Homo Ludens (Book)

Homo Ludens (Book)

{|infobox Book
a study of the play element in culture

author = Johan Huizinga
cover_artist = Peter Bruegel the Elder
country =
language = English
genre =
publisher = Beacon Press, Boston
release_date = 1955
media_type = Print
pages =
isbn = 978-0807046814

"Homo Ludens", or "Man the Player," is a book written in 1938 by Dutch historian, cultural theorist and professor Johan Huizinga. It discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. Huizinga uses the term "Play Theory" within the book to define the conceptual space in which play occurs. Huizinga suggests that play is primary to and necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.

Foreword controversy:Huizinga makes it clear in the foreword of his book that he means the play element "of" culture, and not the play element "in" culture. He writes that he titled the initial lecture the book is based on "The Play Element of Culture". This title was repeatedly corrected to "in" Culture, a revision he objected to. Huizinga explains: :"...it was not my object to define the place of play among all other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play." (Foreword, unnumbered page)

The uncredited English translator of the Beacon Press version modified the subtitle of the book to "A Study of the Play-Element In Culture", contradicting Huizinga's stated intention. The translator explains in a footnote in the Foreword, "Logically, of course, Huizinga is correct; but as English prepositions are not governed by logic I have retained the more euphonious ablative in this sub-title." Thus, the translator intends no change in meaning, but essentially thought ""in culture" sounded better than "of culture".

The version in print and widely available in English is a translation and synthesis of the original Dutch and the first English translation (done by Huizinga himself), because "a comparison of the two texts shows a number of discrepancies and a marked difference in style" (Translators Note, unnumbered page) [The Beacon Press translation is copyrighted 1950, by Roy Publishers and the Beacon first edition was printed in 1955; since Huizinga died in 1945 he, presumably, was not directly involved in this translation. ] [In the 1955 Edition the "Translator's Note" is the following:“This edition is prepared from the German edition published in Switzerland, 1944, and also from the author's own English translation of the text, which he made shortly before his death. Comparison of the two texts shows a number of discrepancies and a marked difference in style; the translator hopes that the following version has achieved a reasonable synthesis.”] .

I Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon

“Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” [Huizinga 1955, p.1]

Huizinga begins by making it clear that animals played first. There is here a clear subtext to the first sentence, quoted above. Huizinga sets the book in an evolutionary framework.

One of the most significant (human and cultural) aspects of play is that it is fun [Huizinga 1955, p.3] .This fun aspect is celebrated by Brian Sutton-Smith in his book "The Ambiguity of Play":

“Prime credit in play-theory terms for denying the puritanical and work contentions about play in modern times must go to Huizinga who [...] argues that play is a most fundamental human function and has permeated all cultures from the beginning.” [Sutton-Smith 2001, p.202]

Characteristics of play

To set the scene of the play that he will unfold gradually, Huizinga identifies 3 characteristics that play must have:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.Huizinga 1955, p.8]
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.Huizinga 1955, p.8]
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. [Huizinga 1955, p.9]

II The play concept as expressed in language

“Word and idea are not born of scientific or logical thinking but of creative language, which means of innumerable languages—for this act of ″conception″ has taken place over and over again. [Huizinga 1955, p.28] ”

Huizinga has much to say about the words for play in different languages. Perhaps the most extraordinary remark concerns the Latin language. “It is remarkable that "ludus", as the general term for play, has not only not passed into the Romance languages but has left hardly any traces there, so far as I can see... We must leave to one side the question whether the disappearance of "ludus" and "ludere" is due to phonetic or to semantic causes.” [Huizinga 1955, p.36]

Of all the possible uses of the word "play" Huizinga specifically mentions the equation of play with, on the one hand, “serious strife”, and on the other, “erotic applications”. [Starting from his remark on Professor Buytendijk's use of the word “love-play”, Huizinga remarks that in his own opinion “it is not the act as such that the spirit of language tends to conceive as play; rather the road thereto, the preparation for and introduction to “love”, which is often made enticing by all sorts of playing. This is particularly true when one of the sexes has to rouse or win the other over to copulating.” Today one uses the word foreplay to describe this “love-play”. Huizinga, 1955, p.43]

Play-category, play-concept, play-function, play-word in selected languages

Huizinga attempts to classify the words used for play in a variety of natural languages.The chapter title uses “play-concept” to describe such words. Other words used with the "play-" prefix are play-function and play-form. The order in which examples are given in natural languages is as follows:

