Why playfulness is a precondition for serious thinking

Preface to the underestimated topic of playfulness in the active understanding of topics that we deem important and of meriting serious consideration.

Playfulness is a characteristic that is deemed most appropriate for children. We find it enjoyable to see playful children and perceive that as a form of healthy state in human development. This playfulness allows a kid to discover the world without fear of repercussions and anxiety over losing time. The child just plays for its own sake. While doing so, she encounters many barriers which are sometimes frustrating but never completely overwhelming. What is more, she is allowed to leave at any stage of the game. Through overcoming these barriers, the child learns skills and gathers information and knowledge about the world. In fact, we know that we are most receptive to new information when we enjoy an activity.

In adult humans, we are more prone to restrict playfulness as being only appropriate under demarcated circumstances. The more responsibility we have, the less we are allowed to be playful. This attitude towards playfulness is not much different in academia where researchers and scholars are said to ponder over the most serious of matters. Climate change, social issues, justice and order, and so forth. Serious matters require serious thinking. The more pertinent the issues (e.g. racism) the more courage it requires to place oneself outside of the responsible and thus serious bandwidth of acceptable thought.

I argue, however, that this dismissive attitude towards playfulness is antithetical to the very nature of careful thought. The relationship between a certain playfulness and serious thought seems indeed to be paradoxical. In any discussion between two persons, we can identify (1) oneself and one’s ideas, (2) the interlocutor and her ideas, and (3) external references of authority. In the case of any inquiry, all of these elements can refer towards what I call the rhetoric elements of pathos and ethos and neglect the logos which I consider to be the sort of justified and plausible understanding of the matter at hand.

Playfulness as I understand it here, opposes this serious spirit of convention, authority, hierarchy, status, respectability, fancy words, emotional appeals, and takes lightly the sort of things which are presupposed to be given without reference to raw and unmitigated evidence, reasons and arguments. This process also requires one to not take oneself seriously in the sense of thinking that one knows something particular because one is generally knowledgeable, respected, intelligent or has other virtues. The Socratic equivalent would be the general who realizes that despite all of his war efforts, he cannot define what courage is. Only when these rhetorical elements are discarded does philosophy and (social) science as an inquiry into the ‘true nature of things’ become possible. Only then do the questions ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ become penetrative enough to be taken seriously by serious thinkers.

Why so serious?
Most people want to be perceived as good people. This means that when serious matters such as racism are discussed, we tend to utilize the rituals of proper behaviours available to us. We might express sadness, nod more often, and not question experiences or reports from certain respected institutes. We might even lower our voice or show an overexcitement in favour of combating the problem to show we belong to the right group. This sort of respectfulness might be socially important and I wish not to argue that we abandon all such rituals.

The point is that the playful mind is aware of the theatre and the rhetoric and is able to be blunt, direct, and unapologetic when necessary because it is not his reputation, the other person’s approval, or the third party authorities that matter, but the question at hand. The question at hand is a challenge to be solved through better understanding. Understanding requires investigating the basic elements and the complex whole of an issue. Once absorbed in the theater, rhetoric and taboos that demarcate the moral boundaries of social conduct, answers that might be outside of the scope of moral demarcation are missed and concessions have to be made. Such concessions should be especially troublesome to those who consider the topic at hand to be important. Besides, less well-intentioned persons can use this same mechanism of shutting opinions down as a means to further their agenda.

Can one be playful concerning the topics one considers to be elementary, noble, virtuous, inspiring, and even sacred? This certainly seems to be possible. One could be serious about a topic through passive acceptance or through active understanding. Playfulness seems to be a necessary condition for the second version of taking something seriously as it allows for the deconstruction of the topic and negation of its elements throughout the thought experiment. An interval, if you will, where the moral weight of the topic is lifted and where questioning, negating, skewing — in other words — playing with the topic is allowed without internal or external repercussions. This interval of freedom can fulfil a necessary condition for an active understanding in this sense, whereas seriousness throughout would have to leave someone in a state of passive acceptance.

For instance, if you believe that even imagining God as anthropological is sacrilegious, you might have to miss out on a certain understanding of God that would arise through such thought experiments. Moreover, the fact that Descartes meditated on the fact that our sense perceptions could deceive as so much so that knowledge could be illusory, does not mean that he did not care about knowledge. In fact, we find that Descartes was serious about knowledge and cared to make sure that we had means to ascertain it. However, his thought experiment in the Meditations involves typical elements of playfulness or perhaps even childishness, such as the invention of evil spirits who could deceive people into believing in falsities and ludic thoughts of people who erroneously believe in the illusion that they have an ‘earthenware head or are nothing but pumpkins.’ Who says he was not someone like that? And so his serious quest for ascertainable knowledge starts.

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