Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.

A guest authored edgy essay by Siddiq Khan

Playing with the wheel of Ixion



Siddiq Khan was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1990. He currently pursues his vocation as a nurseryman, mycologist, complex systems designer, poet, essayist, soil microbiologist, and project co-ordinator, on a large rural estate in the south of Spain. Fundamentally hostile to all established ideologies, he might describe himself as a philosophical apatheist with a strong inclination towards epistemological anarchism, if he were not so averse to describing himself at all.


Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

The riddle, we may conclude, was originally a sacred game, and as such it cut clean across any possible distinction between play and seriousness. It was both at once: a ritual element of the highest importance and yet essentially a game. As civilization develops, the riddle branches out in two directions: mystic philosophy on the one hand and recreation on the other. But in this development we must not think of seriousness degenerating into play or of play rising to the level of seriousness. It is rather that civilization gradually brings about a certain division between two modes of mental life which we distinguish as play and seriousness respectively, but which originally formed a continuous mental medium wherein that civilization arose.

– Johan Huizinga, from the chapter “Playing and Knowing” in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1949)

On the one hand, limitations are the name of the game. Recently, I have been coming to understand how my own attempts to will away limitation are part of a broader pattern of vanity that tries to impose the limited human will on the limitless phenomena of the real world. Dissatisfied that romantic relationships turned out to be so severely limited (the ebullient publicity endlessly propagated by Hollywood, popular novels and poetry notwithstanding), more often than not driven by pettiness and craving rather than magnanimity and wisdom, preoccupied with stereotyped preconceptions rather than a passion and appreciation for encounter with the singular and the mysterious in the other; I directed my will towards the “intimacy without intercourse” of camaraderie and friendship. Discovering that friendship proved to be as superficial as romance, just in a different way, I turned toward community and tribe as the ground of human being. Finding that community turned out to be just as limited by inner conflicts, contradictions, pettiness, delusion, deception and narcissism as every other form of human relating, I would swivel back to romance. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The problem is that every particular variety of human relation is superficial because it operates on its own dimension which is conditioned by certain limitations and constraints: there are all these other dimensions beneath the surface, each specific to other particular varieties of relationship. No variety of finite relation can do it all — there are no silver bullets outside pie in the sky pipe dreams.

There is another possibility however. That is to eschew the rules that pigeonhole relations into particular conceptual categories, and move from finite to infinite games. Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility is a book by religious scholar James Carse. The author summarizes his argument:

There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. Finite games are those instrumental activities — from sports to politics to wars — in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game — there is only one — includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants….

Only our relation to ourselves and to the totality, to the whole of existence that both includes and transcends limitation, can truly be understood as more than superficial, because it operates not merely at its own particular dimension, but in every dimension at once. If I am not interested in winning at the game of romance, I will not feel that my relationship with you failed if merely the romantic or sexual aspect ended for whatever reason. Instead, I will play with you creatively to change the rules of the game we agreed to before, so we can keep the game going even if it changes so drastically that it seems unrecognizable at the surface level. At first glance, at the surface level, the goal of keeping the game going might seem conservative, implying that there is something to hold onto, some element of limitation, preservation, or preconception involved. On examination, this is far from the case. By definition, the only game that can possibly keep going indefinitely is the one wherein the field of play is constantly in flux, the players are forever changing, the rules are perpetually reinvented. It might seem like a completely different game — like an ending, like a failure, like a death. But in reality it is an eternal dance from one dimension to another, a transcendence, a transformation, a transmogrification, a transfiguration, a way to be born again limitlessly. In this sense it is beyond death and birth, because it avoids ever being born into a single, necessarily limited dimension in the first place. The categories romance, friendship, community, family, tribe, nation, culture, merely appear to be real, but actually remain abstractions fundamentally different in kind to the concrete existence of a tree, a table, an ant, a cloud, an apple. Each of these categories is by definition finite, limited, and superficial. The common solution, to cheat by substituting an abstraction for the totality, leads directly to totalitarianism in the form of a state that is also made out to be a nation, a race, a tribe, a community, a family, and even a romance (between The Leader and his followers) — all rolled into one. To transcend the abstractions and relate person to person, heart to heart, mystery to mystery, not only transcends the inevitable deaths included within the teleologies of such self-terminating categories, but it does so by refusing to be born into such sarcophagi in the first place. This is the sense in which the Japanese monk Bankei Yōtaku said “It struck me like a thunderbolt that I had never been born, and that my birthlessness could settle any and every matter.”

