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Random Riches - Willem OTTERSPEER

Homo Ludens: Varieties of "Spieltrieb"

At a conference on gambling Huizinga’s Homo Ludens looks like a fitting subject but in fact it is not. Roger Caillois (Les jeux et les hommes) was right when he stressed that in Huizinga’s definition of play the notion of hazard was completely omitted. In other words, Huizinga neglected almost half of what could be called play. In my contribution I will try to explain why this is the case.

The key to the puzzle is that Huizinga studied play only in its creative, not in its destructive form. According to Huizinga, culture was created as play and in play. A heavy dose of morality was incorporated in his definition of play. As everywhere in Huizinga’s work ethics played a major role in Homo Ludens. To understand the book properly we have to place it in the context of the development from Spieltrieb (Schiller) to Spieltrieb (July Zeh) and wonder whether Trieb in English is best rendered as ‘urge’ or as ‘instinct’, as part of our human character or as the animal reaction to a specific environment.

Willem OTTERSPEER
is Professor of University History at Leiden. He is the author of, inter alia, a biography of Johan Huizinga, the eminent Dutch historian and medievalist.