. S. 37.Y. "Huizinga's Approach to the Middle Ages" in Teachers of History. improving the world through political and social reform. "For at all times the vision of a sublime life has haunted the souls of men. Arnold Hauser. And even if we accept his argument that dream. 1957). the more strongly this aspiration will make itself felt. sought in the delusion of ideal harmony. Ibid. 39. and delusion are. for example. 28. and the heroic values associated with it. A second way. that naturalism in the arts does not usually flourish among peoples living close to nature. W. but rather among those so far removed from nature. L. into one particular set of dreams. N."28 This was the first time that he made use of the idea of play as a tool of historical explication. "the easiest and most fallacious of all. 26. continued to hold sway over men's minds long after feudalism and the nobility went into decline. we still want to know why they continued to exert such a powerful influence for so long. Classicism. "The Fame of a Masterwork" in Johan Huizinga. N. ch. The Waning of the Middle Ages. 1968). Romanticism. The only other way to a more harmonious and better life. For even if we accept Huizinga's theory that the chivalric code. 168-199."26 Readers of this fascinating and controversial27 masterpiece know that Huizinga found the essence of "the vision of a sublime life" of the fifteenth century in its view of life as "a noble game. and F. 220 ff. 3: Rococo. Jacob. and delusions. transit. at all times. see P. Hughes (Ithaca."25 But. we still want to know why people typically seek escape. Ibid. F.

. consider the possibility that our plans may fail or go awry. Play is the opposite of seriousness. let us consider Huizinga's other two paths. illudere..which Huizinga calls the essence of play. suffers from the fact that it belongs too much to the realm of the serious. is not only the most difficult and the rarest in practice. this path makes it logically impossible to conceive of what the sublime life might be. Ibid. at least for the mature adult. as distinct from play. we can always resort to play: either by seeking an alternative to reality in play. belongs to the realm of the serious. innocence and purity . 31. For example. in the world but not of it. if they succeed. 3. all logical interpretation. also. But not until a person seeks to escapefrom something will he seek to escape to also did the city come to represent similarly ideal qualities . or inludere. so to speak. Huizinga's second path.freedom and opportunity. Play is not only the easiest and most accessible path to the vision of a sublime life. distortions. (Huizinga notes in Homo Ludens that the word illusion literally means "in-play. The same is true of play. It produces nothing. It begins and ends with itself. or else by transforming reality through play. "The fun of playing resists all analysis.simplicity and sincerity. Play is a voluntary activity that takes place outside ordinary life."31 30. they are subject to the same vicissitudes.)30 It contains its own end . we must. no matter how ardently we may believe in our vision of a better world. Just as nature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries acquired the desirable qualities that the jaded nobility and bourgeoisie thought were gone from their lives . glamor and excitement . his perception of the former will govern his expectations of the latter. forsaking the world. that they may not endure. as involving production and the masses that migrated from the countryside to the cities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. It proceeds. 1955). it is also the ideal path. It is not serious. and in our plans for bringing it about.70 ROBERT ANCHOR Only then does nature become an object of adoration and a vehicle of escape from an unnatural existence." from inlusio. Homo Ludens. or. and uncertain future. (Even aesthetic activity. For purposes of comparison. except for those who believe strongly in an afterlife. improving the world by political and social reform. if we are at all realistic. 11. Precisely because our ideals and plans for a better world belong to the same order as those we are trying to replace. A Study of the Play Element in Culture [1938] (Boston. It creates illusions. according to fixed rules in an orderly manner. The first. that . It is precisely the remoteness and unreality of nature at such times that make it susceptible to idealization and dissolution into dream. But play is the ideal path to the vision of the sublime life because it is. within its own proper boundaries of time and space. strongly enough to be able to visualize it.) And when the serious business of life becomes unpleasant or intolerable. as Huizinga conceived it.

. 38. courtesy. empty ceremonial rites and rituals. an abundance of aesthetic value of the most suggestive kind. loyalty. "a world disguised in the fantastic gear of the Round Table. did it cease to serve as an outlet for play. and Shakespeare. in which the classical element is the chief motive power. but they served "to accentuate or to fix a lofty moral aspiration. Chivalry was unrealistic. chivalry. 28. which regarded life as "a noble game. joy."33 Chivalry did hearken back to a mythical ideal past. 39. The Waning of the Middle Ages. "the fanciful brilliance of the heroism and probity of a past age . but not the only one. 67."32 Now we begin to see the purpose served by the concept of play in The Waning of the Middle Ages. but it contained. 34."36 Chivalric ideals were impractical and unrealizable. 37. pomp and pageantry.."34 Chivalry did create an incredible world of heroic illusions. 41. when chivalry came to be viewed as an object of ridicule and irony. the chivalric code was able to survive the material conditions that gave rise to it precisely because it lent itself so well to play. "What we call the Renaissance is a product of classical. ."3" but precisely in order to bring the sublime within reach."38 Although now less important." gave ideal expression to the play impulse. as in the art of Cervantes. 35. Only when reality finally broke in upon its fantastic world. having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension.. but precisely in its intentional indifference to reality lay its power "to veil cruel reality under apparent harmony and make life an art. Chivalry was illusory. Ibid. according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding. 40. Ibid. and self-sacrifice monopolized the spiritual sphere. . 36. 55. Ariosto. So long as its code of honor. 89.. This did not happen until the Renaissance. 33. "besides its ethical value. Ibid. and the consciousness that it is different from 'ordinary life'.. Huizinga held. Ibid. But even then. and Christian aspirations. the chivalric ideal remained alive as one of the three basic components of the Renaissance."37 Thus. fills them with beauty and fashions them anew as forms of art. Burckhardt's masterpiece has taught us to look upon ambi32. linked the Renaissance to the times of feudalism.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 71 Huizinga summarized his definition of play in Homo Ludens as "a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and space. On Huizinga's theory. and chivalry was discredited and replaced by a new path to the sublime.. dreams. Ibid. . because: "The dream of past perfection ennobles life and its forms. Ibid. We also find them supplying romantic and erotic needs and degenerating into an amusement and a theme for raillery. it continued to perform this function. chivalric.