Greek [Huizinga 1955, p.30] (3)
παιδιά — pertaining to children's games
ἄδυρμα — associated with the idea of the trifling, the nugatory
ἀγών — for matches and contests
Sanskrit [Huizinga 1955, p.30-1] (4)
krīdati — denoting the play of animals, children, adults
divyati — gambling, dicing, joking, jesting, ...
vilāsa — shining, sudden appearance, playing and pursuing an occupation
līlayati — light, frivolous insignificant sides of playing
Chinese [Huizinga acknowledges the assistance of [http://www.umass.edu/wsp/sinology/persons/duyvendak.html Professor Duyvendak] 's “friendly help [which allows him] to say something aboutthe Chinese expressions for the play-function”. Huizinga 1955, p.32] (3)
wan — is the most important word covering children's games and much much more
cheng — denoting anything to do with contests; corresponds exactly to the Greek "agon".
sai — organized contest for a prize
Blackfoot [The information on the Blackfoot language used by Huizinga comes from [http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/C.C._Uhlenbeck Professor Christianus Cornelis Uhlenbeck] . Huizinga 1955, p33. See the book "Montana 1911: A Professor and his Wife among the Blackfeet" for further details behind this contribution of the Blackfoot Indian language to Homo Ludens.] (2)
koani — all children's games and surprisingly also in the erotic sense of "dallying"
kachtsi — organized play
Japanese [Huizinga acknowledges the assistance of Professor Rahder, Huizinga 1955, p.34. It is important to note that having identified a single word, Huizinga then goes on to explain that the matter is more complicated, Specifically, he mentions "bushido" (which was enacted in play-forms) and later "asobase-kotoba" (literally play-language — for polite speech, the mode of address used in conversation with persons of higher rank).] (1)
asobu — is a single, very definite word, for the play function
Semitic languages
la’ab (a root, cognate with la’at) — play, laughing, mocking
la’iba (Arabic) — playing ingeneral, making mock of, teasing [Huizinga makes a point of noting that this Arabic word is used for the “playing” of a musical instrument, as in some modern European languages. Huizinga 1955, p35.]
la’ab (Aramaic) — laughing and mocking
sahaq (Hebrew) — laughing and playing
Latin (1)
ludus — from ludere, covers the whole field of play [Huizinga then makes a point of notingthat "jocus", "jocari" does not mean play proper in classical Latin. Huizinga 1955, p35. The primary reason for making this point here is that later he shall note the disappearance of "ludus" to be supplanted by "jocus" in the emergence of the Romance languages.]

III Play and contest as civilizing functions

“The view we take in the following pages is that culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning... Social life is endued with supra-biological forms, in the shape of play, which enhances its value.”Huizinga 1955, p.46]

Huizinga does not mean that “play turns into culture”. Rather, he sets play and culture side by side, talks about their “twin union”, but insists that “play is primary”.Huizinga 1955, p.46]

IV Play and law

“The judge's wig, however, is more than a mere relic of antiquated professional dress.Functionally it has close connections with the dancing masks of savages. It transforms the wearer into another ″being″. And it is by no means the only very ancient feature which the strong sense of traditionso peculiar to the British has preserved in law.The sporting element and the humour so much in evidence in British legal practiceis one of the basic features of law in archaic society.” [Huizinga 1995, p77.]

3 play-forms in the lawsuit

Huizinga puts forward the idea that there are “three play-forms in the lawsuit" and that these formscan be deduced by comparing practice today with “legal proceedings in archaic society" [Huizinga 1955, p84.] :

  1. the game of chance
  2. the contest
  3. the verbal battle

V Play and war

“Until recently the ″law of nations″ was generally held to constitute such a system of limitation, recognizing as it did the ideal of a communitywith rights and claims for all, and expressly separating the state of war—by declaring it—frompeace on the one hand and criminal violence on the other. It remained for the theory of
″total war″ to banish war's cultural function and extinguish the lastvestige of the play-element.” [Huizinga 1955, p90.]

This chapter occupies a certain unique position not only in the book but more obviously in Huizinga's own life. The first Dutch version was published in 1938 (before the official outbreak of World War II). The Beacon Press book is based on the combination of Huizinga's English text and the German text, published in Switzerland 1944. Huizinga died in 1945 (the year the Second World War ended).

  1. One wages war to obtain a decision of holy validity.Huizinga 1955, p91.]
  2. An armed conflict is as much a mode of justice as divination or a legal proceeding.Huizinga 1955, p91.]
  3. War itself might be regarded as a form of divination. [Note from the translator: “Huizinga's own English MS. replaces this third factor by ″the cessation of normal social conditions″.” Huizinga 1955, p91.]

The chapter contains some pleasantly surprising remarks:

  • One might call society a game in the formal sense, if one bears in mind that such a game is theliving principle of all civilization. [Huizinga 1955, p100-01.]
  • In the absence of the play-spirit civilization is impossible. [Huizinga 1955, p101.]

VI Playing and knowing

“For archaic man, doing and daring are power, but knowing is magical power. For him all particular knowledgeis sacred knowledge—esoteric and wonder-working wisdom, because any knowing is directly related to the cosmic order itself.” [Huizinga 1955, p105.]

The riddle-solving and death-penalty motif features strongly in the chapter.

  • Greek tradition: the story of the seers Chalcas and Mopsos. [Huizinga 1955, p199. Details of the contest are not easy to come by. Just after the fall of Troy, Mopsos meets Chalcas. Chalcas points to a fig treeand asks him:How many figs are there on that fig tree over there? Mopsos answers 9; Chalcas say 8. Chalcas is wrong and drops dead on the spot. [http://www.au-grand-jardin.info/augrandjardin/b/banian/symboles.htm Symboles, mythes et légendes] Date of last access 2008-09-10.]