He explains how the abstract categories we are conditioned to accept unquestioningly are originally merely ideological conventions reproduced through socialization that are subsequently made material through their influence on our behavior in the real world:

You were only the unborn enlightened mind when you were new born. As you grew up you saw, heard, and learned the mentality of ordinary people and over a long period of time became deluded by familiarity to the point where the deluded mind has become independent and self-willed .

Because thoughts are not originally inborn, they die out in the mind which accepts and trusts the unborn buddha of the mind itself.

The player of the infinite game is unborn: endlessly birthing but never once born into any final form: beyond birth, beyond death. If this sounds like a riddle, the riddle is not in the words but in the world; if it sounds like a paradox, the paradox is not in the nature of the thought but in the nature of the game.

If we make the object of our relations winning and success, we will judge a romance, a friendship, and a community by its failure or success in its supposed object: unidirectional growth and self-perpetuation. As the hysteria surrounding coronavirus among the white, middle-class populations of western nations demonstrates all too well, the dominant culture operates on the assumption that self-perpetuation is the ultimate object of human life and society in general.

It is all too common to translate the logic of this presumed universal object into all the significant (pleasant and desirable) combinations and interrelations that we co-create and participate in. We say a community or a marriage “fails” if it breaks up. Does life fail when it ends? In that case, is not all life by definition a failure?

When we “lose” someone or something we love, we translate the childish language of competition, of winning and losing, the rapacious language of profit and loss, the churlish language of finite games, into the infinite realm of relationship. Caught in a trap of our own making, woven of unexamined preconceptions and ignorance, the common solution is to cheat: to accept the rules of the game as they are, and then to claim victory by declaring “life everlasting” in heaven for “the immortal soul.” Game over for the Grim Reaper!

When it comes to death, I question if there is something even deeper than fear of death, which we might call fear of life — a partner to Erich Fromm´s fear of freedom, since liberty is a condition to which real life is inseparably wedded. Why does everyone cling to life, when every baby is dragged kicking and screaming into this world against its will and without its consent? Why cling to life and its achievements and privileges, if not to evade the thought that all these precious things we pursue so frenetically might really be less glamorous than we pretend them to be, less satisfying, less sacred? That there are important things beyond all this worldly pomp and circumstance — things not to be feared from death — things that might even to be welcomed by it?

Is there life on earth?

Is there life after birth?

As the song goes. Arthur Schopenhauer, in his essay Genius and Virtue, echoes this contrast between the self-willed and deluded mind, which he calls the Will, and the unborn wisdom innate within each person, which he calls the Intelligence or Genius (unfortunately, reflective of an elitist conception typical of this phase in German Philosophy, culminating in the superman of Nietzsche) but what the Greeks called the Logos (Spirit-Reason) or Sophia (Truth-Wisdom). The conception of Bankei and the ancient Greeks is entirely democratic. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, for example, says:

We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each had a private intelligence of his own.

Although intimately connected with the Logos, men keep setting themselves against it.

Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.

Although this Logos is eternally valid, yet men are unable to understand it — not only before hearing it, but even after they have heard it for the first time. That is to say, although all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos , men seem to be quite without any experience of it — at least if they are judged in the light of such words and deeds as I am here setting forth…

The advantage of Schopenhauer over Heraclitus and Bankei is that his philosophy seems to be more pragmatic, and hence easier to understand.