" America. he wrote: "If an American who reads Dutch were to ask me: 'Can't you find anything in my country to which you can give unconditional praise?' I shall reply to him: 39. Huizinga attributed the importance of sport in America. "In the immense sport organizations. four years before the publication of The Waning of the Middle Ages. One of his first tasks at Leiden was to prepare a series of lectures on American history. because it involves more merely than the development of physical skills and strength. a naive and imperfect prelude to the Renaissance" (197). What he observed about sport in America. as in the dance and in sacred stage presentations. in which he touched on the role of sport in modern. If we compare the tense athlete in his competitive harness with the pioneer hunter and the Indian fighter. "Man and the Masses in America. as it were. where he remained until it was closed by the German occupation authorities in 1942. Play can pass over into art and rite. serves this purpose. transl. Life and Thought in America. Ibid. Huizinga was appointed to the chair of general history and historical geography at the University of Leiden. strength. 40. A Dutch Historian's Vision. Both of these can be explained more readily as a direct extension of chivalric honor than as a result of the revival of classical studies. and life.72 ROBERT ANCHOR tion and a sense of honor as the two central characteristics of Renaissance man. the stylizing of the very feeling of youth."40 But at the same time. "It is also the giving of form. to modern man's quest to save his individuality. and in other technologically advanced societies. 90. 1972). the mechanization and organization of sport counteracted the very urge toward individuality that made sport so popular in America in the first place. a setting so very different from old Europe. H.. 41. Play is rhythm and struggle. a spiritual value of enormous weight. H. from Afar and Near. . The competitive ideal itself is a cultural value of high importance. Play is culture. Sport. he observed. like those of baseball and football. we see free youthful forces and courage reduced to normality and uniformity in the service of the machinery of rules and play and the competitive system. Not everything that glitters in the Renaissance is antiquity: the highly unclassical chivalric fantasy of the Amadis romances still reigned supreme in the minds of the sixteenth century. 115. "The Problem of the Renaissance" [1915] in Men and Ideas. based on his travel notes from a trip to the United States in 1926. 115-116. mechanized society.'"41 Huizinga was not unsympathetic to America. only confirmed his view of the universal significance of play. In the foreword to his second work on the subject. Rowen [1918] (New York."39 In 1915. See also "The Political and Military Significance of Chivalric Ideas in the Late Middle Ages" [1921] in Men and Ideas. then the loss of true personality is obvious. where Huizinga restates this point: "The chivalric revival was.

what are these as forms of culture! Walkingonce in Cologne in the lost hours between trains. In the half darkness the sounds floated low and clear. Speaking of American popular literature.44 Throughout the twenties and thirties. 45."42 Nevertheless. what it contains of culturalvalue.. the vulgar materialism. Rather. Ibid. which he now saw passing away and wished to save. Huizinga. the anti-intellectualism. and Erasmus as against that of Augustine. John of Salisbury. 44. in the man or in the word?"43 Of course. and the disillusioned expatriates."45 the 42.all come in for sharp criticism. in exasperation: "Is the word itself no longer the product of the man but of the machine? And if so. Huizinga came to the defense of the culture that he thought did matter: the Christian culture of Jerome. where does culture reside. "John of Salisbury: A Pre-Gothic Mind" [1933] in Men and Ideas. But his hostility to modem society and culture. 265. We need only think of Sinclair Lewis. the features of American life that Huizinga disliked were not. Bernard of Clairvaux. The first was a culture based on "the ideals of a society combining the purest of faith with the highest of civilization. Huizinga's criticisms of America are even sharper in this work than in his earlier lectures.. which increased with time. . Ibid. the film and light reading. but only most pronounced there. like so many intellectuals of his generation during the terrible war and postwar years. even by Americans. the commercialization and trivialization of culture. and I felt that nine-tenthsof our presentday culturallife really doesn't matter. was not uncommon in the at the beach or out camping. apart from its value for eternity. such criticism. he was troubled by the passing away of the very concept of culture. as he understood it: culture considered as a harmonious balance of material and spiritual forces. Moreover.. Abelard. was not due simply to his love of old Europe and its culture.and even concert-going. 314.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 73 'Weigh more heavily what I praise than what I seem to blame. confined to America. It was the spiritual crisis of modern civilization as a whole that concerned him in this work. Ibid. Victor. Towarddusk I left the indifferentbustle of the street to enter the churchof Sankt Mariaim Kapitol. Huizinga asks. 230. in his opinion. and Luther. 43. A service was in progress. I became indignantat the way the holy city on the Rhine had become ugly and banal. Modern civilization is on trial in America. L. H. he says here. in a series of superbly crafted essays. Mencken. We prefer to speak least of what is best'. and the naively anti-metaphysical attitude of American science . 176. Hugh of St. I realized at once what a true ritual means in life. I felt the mighty seriousness of a time in which these things were the essence for all men. The mechanization of life in America. became and remained a cultural conservative. One of the most personal and revealing passages that Huizinga ever wrote appears in Life and Thought in America: Golf and the auto.

"History has taught the world to look forward in its struggle for happiness. It is clear why Huizinga sympathized more with the first. classicism asserted itself for the last time: first. when it was in full flower. tury. "Whenever there was a great religious crisis the words of Augustine outweighed those of Jerome in the scales of the ages. Huizinga found the shallow optimism of H. "Two Wrestlers with the Angel" [1921] in Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Cen158-219. and second. "Abelard" [1935] in Men and Ideas. as an anachronism in the slogans of the French Revolution and in the art of David. he says here. Wells little better than the hopeless pessimism of Oswald Spengler.74 ROBERT ANCHOR second was a culture of "the burning heart and absolute faith. Historians like Ranke and Lamprecht. which had nurtured the best in Western civilization down to the eighteenth century. 49. "More and more the sad conclusion forces itself upon us that the play element in culture has been on the wane ever since the eighteenth century."50 In "The Task of Cultural History" Huizinga returned to the attack on positivist historiography that he had begun in "The Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought" and had continued in "A Definition of the Concept of History. and no longer to drug itself with retrospective dreams of life. "Historical Ideals of Life" [1915] in Men and Ideas. Both cultures were ascetic. it plays false. Civilization today is no longer played. who had attempted to do so." History. had misunderstood the goals and 46. 47. 206."47 At the end of the eighteenth century."46 Both were steeped in classical culture. the late eighteenth century. Once Western man became accustomed to thinking historically. so that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell where play ends and non-play begins. as the source from which Goethe derived his purely modern ideals of life. G. 91-92. but the second more so than the first. as the decline of classicism as an historical ideal of life. . but the first more so than the second.49 And it is no accident that Huizinga marked the beginning of the decline of the play element in Western culture as occurring at the same time. But Huizinga also recognized that it was the culture originating with Augustine that had prevailed throughout the centuries in times of spiritual crisis. 48. and even where it still seems to play it is false play . 50.I had almost said. although he did praise the Englishman's faith in human reason. For it was the culture originating with Jerome that had succeeded in keeping alive the ideals of classical antiquity. 195. Idem."48 But the very historicism that had educated the Western world away from the ideals of the past failed to produce new ones of comparable human significance. he could no longer believe in the ideals of the past. cannot and should not even try to achieve the exactness of the natural sciences. Homo Ludens.

