Eugen Fink: Play as Symbol of the World

Play as Symbol of the World and Other Writings Book Cover Play as Symbol of the World and Other Writings
Studies in Continental Thought
Eugen Fink. Translated by Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner
Indiana University Press

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)

While his work has been the subject of extensive research in Germany in recent years, Eugen Fink has only ever received sparing exposure in English-language scholarship. Certainly much of this is due to the lack of English translations of his writings. The publication of Play as Symbol of the World (Spiel als Weltsymbol), considered by many to be Fink’s most important book, will hopefully give his work a wider audience outside of Germany and encourage the publication of more translations of his work.

Fink was a student and collaborator of Husserl during the 1920’s and 30’s. He was also a working associate of Heidegger during the latter decades of Heidegger’s career. The stature of these two no doubt overshadows Fink’s contributions to phenomenology and twentieth-century German philosophy. Fink’s work is best-known to English-speaking audiences through his seminar on Heraclitus, co-authored with Heidegger (available in English under the title Heraclitus Seminar), and through his book on Husserl’s Sixth Cartesian Meditation. Fink also authored a highly original book on Nietzsche’s philosophy which appeared in English translation through Continuum Press in 2003. In the 2000’s, the German publisher Karl Alber began issuing a complete critical edition of Fink’s writings, of which Spiel als Weltsymbol is the seventh volume. This English edition from Indiana University Press, translated by Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner, presents all of the contents of the seventh volume in the Karl Alber critical edition. In addition to the title essay are included several shorter pieces of Fink’s on the topics of play and cosmology that he wrote between 1957 and 1975, the year of his death. Bookending the writings by Fink are an extended translators’ foreword and an afterword by the editors of the German text, the latter of which presents an extensive overview of Fink’s philosophical program as it relates to Play as Symbol of the World. All in all, these various items make for a very fine, comprehensive edition of Fink’s text.

In this review, I will focus on just the main, title work of the volume, as this portion will be of principal interest for most readers. The title Fink gives to this work, Play as Symbol of the World, requires some unpacking. As the book’s German editors note, Fink proceeds by attempting to describe, without prior assumptions, what connections obtain between the title’s main keywords: play, symbol, and world (303). One guiding thought for Fink is the oft-cited Fragment 52 of Heraclitus, which suggests that the cosmic aion is akin to the play of a child; the life cycle of the universe is a child moving pieces on a game board (77). (This fragment figures strongly into Nietzsche’s reading of Heraclitus, with which Fink was surely familiar.) Fink’s approach throughout is dialectical, somewhat Aristotelian even, as he works through the historical and conceptual puzzles bound up with the title’s theme. Scholars of Heidegger will notice a lot of similarity as well. Fink demonstrates a flair for deconstructing historical philosophical prejudice and dissecting the original meanings of terms. Much of Fink’s aim in the text is to arrive at a satisfactory phenomenological description of the relationship of play and world such that the book’s title can demonstrate any meaningful expression. What does it mean to call play a “symbol” of the world? Wherein lay the metaphorical similarity between play and world? And how is the notion of “world” to be understood? Why would one make such a comparison?

In addition to the Heraclitean paradigm of cosmic play, other significant cues from ancient thought inspire Fink’s analysis. Fink frequently engages the Platonic conception of imitation and its underlying ontological commitments as a foil for developing a phenomenological view of play. Moreover, the entire third chapter of Fink’s book focuses on the development of cults and the manifestation of play in cultic ritual. In Fink’s account, the anthropology of primitive cultures indicates that play originated historically as a primal, cultic practice rather than as a vehicle for mere amusement or entertainment.

The first of the book’s four chapters analyzes the concept of play systematically. Fink understands the term “play” (Spiel) in multiple guises; these correspond well to the common use of the word “play” in English. In English vernacular we often use the word “play” to refer to what children do when they amuse themselves. We tend to think of play as essential to a child’s healthy development. But “play” is also often used to describe engaging in a game (e.g. “I play chess”); or, more remotely, it names what we watch at the theatre as well as the “play-acting” performed by actors. In older locution for instance, actors were referred to as “players.” This older meaning reminds one that acting and theatrical performance were originally conceived as mimesis, or imitation. And of course, this is the Platonic critique of the performative arts: what they depict is not real, but rather a watered-down copy of a more original reality. Fink’s conception of play encompasses all of these aspects. He understands play as an imaginary, “non-actual” state of existence enacted on the foundation of the actual, lived world. Play is a mimetic, yet also freely-chosen world-bestowal. In terms of its ontological status, Fink gives play the Husserlian label “irreal,” in order to indicate its phenomenological quality of fostering a non-actual disclosure of meaning (95-96).

