The Glass Bead Game

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 –

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9 Responses to The Glass Bead Game

  1. whitefrozen says:

    I generally think that philosophy is not something that is played to win, in the sense that there is an ultimate prize or end. Perhaps I’m a bit naive, but I also tend to think that philosophy is, in a way, an end in itself. Wittgenstein said something about philosophy being something that scratches an itch that man has, or something along those lines. That’s usually how I think of it. I mean, you can get technical and say that philosophy is a method of inquiry and whatnot, but broadly, I think it’s better thought of asa (kind of) end in itself.

  2. The Glass Bead Game is the only novel I have ever read twice. It’s a metaphor I still haven’t resolved.

  3. It’s awesome that you blogged on this novel. I took it to be a metaphor of the tension between the active life and the contemplative life. In this case, I assumed the contemplative life in question was that of academia — intellectual contemplation.

    Can philosophy be played to win? Perhaps winning is simply the greater joy that comes from learning to appreciate the questions (and hence our lives) on their own merits, and the detachment that comes from this and the realization that there are no answers.

    Of course that’s a far cry from what philosophy is generally regarded to be today.

  4. guymax says:

    Thanks for the comments. It certainly is a fascinating book, and trying to interpret is fun.

    As for philosophy, I think it is a mistake to play it for no stakes, even if it may still be beneficial for detachment etc. It’s like playing poker for matchsticks. At any rate, the whole message I’m trying to get across on the blog is that philosophy can be won, so I can’t agree that there are no answers.

    But yes, it’s not often how philosophy is done in academia these days. Wittgenstein did a lot of damage in my opinion, and I never understand why we award so much respect to someone who failed to solve any problems. We don’t do this is the sciences, but seem to do it all the time in philosophy. The university reading list seems to comprise almost entirely of people who lost all their matchsticks. .

    • whitefrozen says:

      Hm. It seems to me that there are very, very few answers in philosophy – in fact, I’d say that pretty much nothing (outside of a couple exceptions) has ever been proven or solved in the history of philosophy. My opinion is similar to that of Wittgenstein – most of the problems of philosophy aren’t problems.

  5. guymax says:

    Drat. In this case my blog is a total failure.

    • whitefrozen says:

      Ha! Hardly. I doubt I’m right, since so many other much smarter people disagree with me. Even if one does philosophy as an attempt to prove something, or solve a problem (which, as I said, I take to be a problem in itself though I may be wrong), one is still doing philosophy, and that’s the important thing.

  6. guymax says:

    Actually a lot a-of very smart people agree with you, perhaps even most in professional philosophy. It’s me who’s out on a limb. The statistics are on your side. Good job it isn’t a democracy.

    I reckon I could show you how to win at philosophy, to your own satisfaction. You’re clearly capable of grasping the issues, and It’s not really very difficult if one sticks to principles. Then you could join the glass bead game.

    It’s my theory, however, that most people would be terrified of winning at philosophy. They’d rather keep their options open. All the required information is easily available online nowadays, so I can find no other explanation for why so many intelligent people fail to see the winning move. The winning move would falsify every theory except one, so it’s a tough move to make.

  7. Pingback: The Glass Bead Game (Continued) | The World Knot

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