"In order to begin an analysis. the historiancan never know how complete they are.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 75 methods of history. inevitably enters into this process of selection. 52. he forms conceptual contexts."55 But the difference between cultural and all other branches of history is one of degree and not kind. For one thing.'"51 The trouble. If the es in Ranke's phrase is to have meaning. Instead. 53. and as they consolidate into culturalfigures. concepts. styles. unlike the data of the natural sciences. It is an act of synthesis. the data of history. Idem..the concept of causality is of little use to him. since the historian's understandingof the past is governed by his inquiry. Ibid. "Even the best and most complete tradition is in itself amorphous and mute. "it must be determined beforehandby a conception of a certain historical and logical unity one is attemptingto delineate more precisely. which remain open and cannot be expressed by "the metaphor of links forming a chain. not of reconstructiononly. motifs. which never presents itself to the historian as nature presents itself to the physicist. there must alreadybe a synthesis present in the mind.and the historian's subjectivity. 25. which the historian strives to reassemble completely and accuratelyin the mannerof a jigsaw puzzle. the former deals only with configurations:"the manifoldforms and functions of civilization as they can be detected from the history of peoples and of social groups. But this preconception of the past is only a subjective construction that the historian superimposes on the remnants of the past available to him. his sense of coherence and meaning."53 Moreover. Ibid. which was not realizedin the past as lived. 51. A conception of orderedcoherence is an indispensable preconditioneven to the preliminarylabor of digging and hewing. 55. 65.. . not to the past itself. with Ranke's famous phrase - wie es eigentlich gewesen . The mind selects from traditioncertain elements it synthesizes into a coherent image. Idem. and sentiments. it does not correspondto the objective past. his sense of its unity belongs to the present. ideals. Therefore. are never "given." They must be discovered and selected accordingto their importance. symbols. 53. but only by that of a loosely bound bundle of sticks to which new twigs can be added as long as the band aroundthem allows it. in contrast to political and economic history."52 Huizinga's second point is that the historian's conception of the unity of the past is determinedby the questions he puts to it. Since the data are never given."54 Synthesis plays an especially large role in culturalhistory because. themes. "The Task of Cultural History" in Men and Ideas. "That unity can never be an arbitraryslice of past reality that it presupposes a well-defined past reality. All history is subjective to some extent. for example. 26.

that what he is describing must have been that way. goes beyond adherence to the canons of historical research. "He achieves the living contact of the mind with the old that was genuine and full of significance. is limited to moments of special intellectual clarity."59 Interpreting the meaning of the meaningful."57 This does not mean that the historian arbitrarily imposes personal meanings on the past. Ibid.."58 Real living contact with the past lies beyond the book of history. 39. 54. vision. moments of a sudden penetration of the spirit. by a print. by a few notes of an old song. this sensation.76 ROBERT ANCHOR Perhaps more suitable than a bundle of sticks might be a bunch of wild flowers. giving meaning to the meaningless. 43. 59."60 This special contact with the past "can be evoked by a line from a document or chronicle. it makes up for in significance. of cultural history in particular. Re-experiencing as a method of cognition assumes a more or less continuous perception constantly accompanying the labor of reading and thinking. Ibid. In reality. Ibid. and be able to verify by the canons of historical research. "One does not realize the historical sensation as a re-experiencing. the criterion obtains that nothing can be called history which does not spring from the need for a perfectly genuine picture of a certain past."56 But what history lacks in exactness. 57. 60. Ibid. 61. The historian can achieve living contact with the past only by the "historical sensation" that Huizinga calls Ahnung or intuition.. But as long as history is considered as Sinndeutung des Sinnvollen. and thereby to construct a morphology of the human past. not in it. But the historian must believe."61 Ahnung enables us to visualize the forms in which the past assembles itself in our minds. 46. 24. however. Idem. interpreting the meaning of the meaningful. Ibid. but not identical with it.. contact. For it is precisely the synthetic activity of the historian and the indefiniteness of his data that enable him to discover the meaning that the past has for the present. "The person who unreservedly chooses the formula that history is merely Sinngebung des Sinnlosen. which is the ultimate task of history. is no longer bound by such a requirement. The weakness of literature as a vehicle of historical understanding is precisely "the lack of coherence between its products and its everlasting indeterminacy. . a notion inspired by and similar to Dilthey's Erlebnis. 58.. In their variety and their difference in value new notions added to the conception of a historical context are like newly found flowers in the nosegay: each one changes the appearance of the whole bouquet. Ahnung. 56. but as an understanding that is closely related to the understanding of music..

the current myths of national and racial superiority. 46. In the Shadoit' of Tomorrow. H. Europe of the 1930s.64 In The Waning of the Middle Ages.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 77 Alarmed by spreading fascism. All these motifs converged at last in Huizinga's decision to devote a special study to play and its relationship to culture in general. seemed to Huizinga to be on the verge of collapse. He began his investigation with the following broad definition of culture: "Culture. In his autobiographical particular. nor a history of the idea of play. and evaluate particular cultures. The spectatorsgo home. HOMO LUDENS HomnoLudens is neither a history of play. J. Rather. the moral. Huizinga [1936] (New York. 63. the players take off their masks. nor a study of play as one among many other human activities. the performancehas ended. he discovered that the perversion of play was a serious symptom of the crisis of contemporary Western civilization. and spiritual field maintains a state which is higher and better than would follow from the given natural conditions. interpret. the decline of critical judgment. LI. like Europe of the late Middle Ages. Finally. it is 62. A far-reaching contamination play and serious activity has taken place. In his theoretical writings. and whose characteristics are a harmonious balance of material and spiritual values and a more or less homogeneous ideal in whose pursuit the community's various activities converge.''63 The most fundamentalcharacteristic of true play. the misuse of science and technology. transl. And here the evil of our time shows itself. The of two spheres are getting mixed up. 182. sustained. Ibid. . and shaped his own personal interest in the past. is present when the control over nature in the material. 177. the rise of social conformity and the threat of irresponsible mass action.. and the politicization of all spheres of life. Ibid. Huizinga had discovered the importance of play as a formative force in medieval culture. as a condition of society. 64. whether it be a cult. he had produced a definition of culture in general and the means by which the historian is able to perceive. in In the Shadow of Tomorrow. 1964). he reveals how his sense of play aroused. For nowadays play in many cases never ends and hence is not true play. To this list Huizinga added the perversion of play. or a festivity.. Huizinga applied his insights into the nature of culture and the historian's ability to interpret it to an analysis of contemporary Western civilization in In the Shadow of Tomorrow (1936)."62 From this definition Huizinga proceeded to compare the crisis of Europe in the 1930s to earlier crises in Western civilization and to isolate the elements that made it unique and uniquely dangerous . is that at a certain momentit is over. which he now considered "one of the most important aspects of the malady of our time.

