Session 2: Gadamer and Huizinga on Play and Understanding

Yesterday we met in The Hague to talk about Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method ( TM) and Johan Huizinga’s Humo Ludens (HL).  In the first part of our session, we discussed the first part of Part I of TM, that is ‘Transcending the aesthetic dimension’. In this part of the book, Gadamer discusses questions about the the differences between the humanities and the hard sciences, Kant’s aesthetic theory, and the possibility of finding truth in art. An important distinction Gadamer presents in the beginning of the book is the one between Bildung and ‘cultivation. For him, the latter is related to Kant’s aesthetics and refers very rougly to the development of a set of innate or at least known capacities. Bildung, in contrast, is not aimed at reaching a certain goal and might be described as a internal, never-ending process of self-developement and self-transformation. Another important concept is that of the sensus communis, which is used by Gadamer to explain why for a thorough understanding of the world around you (including art), necessitates not only knowledge about the subject under investigation, but also historical and moral context in which the subject is embedded. This, in contrast to authors who think that it is possible to make a purely rational or ‘disinterested analysis of, in this case, works of art. This very short sketch of two of important concepts introduced early in the book are indicative for Gadamer’s stance towards scholars who try to understand in ‘objective’, ‘pure’, or ‘transcendent’ ways. He therefore dismisses Kant’s attempts to ground his aesthetic theory on the concept of taste (that’s simply not a convincing fundament for a transcendent theory), and the idea of genius (we’re not completely sure what the problem with genius is). For Gadamer, an understanding of the world around us can only be reached when we acknowledge that from a phenomenological perspective, any ‘correspondence theory of truth’, is insufficient. Instead, we should understand understanding as an experiential phenomena. But if it is true that works of art are only to be understood as units of meaning based on units of experience (Dilthey), to what extent is there any room for a continuous existence of a work of art? For Gadamer, the discontinuity or ‘punctuality’ of works of art can best dealt with phenomenologically. With that I mean (and interpret TM) as following: the only way to make sense of ourselves as beings thrown into a always changing and never-ending historical world, is to create a sense of continuity through a process of Bildung. Because you can only understand yourself through the understanding something else (and vice versa), it becomes apparent that a thorough understanding of a work of art, an understanding of yourself as interpretative being is required. Thus, self-understanding and other-understanding are two sides of the same coin.

Gadamer thinks it is possible to gain knowledge through studying art. But how does this work in practice? In the second part of the first part of TM, and in Huizinga’s HL, both authors sketch the ontological framework in which beings understand the world in which they are thrown. For both authors, we understand by playing games. Games have some sort of internal order, provided by a set of rules which explain when the game is played, where it is played, by whom it is played, and what the content of the game itself is. Important here is the idea that for an understanding of a game, you do not study one of those components of the game. What you do is to study the game itself. For Gadamer and Huizinga, this indicates that it is possible to speak about the subjectivity of the game itself. The meaning of a game, thus, transcends the indvidual components of it. For Gadamer, a game transforms into a work of art when it starts representing itself. When this happens, the character of the game changes drastically: when playing a game of ‘indians and comboys’, the participants really change into indians and comboys. Especially Huizinga reminds the reader that the only worthwhile way in which you can understand this game is by accepting that the participants are comboys and indians. When you deny this, you are a cheater and simply ignore the tranformation and related change of meaning, the participants underwent when they started playing. Moreover, your own being is intimately related to the being of the game (or artwork). To be able to understand the game itself, one also needs an understanding of who you are yourself, as subject who tries to understand a game.

Though I probably misrepresented specific parts of TM and HL, the message we took with us after the session is that of the interdependence of the work of art, and ourselves as interpretative beings. When discussing aesthetics, one cannot talk about the work of art, without including a story about the beings which attempt to understand the work of art.

For out next session, we will be reading parts of Rancière’s The Politics of the Aesthetics, and Badiou’s Being and Event. Especially reading Badiou might be challenge, so don’t start reading on December 15 itself 😉

Finally, for the artists reading this. You might want to take a look at this link: (

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s