The Glass Bead Game and philosophy

Gershon asked:

Herman Hesse in ‘The Glass Bead Game’ describes a game which is played only by individuals of the very highest intellectual attainment. There is no point or purpose to the game other than the game itself and its aesthetic beauty.

What is the difference between philosophy and the Glass Bead Game? Is there any difference, ultimately?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Except that you used Hesse’s novel as a foil, I would have ignored your question. If you re-cast it by saying that ‘higher mathematics is a game only played by individuals with the highest intellectual attainment …’ etc., you would see at once that comparing it with philosophy will make anyone who reads your question wonder what you think philosophy is!

However, the background to Hesse’s novel touches on a particular issue of philosophical thought that goes back to Bacon and Leibniz and their endeavours towards an efficient compartmentalisation of knowledge. Bacon promulgated the idea in his Great Instauration that knowledge must be organised according to a hierarchy of related subject matters. E.g. biology as the science of life might first be subdivided into organic and inorganic, then each of these into further branches and so on through as many specialisations as may be necessary. The end result is an enormous tree with many branches that is basically the sum of our knowledge in that branch of science. Once such a hierarchy exists, it can always be added to, even new branches formed.

Leibniz took this one step further by showing that all studies would benefit from such compartmentalisation. In his Ars combinatoria he argued that the ultimate goal would be to collapse the tree into a single symbol which represents all the knowledge incorporated in any one of these trees. The convenience of this, he felt, was that no-one would have to analyse assured knowledge again, but just use the symbols in various combinations for the purpose of discovery and innovation. According to him, it would give us the certainty that all knowledge can be reduced to calculation. He once said, there is no need to argue about science, art, religion, sociology etc. Let us take our symbols, sit down and then, ‘gentlemen, let us calculate!’

The last step was taken by the French philosophers around Diderot, who implemented this programme in their Encyclopaedia. Since then we have become so used to it, we can’t imagine any more how hard it was in those days to get hold of exact knowledge.

Leibniz undoubtedly got the idea of symbols integrating complexes of knowledge from the way we write down simple equations which include implicitly many complicated prior steps that no longer have to be worked out, because the formula already presupposes their results.

No you can see that Hesse used precisely the idea of Leibniz’s symbols in his novel. It doesn’t matter how we depict the symbols. Formulaic symbols, playing cards, glass pebbles – whichever takes your fancy! As a mathematician, Leibniz was aware that mathematicians derive great aesthetic pleasure from the effort of reducing many arduous steps of calculation into one elegant formula. The change made by Hesse is, of course, that his game is played with glass beads which represent the values of these symbols to the civilisation; and the point of the game is that shuffling them around in a competitive manner as in a game of chess, can yield surprising juxtapositions. But you should nonetheless take note that as a game it does not purport to enrich those symbols (aka values), but only to play with them.

A game, therefore, pure and simple. Hardly a philosophy! Moreover ultimately a bit on the silly side. I would question whether Hesse’s glass bead game has any aesthetic component at all. Creativity is not re-arranging values; and aesthetics is not an intellectual pastime, but an experience that should uproot you from precisely the lazy ‘taking for granted’ of cultural values that is implied in Hesse’s game.

When you walk into a museum full of paintings, sculptures, ancient artefacts from death masks to weapons, musical instruments and laundry bills, you are in the presence of an exhibition planned with the same care and ingenuity as Josef Knecht’s fancy games – a game of relations, analogues and indeed values in juxtaposition. But you would not walk around the gallery and claim for the organiser that this is philosophy, would you now? Nor would you take home with you an aesthetic experience of the gallery. Values as such have no aesthetic component! Only works themselves, as individuals, can do that for you!


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