One might get the drift from this book’s title that play is the main subject, that the book comprises a work on the philosophy of sport. The opening title pitches the idea that play stands to symbolize world, that there is some illustrative relationship between the former and the latter. But in the end, Play as Symbol of the World is a cosmology, an account of world. In Heideggerian fashion, Fink by and large ends up in a very different spot than where he began the text.

“World” for Fink is to be understood in Heideggerian terms. Fink even uses a good amount of space in Chapter One citing Heidegger’s conception of world from Being and Time as he formulates his own position (66ff). World in Fink’s reading comprises the underlying background within which all phenomena appear for the human agent; world both individualizes and contextualizes. Yet world is not a thing, not a substance to which one can assign a definite article. It is not to be understood metaphysically, as the receptacle housing all things of the universe, nor is world the sum total of all beings. World disappears when we try to circumscribe it with a definition. In and of itself, world is meaningless and groundless, and lacking end or purpose outside of its very manner of givenness. In other words, world’s underlying function is simply to foster the appearance of things in general. It is thus a crucial counterpart to human existence insofar as all human life is “worldly” or world-oriented.

Another thought to Heidegger is apposite here, though it is not a subject to which Fink dedicates explicit attention. Whereas Heidegger tends to characterize being as the fundamental philosophical category, Fink sees world as filling this role. Fink’s rationale appears to be that world is the more immediate, yet also more elusive phenomenological underpinning of human existence. World is the more visceral, tacit background that cradles human life. Some contrast with Husserl is likewise visible on this score. Fink justifies his conception of world with much less attention to the primacy of the transcendental ego, instead taking world and human existence to be co-constituted at rock-bottom. (For a comparison, see Husserl, Cartesian Meditations §1, Section 7.)

The central position of this book, which Fink articulates in the fourth and final chapter, is that play’s uniqueness lay in its capacity to reveal world (206ff). This is because play (broadly construed as theatrical play-acting, games, sport, or cultic ritual) fundamentally enacts the irreal, groundless purposelessness of world; these features are what play itself is. Play in turn reveals the world-open character of human existence. In other words, Fink suggests, we play because we are open to world and are existentially co-constituted along with world. The hypnotic character of play is universally attractive to all people precisely because play allows us to enact and own world through independent means. Play functions as a unique mode of human existence in which we are empowered to exercise our freedom and realize it reflexively.Yet, these achievements remain irreal; they comprise moments of human existence that are at once non-actual. In this way, play comes to mirror the ontological status of world itself.

In the end, Fink does not endorse describing play as a symbol of world, at least in the guise of a metaphor for world’s ontological makeup. More deeply, Fink holds that play manifests a primal connection with world, as expressed in the Greek etymology for “symbol.” The sym- root, in the Greek sum, conveys a togetherness or commonality; the keyword sumballein denotes two or more essentially connected “fragments of being.” Thus symbols do not comprise mere metaphorical comparisons or representations (127). In this case, while play enacts world in an irreal fashion, world cannot be understood as play. At the most, Fink argues, to propose that world is itself an instance of play comprises an antinomy, or at least a problematic that can only be solved outside of metaphysical thought (215). Not only is world incomprehensible as a conceptual whole; even to make this comparison overlooks that human beings are those who play. It would be a contradiction in terms to hold (as Heraclitus suggests) that world plays.

This is a complex and challenging text, perhaps an essential primary source in the history of phenomenology. It is certainly noteworthy for exemplifying a unique crossroads in the legacies of Husserl and Heidegger. Fink’s writing style is occasionally pedantic and shows some repetition as the chapters proceed, but these drawbacks do not detract too much from the book’s accomplishments.