3. . that its perversion can endanger society led him to realize "the supreme importance to civilization of the play-factor. Ibid.. Huizinga states in the foreword: "It was not my object to define the place of play among all the other manifestations of culture. 1933). . however inadequately defined. Most of them deal only incidentally with the question of what play is in itself and what it means for the player. Tindbergen.70 whether animals 65. i. the need for relaxation or distraction. Ibid. ordinary. J. a fundamental category that can only be defined in terms of its opposite: serious. but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play. 1872-1972. The intensity of. 68. and the like. . . the primordial quality of play. . desire to enter into competition to prove one's superiority. . "On War and Peace in Animals and Man. this power of maddening."65 His findings. "Play is older than culture. Yet in this intensity.. 1963). H. such as discharge of excess energy. ii. this absorption. for culture. desire to imitate. not only because it cannot be explained by anything else ("the fun of playing resists all analysis. Das sogenannte Bose. Play is a fundamental category. J. Zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression (Vienna. Gombrich's sources are Konrad Lorenz. Huizinga's source for this point was F. 69. Ibid..68 but also because it precedes human society and culture chronologically. 70."67 Huizinga asserts that play is an irreducible phenomenon.. and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing."69 We may question. Huizinga argues. N. Buytendijk.. that play can ennoble society and. all logical interpretation"). that no one of them captures the essence of play. with E. Wesen und Sinn des Spiels (Berlin. and absorption in. At best. Huizinga correctly observes that all these explanations are only partial. preparation for life. Gombrich."66 Huizinga starts with a definition of the nature and significance of play. that it must have some kind of biological purpose. Homo Ludens. in The Waning of the Middle Ages.Huizinga's Homo Ludens" in Johan Huizinga. a study of play as a structure that manifests itself in all spheres of human culture. lies the very essence. in In the Shadow of Tomorrow. But they tell us little about its nature and significance.. To clarify his intention. 67. Ibid. and that most of them are mutually exclusive. Huizinga dismisses them on the grounds that: "All these hypotheses have one thing in common: they all start from the assumption that play must serve something which is not play. 2-3." Science 160 (28th June. everyday life. From this definition he explicitly excludes all biopsychological explanations. play finds no explanation in biological analysis.78 ROBERT ANCHOR a morphology of play. 66. such explanations shed some light on the motives for and effects of play. 150 ff. 1. always presupposes human society. sublimation of instincts forbidden direct satisfaction by society.

as human beings. for example. military procedures. "In play 1968). or rituals. Play involves a play community that sets itself apart from others by means of special uniforms. and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. Thorpe. CCLI (1966). regardless of content. . thinkable. J. 72. It is voluntary and spontaneous. In this enclosed space. or as a representation of something. The sanctuary or church is the enclosed space. that religious ritual manifests all the formal characteristics of his definition. in which the religious ceremony takes place. that the identification of play with holiness does not detract from the latter. Play is the antithesis of seriousness.. 13. Summingup the formal characteristicsof play we might call it a free activity standingquite consciously outside 'ordinary'life as being 'not serious. Just as in play. and no profit can be gained by it. Animal Play" inA Discussion on Ritualization of Behaviour in Animals and Man. Huxley.' but at the same time absorbingthe player intensely and utterly. The essence of play is fun. or play in the same sense. All play has its rules the breaking of which destroys the fragile play world. regulated and symbolic movements are executed. ed. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. poetry. 71. insignia. the participants become totally absorbed in the ceremony. He finds that play functions in these spheres in two ways: as a contest for something. rather. Huizinga insists that all religious ritual. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their differencefrom the common world by disguise or other means. which is dominated by determinism. but rather exalts the former. delimited and separated from the world and ordinary life. No.72 Using this definition as his model. It is an activity connected with no materialinterest. however.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 79 play. Ibid."'71 From there he proceeds to enumerate the formal characteristics of play. H. Huizinga claims. Series B. and W. and the arts . It is a "stepping out" from real life. Huizinga then tries to show how far the higher forms of culture . for a specified time.manifest the character of play. "Ritualization in Ontogeny: I. It proceeds within its own properboundariesof time and space accordingto fixed rules and in an orderly manner. philosophy. It takes place within specified limits of space and time. 772. bears the character of play. which are supposed to represent or re-enact transcendent realities. 1411-18. language. Play begins and ends with itself and produces nothing beyond itself. The strengths (and weaknesses) of his definition lie. 3. Huizinga begins his definition with the proposition that "play only becomes possible.religion. in his careful delineation of play from that which is not play. Homo Ludens. But Huizinga's assertion of the primordial quality of play does not stand or fall with his assertion of the origins of play in the animal world. which transports them to another world. law. He hastens to add.

in the ritual of the potlatch and in the sacred Olympian games. for example. of which Huizinga distinguishes three: the game of chance. but we can also move above it . . "The primary thing is to excel others. 44-45. 75. ."75 In his wide-ranging analysis of customs in the primitive and ancient worlds. . as the child does."73 Play manifests itself in language most visibly as metaphor. for example. we find that the two terms are not of equal value: play is positive. The need for a comprehensiveterm expressing 'not play' must have been rather feeble. however. an imaginative reconstruction of reality in figurative or poetic terms. Ibid. and in naming them raises them into the domain of the spirit. In the making of language. Huizinga's etymological analysis of the words used in various languages . In archaic societies. but rather according to standards of honor and esteem. whereasplay can very well include seriousness. but instead provides a 73. The ap- pearance of a term for 'earnest' means that people have become conscious of the play concept as an independent entity . Legal processes.a process which . is not primarily a will to defeat or to dominate. serious matters are settled in play-like contests. Competitive play flourishes in the archaic (heroic) stage of a civilization's development. . 51. Ibid. Ibid. express the idea of play convinced him that the play concept appeared earlier and is more fundamental than its opposite: seriousness. . and modern . For seriousness seeks to exclude play.. But this does not happen until a civilization grows more complicated and serious and either loses touch with the original spirit of play. and the verbal battle. as. . to be first. . the human spirit constantly plays with the faculty of naming things. . happens rather late. . And the decision arrived at does not serve as a precedent for future decisions. . and esteem that competitive or agonistic play engenders and ennobles culture. Huizinga argues that it is in this striving for excellence. earnest negative. assume competitive play forms. Justice in the primitive world is not decided according to ideal standards of truth and dignity. .. Leaving aside the linguistic question and observing the play-earnest antithesis more closely. and the various expressions for 'seriousness' are but a secondaryattempton the part of language to invent the conceptual opposite of 'play'.80 ROBERT ANCHOR we may move below the level of the serious. Huizinga does not deny that competitive play can easily degenerate merely into a will to win and assume violent and exploitative forms. 19. the contest.. a representation. classical. 74. or else forces it to become the realm of the beautiful and sacred. and to be honored for that.. which are satisfied in one or more of these three ways. which is essentially a play on words.74 The play element appears in law and warfare in the form of competition.primitive. as pure play. superiority.

persuasion. military songs. and competition. and prestige as well as for serious political and economic aims. Huizinga does not deny or minimize the cruelty and violence of the sole norm of its political behavior. which are fought for glory. The play element is also present in the conduct of wars. he observes that poetry combines at one and the same time ritual. Its acknowledgment of reciprocal rights and obligations. 101. "As soon as one or more of a community of states virtually denies the binding character of international law and. warfare assumes the form of a noble game of honor and virtue. the need for order in human affairs) is recognized and respected. Poetry as a social activity of little or no aesthetic value can be found everywhere and in a variety of forms: antiphonal singing. jousts. and religious 76. entertainment. Ibid. either in practice or in theory. soothsaying. That is to say that poetry performs a social and liturgical as well as an aesthetic function. a contest. impromptu versifying. doctrine. its diplomatic procedures. its insistence on honoring treaties and making formal declarations of war. crusades. however. the play element in politics becomes more apparent when international law is violated than when it is observed. . not necessarily because it is beautiful.' 76 Play also permeates poetry. Even after civilized justice makes it appearance. which Huizinga regards as its purest cultural expression. and duels. proclaims the interest and power of its own group . artistry. sorcery. pride. church. riddle-making. and the system of states it regulates retains something of the character of a play community..all bear a formal resemblance to play rules in that they are binding only while the game itself (that is. But he does defend the civilizing influence of the play element in warfare inasmuch as it gave rise to chivalry. and a verbal battle. As with legal proceedings. it does not entirely lose its play-like character.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 81 solution for a stable relationship in a particular case. International law continues to bear the traces of its origins in it nation. which is executed at a specified time and place according to pre-arranged rules. The inference from all this is that in the absence of the play-spirit civilization is impossible. and original violence retakes its ancient rights. prophecy. which in turn served as a basis for modem international law. Unfortunately. Poetry is the preferred language of primitive man and children because it is pleasing. its creation of world courts and organizations (referees) to interpret rules and negotiate disputes . not only does the last vestige of the immemorial play-spirit vanish but with it any claim to civilization at all. class. Rejecting theories that explain poetry primarily or exclusively in aesthetic terms. which is readily apparent in tournaments. party. Society then sinks down to the level of the barbaric. Civilized justice still retains qualities of a game of chance. or whatever else .

