Occasionally I answer a question on the site ‘Ask a Philosopher’. Here is a recent question that I found particularly fascinating and important, and some sort of answer.
“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?”
The main difficulty for this question is a lack of information about the glass bead game. Hesse does not say enough about it for me to be able to quite pin down what the game is about. It does seem, though, that it is played for its own sake, and not with any idea of winning or losing.
Philosophy is often played in the same way. Many people who play it do so on the basis that the study of discursive philosophy is, in itself, regardless of its outcome, improving, and brings all sorts of benefits to the player. This seems true. For this view the player would learn from playing the game but there would be no expectation of winning or losing, and the game would never change. A bit like learning Latin. Good for our understanding of language and literature, but there is no winning line, and we are not going make Latin any different by studying it.
Philosophy does not, however, have to be played like this. It can be played to win, and all too easily it can be lost. In this respect philosophy would be very different from the glass bead game. By ‘played to win’ here, I mean that our goal as a player would be to solve philosophical problems once and for all, to our own satisfaction, such that we would feel that whatever remains to be sorted out are just the details, and thus to reach the end of philosophy. In this case it would be more like a game of chess with the Devil, one that we can win or lose, and it can be as purposeful as we want to make it.
But here’s the thing. If we ever were to win at philosophy, solve its problems to our own satisfaction, then this might be exactly when the glass bead game becomes fascinating and worth playing. Perhaps this is the significance of the game in Hesse’s story, that it conveys the idea that the monks are playing with details, and that they know this, having already solved the central problems of existence in their practice or prior studies in order to qualify as a player. He tells us that the game involves the making of connections at a profound level between music, philosophy, mathematics, history, sociology and so forth, and once we have solved metaphysics then this is exactly what we would need to do in order to turn our philosophical conclusions, which even if they are correct will concern principles and tell us little about the infinity of potential details, into a well-developed theory of everything.
It would be as if we have seen the picture on the box but not yet put the jigsaw-puzzle together. To see the picture on the box we would need to create a coherent metaphysical theory. To put the puzzle together we would have to play the glass bead game, pursuing the implications of our metaphysical theory as they spread out ineluctably through music, philosophy, mathematics, history, sociology, psychology, soteriology, physics, ethics, biology and so on. Such a game cannot be won. There would be no end to it. It would be a creative endeavour and not a competitive sport. Once the Devil has been defeated we need play no more chess, and can instead enjoy the collaborative game of creating an ever more refined, intricate, elegant, useful and beautiful glass-bead model of the universe, starting with first principles.
Ultimately, then, on this view, and from what little information Hesse provides, there would be a distinct difference between his glass bead game and philosophy. We would not be allowed to join his game until we have first beaten the Devil at chess, for we cannot hope to understand its rules or make a useful contribution while we have still not understood the metaphysical principles that allow us to beat him, and by which the players of the glass bead game must be guided thereafter.
Whether this has anything to do with what Hesse was intending I have not the slightest idea. But I like it, and it seems to work as an interpretation.
For more on the glass bead game – https://theworldknot.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/the-glass-bead-game-continued/