When I think, it is the spirit of the world which is striving to express its thought; it is nature which is trying to know and fathom itself. It is not the thoughts of some other mind, which I am endeavoring to trace; but it is I who transform that which exists into something which is known and thought…

Men of no genius whatever cannot bear solitude: they take no pleasure in the contemplation of nature and the world. This arises from the fact that they never lose sight of their own will, and therefore they see nothing of the objects of the world but the bearing of such objects upon their will and person. With objects which have no such bearing there sounds within them a constant note: It is nothing to me, which is the fundamental base in all their music. Thus all things seem to them to wear a bleak, gloomy, strange, hostile aspect. It is only for their will that they seem to have any perceptive faculties at all; and it is, in fact, only a moral and not a theoretical tendency, only a moral and not an intellectual value, that their life possesses. The lower animals bend their heads to the ground, because all that they want to see is what touches their welfare, and they can never come to contemplate things from a really objective point of view. It is very seldom that unintellectual men make a true use of their erect position, and then it is only when they are moved by some intellectual influence outside them.

The man of intellect or genius, on the other hand, has more of the character of the eternal subject that knows, than of the finite subject that wills; his knowledge is not quite engrossed and captivated by his will, but passes beyond it; he is the son, not of the bondwoman, but of the free. It is not only a moral but also a theoretical tendency that is evinced in his life; nay, it might perhaps be said that to a certain extent he is beyond morality. Of great villainy he is totally incapable; and his conscience is less oppressed by ordinary sin than the conscience of the ordinary man, because life, as it were, is a game, and he sees through it.

In his “Psychological Observations” we note how again the analogy with the game emerges, again wisdom is contrasted with the vanity of the will, again the possibility to transcend delusion and discover freedom is proposed:

In chess, the object of the game, namely, to checkmate one’s opponent, is of arbitrary adoption; of the possible means of attaining it, there is a great number; and according as we make a prudent use of them, we arrive at our goal. We enter on the game of our own choice.

Nor is it otherwise with human life, only that here the entrance is not of our choosing, but is forced on us; and the object, which is to live and exist, seems, indeed, at times as though it were of arbitrary adoption, and that we could, if necessary, relinquish it. Nevertheless it is, in the strict sense of the word, a natural object; that is to say, we cannot relinquish it without giving up existence itself. If we regard our existence as the work of some arbitrary power outside us, we must, indeed, admire the cunning by which that creative mind has succeeded in making us place so much value on an object which is only momentary and must of necessity be laid aside very soon, and which we see, moreover, on reflection, to be altogether vanity — in making, I say, this object so dear to us that we eagerly exert all our strength in working at it; although we knew that as soon as the game is over, the object will exist for us no longer, and that, on the whole, we cannot say what it is that makes it so attractive. Nay, it seems to be an object as arbitrarily adopted as that of checkmating our opponent’s king; and, nevertheless, we are always intent on the means of attaining it, and think and brood over nothing else. It is clear that the reason of it is that our intellect is only capable of looking outside, and has no power at all of looking within; and, since this is so, we have come to the conclusion that we must make the best of it.

Being and existence, the arbitrary and at the same time natural object that evaporates with our last breath, may be relinquished by giving up existence itself. When you put it that way, this sounds suspiciously like suicide — and this muddiness is a serious weakness of Schopenhauer´s text. To be clear: being and existence are as much ideas, conventions, abstract categories, as romance and race. We do not need to jump off a cliff to give them up any more than we need to shoot ourselves to relinquish the fixed preconceptions that condition the vanity by which we relate to everything under the sun, starting first and foremost with ourselves. Rather than making Being and Existence, self-perpetuation and unidirectional growth (without decomposition!) our objects, we might set our sights on the Becoming of Heraclitus, the Way of Laozi, the Unborn of Bankei Yoktaku, the Nameless Wildness of Meister Eckhart. Of course, these are mere words for a totality that cannot remotely be captured by language. If we take these to be opposed to Being and Existence within a dualistic binary, we reify them into new varieties of abstract categories, and have to start all over again — as has in fact been the case throughout our history. “The spirit of the world striving to know itself” plays with words and thoughts like toys, and then drops them to dwell at rest within the wordless thoughtless mystery at its source. This is precisely the infinite game we are hereby cordially invited to play — by ourselves and with one another. And with that we may say, in conclusion, not “let the game begin,” but let the game go on.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 29 March 2021

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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