poetry will never rise to the level of seriousness. and polemics cannot be divorced from agonistics. Ibid. the nimble play of wit and readiness. Ibid. 80."77 Originally. 119. took such pains to refute the sophists as to indicate that their own thought had not yet broken loose from the archaic sphere of play. 166. the savage. "To beat your opponent by reason or by the word becomes a sport comparable with the profession of arms. ecstasy.. "If a serious statement be defined as one that may be made in terms of waking life. laughter.82 ROBERT ANCHOR hymns. especially among the sophists. It lies beyond seriousness. Huizinga observes. Ibid. the festive play of courtship. outside the sphere of necessity and material utility. enchantment. the martial play of the contest. and the seer belong. law and warfare. progressively lost touch with play. mockery and invective. "All poetry is born of play: the sacred play of worship..''78 Huizinga traces the origin of philosophy to the sacred riddle-game. . and the other civilized activities. "All knowledge . and the charm of the salon.. poetry was inseparable from myth. Only poetry remained as the stronghold of vital and noble play: an activity which proceeds within certain limits of space and time. 155. '80 Of all the arts. the disputatious play of braggadocio. 129. the animal. 78. the grace of rococo. music and dance remain closest to 77. But even their opponents. To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child's soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man's wisdom for the child's. commerce and science. according to rules freely accepted. poetry retained its function of expressing man's understanding of the cosmos in play-like language: the language of rhythm. As civilization became more serious. an age that delighted in displays of esprit. and competition was a very pronounced feature of the whole development of the medieval university and scholasticism. and which evokes rapture and enthusiasm. but as belief in the literal truth of myth declined. except poetry. on that more primitive and original level where the child. in a visible order. The play spirit in Latin life and literature found expression in the arts of declamation and rhetoric. in the region of dream. Plato and Aristotle. and images. rhyme." Huizinga concludes. 79. Huizinga traces these social and liturgical functions of poetry to its origin in the primordial play impulse and its retention of the quality of play."79 The competitive spirit of play carried over to the literary and intellectual disputes of the eighteenth century. "is polemical by nature. Ibid.and this naturally includes philosophy. The play spirit remained vigorous in Greek philosophy. which was at one and the same time a ritual and a form of entertainment. and is sacred or secular according to the occasion..

173. And Huizinga notes that all true ritual is sung and danced. The play element is less pronounced in the plastic arts. economics. We have to conclude. The pleasure of music is the pleasure of ritual. Even more than poetry. music and dancingwere pure play. and the negation of every norm not only exist (as they always have).81 Homo Ludens ends with a bitter chapter that returns to one of the main themes of In the Shadow of Tomorrow: the decadence of the play element in modern times. older than cultureitself and pervades all life like a veritableferment. detachment. which are governed by considerations of economics. Ritualgrew up in sacred play. and existing techniques of production. utility. because science. and morality . which rises partly into the sphere of ideation and judgment. although often competitive and polemical. war. Moreover. poetry was born in play and nourishedon play. and its values transcend logical ideas. therefore. and all honorable competition. and play loses its indispensable qualities of spontaneity. especially architecture. cynicism.. and joy. The rules of warfare. which involve more than purely practical and aesthetic objectives. as a social impulse. Music has nothing to do with practical life.the conventions of noble living were built up on play-patterns. Huizinga summarizes his findings thus: It has not been difficultto show that a certain playfactorwas extremely active all throughthe culturalprocess and that it produces many of the fundamental forms of social life. artlessness. or truth. duty. Huizinga claims. played. The decadence of play is evident also in the commercialization. The spirit of playful competition is. in its earliestphases. and thus its power to act as a culture-creating activity. the musical arts. as is evident in the rich historical tradition of art and architectural contests. produce and evoke a purely emotional experience. professionalization. all noble activity. Ibid. whereby the serious business of life politics. The least ludic of the higher forms of culture is science. utility. but are elevated into absolutes in place of the rules that underlie all play. is too immersed in and concerned with the real world to qualify as play. which perverts recreation and 81. and politicization of sport. which is the primordial ground of play. by means of rhythm and harmony. that civilization is. Wisdom and philosophy found expression in words and forms derived from religious contests. . Here Huizinga depicts contemporary civilization as one in which material interests. But Huizinga holds that the inclusion of the crafts among the arts in the archaic phase of civilization and the recurrent theme of competitive artisanship in myth and legend have left a definite impress on the actual development of art and technics. there is more emphasis in scientific competition on vanquishing rivals than there is in true play. The decadence of play is evident in the breakdown of the distinction between play and seriousness.degenerate into pseudo-play. and never leaves it. It does not comefrom play like a babe detachingitself from the womb: it arises in and as play.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 83 play.

Geyl faults Huizinga on two specific counts: overlooking the political origin and nature of the world crisis that culminated in World War 11. Huizinga was. 231-262. argue that it does not go far enough. while others contend that it goes in the wrong direction.83 criticize Huizinga's apparent blindness to the importance of politics. which they regard as particularly indefensible. whatever they may think. Huizinga concludes. 85. 619-620. HOMO LUDENS: FOR AND AGAINST Almost all of Huizinga's important critics acknowledge his originality and eminence as a cultural historian. or what he would 82. Ibid. Huizinga's alleged nonpolitical stance tacitly succored the Nazi cause)."82 III.. Ibid. without conventions consciously established and voluntarily adhered to. 84. the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal. and without knowledge of how to win and lose graciously. especially his insights into the nature of play and its role as a civilizing force. Two of them. honorable professor was fundamentally a political being. Some. "Huizinga as Accuser of His Age. respectable. R. Colie goes farther: "Because he had so long kept politics at a distance from him.84 ROBERT ANCHOR reduces it to crude sensationalism. Huizinga was unprepared for the brute fact that an elderly. 629-630. They respect his work. instead of making boys into men. and shot in 1944. had he joined. Professors are by definition not neutral. After making much of the influence of Huizinga's Mennonite upbringing on his aloofness from politics as an adult. Colie. which. clearly shows that there can be no civilization without play and rules of fair play." History and Theoty 2 (1963). Colie then."84 (Presumably." American Historical Review 69 (1964). somewhat unfairly. Colie neglects to mention that he was a Jew. "Johan Huizinga and the Task of Cultural History.85 who served in the French army. 83. but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Colie. adapts the conduct of the community to that of the adolescent age. Exactly how Huizinga at sixty-eight could have served the Dutch underground. Geyl.. and was arrested. and idealizing the past so as to make the present appear worse than it was. however. 607-630. whose situation and options as a Jew in Nazi Europe were uniquely desperate. joined the resis tance after the fall of France. Pieter Geyl and Rosalie L. considering the troubled times in which he lived and wrote. since Colie does not say so explicitly. Marc Bloch. compares him unfavorably with his friend. not in fact harmless. It is evident in the perversion of culture by puerilism. tortured. 211. . The supreme importance to civilization of the play factor is precisely that "civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self. P. as far as it goes. Colie. In praising Bloch's undeniable heroism. All of this. however.