VII Play and poetry

“"Poiesis", in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind,in a world of its own which the mind creates for it. There things have a differentphysiognomy from the one they wear in ‘ordinary life’, and are bound by ties otherthan those of logic and causality.” [Huizinga 1955, p.119]

For Huizinga, the “true appellation of the archaic poet is "vates", the possessed, the God-smitten, the raving one” [Huizinga 1955, p120.] . Of the many examples he gives, one might choose Unferd who appears in "Beowulf". [Huizinga, p121. It is important to note that the spelling of Unferd is sometimes given as Unferth in other texts.]

VIII The elements of mythopoiesis

“As soon as the effect of a metaphor consists in describing things or events in terms of lifeand movement, we are on the road to personification. To represent the incorporeal and the inanimateas a person is the soul of all myth-making and nearly all poetry.” [Huizing 1955, p136.]

Mythopoiesis is literally myth-making. [One might wish to consult related Wikipedia articles Mythopoeia and Mythopoeic thought.]

IX Play-forms in philosophy

“At the centre of the circle we are trying to describe with our idea of play there stands the figure of the Greek sophist. He may be regarded as an extension of the central figure in archaic cultural life who appeared before us successively as the prophet, medicine-man, seer, thaumaturge and poet and whose best designation is "vates".”

X Play-forms in art

“Wherever there is a catch-word ending in "-ism" we are hot on the tracks of a play-community.” [The quotation is taken from Chapter XII The Play-element in Contemporary Civilization. It seems appropriate to bring it forward to Chapter X Play-forms in Art to characterize the naturally occurring "-isms" of Impressionism, Cubism and so on. One wonders if Huizinga also had in mind the politically occurring "-isms" of Communism, Fascism, Republicanism, Socialism and so on. Huizinga 1955, p.203]

Huizinga has already established an indissoluble bond between play and poetry. Now he recognizes that “the same is true, and in even higher degree, of the bond between play and music” [Huizinga 1955, p.158] However, when he turns away from “poetry, music and dancing to the plastic arts” he “finds the connections with play becoming less obvious”. [Huizinga 1955, p.165] But here Huizinga is in the past. He cites the examples of the “architect, the sculptor, the painter, draughtsman, ceramist, and decorative artist” who in spite of her/his “creative impulse” is ruled by the discipline, “always subjected to the skill and proficiency of the forming hand." [Huizinga 1955, p.166]

On the other hand, if one turns away from the “"making" of works of art to the manner in which they are received in the social milieu” [Huizinga 1955, p.169] then the picture changes completely. It is this social reception, the struggle of the new "-ism" against the old "-ism" which characterises the play.

XI Western civilization sub specie ludi

“We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played.It does not come "from" play like a babe detaching itself from the womb:it arises "in" and "as" play, and never leaves it.” [Huizinga 1955, p173.]

XII Play-element in contemporary civilization

“In American politics it [the play-factor present in the whole apparatus of elections] is even more evident. Long before the two-party system had reduced itself to two gigantic teams whose political differences were hardly discernible to an outsider, electioneering in America had developed into a kind of national sport.” [Huizinga 1955, p.207]

It is important to note that Huizinga died in 1945. Hence his observations on contemporary civilization in the final chapter of the book date back to the end of the Second World War.


* "Let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing."
* "It is ancient wisdom, but it is also a little cheap, to call all human activity 'play'. Those who are willing to content themselves with a metaphysical conclusion of this kind should not read this book." (from the Foreword, unnumbered page)
* "The child is laughing: The Game is my wisdom and my love: The young is singing: The Love is my wisdom and my game: The old is silent: The Wisdom is my love and my game" (Lucian Blaga - 3 Faces)



  1. Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. [http://www.beacon.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=1381 Beacon Press] (June 1, 1971). ISBN-10: 0807046817
  2. cite book | last = Huizinga | first = Johan | authorlink = | coauthors = | title = Homo ludens; a study of the play-element in culture | publisher = Beacon Press | date = 1955 | location = Boston | pages = | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = 978-0807046814
  3. Citation
    author = Sutton-smith, Brian
    year = 2001
    title = The ambiguity of play
    isbn = 978-0674005815
    publisher = Harvard University Press
    location = Cambridge, Mass.
    oclc = 46602137 47037617 59549768
  4. Citation
    author = Wilhelmina Maria Uhlenbeck-Melchior, Mary Eggermont-Molenaar, Christianus Cornelius Uhlenbeck, Alice Beck Kehoe, Klaas van Berkel, Inge Genee; translation from Dutch by Mary Eggermont-Molenaar
    year = 2005
    title = Montana 1911: A Professor and his Wife among the Blackfeet
    isbn = 9781552381144
    publisher = University of Calgary Press
    location = Calgary
    oclc = 180772936 60956900

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