"The Task of Cultural History. 1945). chivalry was the strongest of the ideas that filled the minds and the hearts of those men of another age.that is. . Huizinga chided the medievalists of the time for their overemphasis of social and economic factors to the neglect of the spiritual values of the Middle Ages. a peace treaty.. they have succeeded in presenting a picture of the Middle Ages in which economic and social points of view are so dominant that one tends to forget that. however importantand unavoidable. 615. Ibid. next to religion.. a dynasty. In "The Task of Cultural History. 90. They can never be either the essence or the ultimate pursuit of a civilization.90 Such statements were not those of a man insensitive to the role of poli86.. "Conditions for a Recovery of Civilization. It continues to enjoy a certain primacy because it is so much the morphology of society par excellence. "Combing the records in which chivalry is. 390-400. indeed."89 Huizinga summed up his lifelong attitude toward politics in an article published in 1940: The importanceof the political seems so overwhelmingthat we are apt to forget that politics and economics togetheronly form part of that nether domainof human activity which the Greeks called the acquisitive art. In addition to In the Shadow of Tomorrow'."87 What troubled Huizinga throughout his career." he insisted that "the historical forms of political life are already to be found in life itself" . lies the fundamental character of political history." Fortnightly Review 147 (1940).88 As early as in The Waning of the Middle Ages. 87. little mentioned. at least not the whole of it. the state itself. and increasingly so during the 1930s.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 85 have accomplished by martyring himself Colie does not make clear. see "Der Mensch und die Kultur" in Parerga [1938] (Basle. which is inseparable from the paramount importance of those forms themselves. She muddies the waters further by invoking Julien Benda as a critic of the non-political attitude of his generation of intellectuals. Huizinga. But he immediately added: "Political history brings its own forms: a state institution. was his generation's one-sided preoccupation with and misleading inflation of the importance of politics to the detriment of historical understanding. "The Political and Military Significance of Chivalric Ideas in the Late Middle Ages.86 Such criticisms might be justified if they concentrated more on what Huizinga thought and did than on what he did not think or do.are always a secondary function of human life. when in fact Benda castigated them for having abandoned disinterested intellectual activity and allowing their talents to be manipulated for political and nationalistic ends." 58-59. found politics personally distasteful. a war. but he was never blind to its importance. 88. 89. within the matrix of culture as a whole. Now if we still agree that the acquisitive life does not mean civilization. In this fact.. there is no need for pointing out that the absorption of mental faculties by the political and economic purposes of society raises grave fears as to the healthy state of our civilization. admittedly. Politics." 197.

91 Antoni's essay. Erasmus. More to the point are the criticisms of Carlo Antoni and Roger Caillois. The Nazis deemed them dangerous enough to detain Huizinga during the occupation in the out-of-the-way town of De Steeg. 92. but only that the higher forms of civilization originate in and flourish as noble play. Ibid. Carlo Antoni. he would have known that Huizinga scarcely thought of civilization as a "fatuous game. transl. and that they suffer when play declines. indeed. transl. but made his position to the contrary clear in the conclusion to Homo Ludens: "Play . Such statements. Play.86 ROBERT ANCHOR tics or to their "paramount importance" as a reflection of the morphology of society as a whole. and who sought to diagnose the disease of which the myths of national and racial superiority. Finally. . . Man and the Sacred. is based almost wholly on The Waning of the Middle Ages. 1959). and war were the most conspicuous signs. But they were the statements of a man who plausibly viewed politics as symptomatic rather than causative." It makes only one brief reference to In the Shadow of Tomorrow. and Games. as in modern times." Antoni's essay ends with the provocative but misplaced question: "What sort of spirit can be demanded of the participant in a play called upon to defend that which he knows to be nothing but a fatuous game? And how is it possible to lament the fact that all things 'which once stood firm and sacred' have now been shaken? Especially if one has asserted the relativity of all cultural phenomena and the legitimate plurality of all forms?" 92 Had Homo Ludens been available to Antoni. 5. and held that any confusion of the two perverts both. Roger Caillois.. and the new justifications for violence. and "The Task of Cultural History. Hayden V. our moral conscience will at once provide the touchstone. that his historiography. therefore. Barash (Glencoe." He would have known that Huizinga distinguished sharply between play and seriousness. 1959). As soon as 91. 206. transl. Ill. Homo Ludens appeared a year later.. On the basis of the writings he used. published in 1937.. Caillois presents his own theory of play in Man. . M. Antoni would have known that Huizinga did not rate play above the serious business of life. Appendix II. cruelty. Ill. White (Detroit. But if we have to decide whether an action to which our will impels us is a serious duty or is licit as play. while Huizinga insisted that civilization "arises in and as play. He would have known also that. M. "was itself a symptom of the evil which he deplored." he did not mean or imply that civilization is equivalent to play and nothing more. and never leaves it. lies outside morals. Antoni concluded that Huizinga lacked conceptual rigor and was guilty of subjectivism and relativism. In itself it is neither good nor bad. ch. as in the late Middle Ages. Barash (Glencoe. 1961). From History to Sociology. were not neutral. or when play gets out of hand.

But Antoni and Caillois both were correct in observing that his theory failed to explain how these activities could be simultaneously playful and serious. . H."93 What a different picture from Antoni's Gombrich presents! "I venture to think that none of Huizinga's critics have quite confronted the agony of his position. "The military arts do not explain war. Huizinga was equally insistent on maintaining play and seriousness as two separate categories. or gratuitous human activity. neither does prosody explain poetry. Huizinga." 149 ff. it would obviously make no sense to ask how far culture itself bears the character of play. On the one hand. What had sustained him throughout his life. was a faith in absolute values.if the two were mutually exclusive."95 In fact."94 Nevertheless. subtly transmuted the historical category of play into a timeless philosoph93. 94. nor does law explain the requirements of justice. and then classifies them according to similarities that may be only superficial or coincidental. Huizinga repeatedly insisted that play does not exclude seriousness . and religion were only play. Caillois also charged that Huizinga confused the playfulforms of culture with its serious contents. so Gombrich's critique runs. Gombrich attributes this ambiguity to what he calls the "essentialism" of Huizinga's definition of play. The fallacy of "essentialism" is that it mistakes concepts for realities. poetry. in order to preserve his definition intact. What so deeply upset him was the spectacle of reason undermining rationality. On the other hand. Homo Ludens. His stand was to be against relativism in all forms. which could be used to explain almost every regulated. 95. he was unable to provide an objective criterion for judging where play ends and seriousness begins. Huizinga never claimed that war. 96.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 87 truth and justice." 143. regards things as epiphenomena. compassion and forgiveness have part in our resolve to act. By starting with a definition designed to capture the essence of play.96 By "essentialism' he means that approach which. 'Huizinga's Homo Ludens. and how they could be compatible with yet distinguishable from the play structures in which they find expression. indeed what had prompted him to reject romantic aestheticism in favor of an uncompromising search for truth. it was a noble stand in an important cause. Whatever we may think about individual arguments he employed. 161. in the manner of medieval realism. 213. Thus. Man and the Sacred. As a result of this ambiguity. E. conventional. our anxious question loses all meaning. Huizinga succumbed to the temptation of treating play as an Urphainoinen. "Huizinga's Homo Ludens. The same is true for the sacred. there is an element of truth in Antoni's charge that Huizinga's conception of the relationship between play and reality is unsound. the values of Christianity and the values of rationality.

or the rite alone into acts. Gombrich correctly objects that this evidence. then re-introduced it into time sub specie aeternitatis. But where Huizinga considered the two as complementary . Emile Benveniste. Nevertheless. the divine struggle for possession of the sun becomes a football game (ludus). but not as an accurate description of reality." 164-165. "Le Jeu comme structure. and never leaves it. "Jocus is characterized by the deliberately fictive nature of the reality to which it alludes. he traces the origins of play to the idea of the sacred in primitive religion. that is. myth without rite results in a simple play upon words (jocus). "the rite is reduced to a mechanism ruled by acts that are henceforth ineffectual."97 Like Huizinga. words without sum or substance. If the sacred be defined by the consubstantialunity of myth and rite." To have chosen the second way would have undermined his distinction between noble play and its perversion by puerilism or its contamination by reality . of which it offers an invertedand brokenimage. and the probative riddle of initiation no more than a pun (jocus). 99. The linguist. to a harmless facsimile of the ceremony. Logically. 98. 19. or else that his definition of play was only an a priori construction. Benveniste sees play as a "desocializing operation. the norinative value of-his definition. was even less inclined than Huizinga to view the relationship between play and seriousness as symbiotic."The Platonic identification of play and holiness does not defile the latter by calling it play. Deprived of myth. For to have taken the first way out would have undermined his thesis that all civilization "arises in and as play. 164. Homo Ludens. from the decomposition of religious ceremony into its two basic components. Huizinga understandably failed to resolve this dilemma. writing shortly after World War 1I. From these premises Benveniste concludes: Play originatesin the sacred.Benveniste maintains that play results from the separation of myth from rite. We are then outside the 97. fails to prove that behavior which resembles play actually is play." Deucalion 2 (1947).when the myth alone is translatedinto words."99 When this separation takes place.88 ROBERT ANCHOR ical category. which splits play off sharply from the sacred." Conversely. to a pure game (ludus). we can say that there is play only when half of the sacred operationis performed.that is. however impressive. "Le Jeu comme structure. having value as a heuristic device. Huizinga believed that the anthropological and linguistic evidence he mustered so skillfully was sufficient to warrant an essentialistt" definition of play. he should have decided either that play is not an Urphianomen. rather it exalts the concept of play to the highest regions of the Spirit"98 . of the sacred words that give religion its power over reality. . or that play actually is an Urphdnomen.

Reality is seen as corrupted play. nor a set of selfcontained forms (Caillois). Benveniste implies that play is merely a lower order of reality: seriousness minus its rational or empirical motivation. 1957).'00 Benveniste even provides a formula for recognizing the structural relationship between play. Consequently. 101. when the rite is practicedfor itself and separatedfrom its myth. Literature. and T. . in an autonomous world which conventions have protected from the fatalities of the real world. Jacques Ehrmann (Boston. when the myth is reduced to its own content and separatedfrom its rites. a particular mode of behavior that is coextensive with and reflective of culture as a whole. For them. which makes it efficacious. and play as devoid of reality.Play. Oase des Glficks. Fink's more extended study of play as a philosophical problem is Spiel als Weltsymbol. Two of the most fruitful critiques of Homio Ludens come from Jacques Ehrmann and Eugen Fink. 1968). will have two forms: jocique. such as compulsive behavior or apparently motiveless crimes? And if play is distinguishable from seriousness only by its gratuitousness. then. Ibid. Where Huizinga held that play and seriousness are two distinct but compatible categories. and serious activity. ludique.'"101 But what. ed. This assumption is false. is eliminated. play is neither an Urphanomen (Huizinga). play characteristicallyrecomposes. instead. through make-believe. according to Ehrmann.. correctly object that play does not take place in isolation from or in opposition to the rest of reality. A portion of this work has been translated by U. distinguishes play from any other gratuitous activity. 102. playful and serious. Moreover. Play. Jacques Ehrmann. because it is ideologi100. 165-166. Eugen Fink. at one and the same time. 31-58. from different standpoints. Ibid. Ehrmann observes that all of these definitions rest on the false assumption that play is simply what remains when seriousness is subtracted. as he conceives it. "Every coherent and regulated manifestation of collective and individual life is transposable into play when the rational or empirical motivation. 'Homo Ludens Revisited" in Gamne. the missinghalf in each of its two forms: in word play. Thus. he fares little better than Huizinga in explaining whether and how the higher forms of culture can be. which is Benveniste's thesis as well as Huizinga's? Benveniste's theory fails to answer these questions. Saine and appears in Game. but is. we act as if motivated by a rational reality. Literature. 19-31. From this dual standpoint. thus conceived. nor a structural substrate (Benveniste) incarnateseach of the two halves into which sacred ceremony is split. what remains when utility and purposefulness are subtracted is sterility and gratuity. This fiction allows the acts and the words to be consistent. we act as if some actual reality should result. Play. 166. in physical play. Gedanken zil eiter Ontologie des Spiels (Freiburg and Munich.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 89 divine and humansphere of the efficient. how can it be said to have a civilizing influence.102 both of whom.

And Huizinga's whole analysis of 103. in which the utilitarian and materialistic attitude toward culture "entails the expulsion of play into the exterior of gratuitousness and futility."'103 Huizinga. or relaxation . 47."the Sunday of life. become apparent. Benveniste. on this assumption it must always remain merely an accompaniment or complement of seriousness: an adornment. Huizinga himself. commentaries on. Ibid. constructed through and on the basis of the two others."'04 Ehrmann grants that this assumption may be true of contemporary Western society. 105. they are all simultaneously the subject and the object of the question which they put to us and we to them. To define play is at the same time and in the same movement to define reality and to define culture. as we have seen. . "Homo Ludens Revisited. 45. or interpretations of this preconceived reality. and Caillois all held that play is useful to culture precisely because it is isolated from an a priori reality. But here the ideological implications of Huizinga's position. as existing prior to its components (including play). stable. all culture was articulated in and as play. which are viewed merely as variations. Ibid. when a breakdown of the distinction between play and seriousness occurred that eventually contaminated both spheres. where it becomes the utopian complement of seriousness. As each term is a way to apprehend the two others. and on the other its components. and that play continued to be a vital culturecreating force until the end of the eighteenth century. in the earliest stages of human history.. however. "In an anthropology of play. which undermined his analysis. luxury. that whatever cultural utility play may have. It is ideologically slanted because it takes reality uncritically as given." Ehrmann correctly observes.. they are each elaborated. It implies an invalid dichotomy between a supposedly fixed. which is external to the manifestations of the culture that expresses it. 104. where no such antithesis between play and seriousness exists. argues Ehrmann. The procedure must be reversed. normative reality. For his well-meaning attempt to protect play from "the fatalities of the real world" corresponds exactly to the antithesis of work and play in the industrial phase of modern Western history. obscures the fact that the problem of reality and the problem of play are one and the same problem. maintained that.90 ROBERT ANCHOR cally slanted and methodologically unsound." 105 But this assumption does not hold true of other cultures. None of the three existing prior to the others. and hence is protected from "the fatalities of the real world. on the one hand. reality must not be the starting-point of an analysis of play (or any other social phenomenon)." 55. but rather its termination. Such a procedure. and thus as a norm. play cannot be defined by isolating it on the basis of its relationship to an a priori reality and culture.

games of a word. by his own theory. must perceive play in relation to the external world and recognize that both participate in the same economy. 106. there must be production somewhere. how much they play. was not this decline inevitable? If play is merely an adornment of reality. besides being a path to the sublime. energy. but must be considered. last but not least. if subtracted. . . And where there is consumption. therefore. Any valid theory. and sometimes considerable property. which provides vital information about the society in which it takes place."'106 But what Huizinga failed to see is that the apparently gratuitous gift is in fact an exchange. in his analysis of the potlatch. on being superior. prestige and. past and present. for glory. which will have a great deal to do with how people play. what is even more striking. the ritualization of an economic and political ethos. by the wholesale destruction of one's possessions just to show that one can do without them. The opposed groups do not contend for wealth or power but simply for the pleasure of parading their superiority . . 58-59. that the potlatch really is. would leave reality intact (albeit dull and ordinary).or an-economic" interpretation of play is evident. Much the same criticism applies to Huizinga's interpretation of chivalry. power. as communication. "In the potlatch one proves one's superiority not merely by the lavish prodigality of one's gifts but. which was. the ritualization of the economic and political practices of feudal society in the throes of disintegration. but it does consume something: time. it can no longer be viewed as an isolated phenomenon. on glory. how could Huizinga have expected play to have resisted or survived the eventual onslaught of reality? Ehrmann blames Huizinga's inability to answer these questions on his failure to recognize the economic function of play. for example. glory. Once the ritual character of play is recognized. like all other cultural phenomena. Hoino Ludens." Huizinga deplored the decline of play in modern times. The potlatch and everything connected with it hinges on winning. and how play influences and is influenced by the social order in which it takes place. that the participants give in order to receive (prestige. which. presupposes the very "ethnocentric perspective. Ehrmann adds." as Ehrmann calls it. revenge). He does not mean only that Huizinga disqualified gambling. But.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 91 play. Ehrmann grants that play may produce nothing. which consigns play to the periphery of life and assigns to it the role of a "utopian complement of seriousness. . What Ehrmann calls Huizinga's "anti. revenge. . He also means that Huizinga's definition of play as entirely lacking in material interest and utility does not justify the conclusion that play has nothing to do with economics. . and commercialized sport as play on the grounds that money necessarily corrupts play. therefore.

It enables the player to withdraw temporarily from the real world. love. . a clearly identifiable and autonomous one that cannot be explained as deriving from any other existential phenomenon. play is always partly. work. we falsely juxtapose it with other existential phenomena. but rather symbiotic. which fantasy transforms into play objects. although it has an absolute need of real things as a point of departure. absorbs them by representing them. we play truth. we play love and death and we even play play itself."109 107. 22. play is not subordinate to the serious purposes served by all other human activities. man plays in the real world and knows himself to be playing even as he plays (unlike the schizophrenic. The relationship between play and reality is not antithetical. and struggle for power. and that it is unique because it stands apart from or in opposition to the rest of reality. the play world is unrelated to anything outside itself. seriousness and authenticity. "If we define play in the usual manner by contrasting it with work. so to speak. Toward an Ontology of Play" in Game. we play reality. reality.forms the link between the pure subjectivity of the player and the concrete world that surrounds him. And the plaything . On the other hand. the finger that becomes a pistol . the creation of fantasy. 108. an existential phenomenon ."'107But he denies that play is the only such phenomenon. Play is a basic existential phenomenon. but without concealing it. without losing touch with reality. We play at being serious. For Fink."'108 Fink attributes the symbolic quality of play to its double character. Thus. 19. and yet it is never a real thing among other real things. the player consciously exists in two different spheres simultaneously. Seen from within. but it is not bound to these other phenomena in a common ultimate purpose.the doll that becomes a child. but never wholly. It always has to do with real objects. and to assert his freedom by recreating it imaginatively. Play. "The play world is not suspended in a purely ideal world. Literature. . Play. On the one hand. "The Oasis of Happiness. Thus. 24. This capacity to exist in two different spheres at once is uniquely human.. It always has a real setting. which set it off from the real world. Ibid. it is the symbolic function of play that makes it unique and useful as a tool of philosophical and historical understanding. Fink agrees with Huizinga and his critics that play is a unique phenomenon. who cannot tell the difference). the broom that becomes a horse. The play world possesses its own internal space and time. 109. "an essential element of man's ontological makeup. just as primordial and autonomous as death.. we play work. confronts them all . because this double existence is essential to play (and to the higher cultural forms derived from play).92 ROBERT ANCHOR The relationship of play to reality is also the subject of Eugen Fink's writings. .

and man at play is both the subject and object of his playing. the play world does not simply reflect passively something outside itself.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 93 From this double nature of the player and the plaything. which was the fruit of Huizinga's life and labors. Thus. and the uniqueness of the play medium. For it can be used by the philosopher and historian to understand not only how and why man plays. "Even if it has long since been forgotten. . how play differs from other activities. Play reflects the real world as a mirror reflects real objects. the meaning of existence as encoded in play. the play world also possesses a double nature. human play is the symbolic act of representing the meaning of the world and life."110 The concept of the play world as a symbolic representation and re-enactment of existence. reflects reality symbolically. Fink concludes that the play world is a mirror of behavior in the real world. Ibid. now reveals its methodological value. through which man creates and communicates meaning. But it can also be used to understand the meaning of play. however. University of Southern California 10. play is at the same time the thing reflected and the reflection itself. 28. then. Unlike a mirror. for which Homo Ludens laid the foundation. The play world.. and what it contributes to culture. As with the player and the plaything. in it man seeks the meaning of existence. because the behavior reflected in play is the behavior of the player himself and the real world in which he lives.