Bringing Up Play, Film, and Philosophy

Bringing Up Play, Film, and Philosophy

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Bringing Up Play, Film, and Philosophy

(1) Wittgenstein once said, “A typical America film, naive and silly, can for all its silliness and even by means of it— be instructive . . . I have often learnt from a silly American film.” (Wittgenstein 57e). He is pointing out that the humor, and the means of humor, in some films can be a tool of instruction. The ability of film to cause a reaction like laughter is of philosophical interest. While Wittgenstein’s comment is itself playful and dense, it directs our attention to a philosophical aspect of some films. Understood in a wider scope, I believe the comment is a terse philosophy of film. Understood in an even wider scope, we can see it as a terse theory of philosophical method.

(2) Exploring implications of Wittgenstein’s comment, however, is not my intention in this essay. I will not explain how we can profit philosophically by examining film. My intention is to show how we can.

(3) When Wittgenstein admits he found some films instructive, he very well could have admitted Howard Hawk’s film entitled Bringing Up Baby. Despite the silliness of the film, even by means of it, Bringing Up Baby explores the role of play in the nature of romantic relationships. I argue that in the film a relationship that is principally animated by game-play is legitimate. We learn that game-play enters into the justification of a true relationship.[1]

(4) Johannes Huizinga symptomatically describes play as,

“ . . . a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.” (Huizinga 13).

Play is defined as an open-ended set of ‘non-serious’ activities, chosen of free will in lieu of ‘serious’ or ‘ordinary’ activities. The distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘non-serious’ is not intended to characterize the mental state of a player because, more often than not, a silly game is still a mentally absorbing activity.

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Rather the distinction captures a difference in practical utility -- a feature that play activities lack and ‘ordinary’ activities posses. The activities of play have set boundaries that separate the players from those in the ‘ordinary’ world. Within the boundaries of play there is a particular fixed order. Both the order and boundaries of play function to make it external to ‘ordinary’ or ‘everyday’ life.

(5) Connecting Huizinga’s thoughts and the film, I will bring up two general forms of play. First, we often find that play is a contest for something and, second, we often find that play is a representation of something. Both forms occur repeatedly in the film. When Susan Vance (played by Kathryn Hepburn) is on the telephone with David Huxley (played by Cary Grant) an example of the second general form of play transpires – play as a representation of something. She acts as if a leopard is attacking her. Susan is representing a victim who needs help -- she plays an attack-victim. She toys with David, who is on the other end of the telephone line. Huizinga claimed that ‘representation’ is best understood as a display or an exhibition before an audience. In high spirits, Susan puts on a display before David who is her audience. David, ‘victim of her unbridled imagination,’ is afraid for Susan’s personal safety and rushes to help her. When he gets to Susan’s place, he realizes it was a trick and that Susan had artfully fooled him.

(6) David leaves the apartment with the intention to get away from Susan. However, she has a different plan; Susan wants David to come to with her to Mrs. Random’s house. (Mrs. Random is Susan’s aunt.) Susan drives along beside David, who is walking on the sidewalk. Susan coaxes him to get in the automobile -- with the help of the leopard! Susan then says, “ . . . All I was doing was driving,” and David says, “You know very well you tricked me into this trip.” We observe the first general form of play enacted – play as a contest for something. Since Susan desires a relationship with David, the contest is for David’s companionship.

(7) Huizinga, like Wittgenstein, shows that play is a complex and open-ended concept. It is not always easy to discern what is play or explain why someone plays. The lack of essential form complicates play analysis. With no essential features to the concept, play has a manifold number of appearances. Wittgenstein’s description offers that the only ‘essence’ of the play-concept is the web of similarities and differences, in detail and overall. ‘Game’ and ‘play’ are concepts without a general form; all we observe is a complicated network of manifestations, as much alike as different.[2]

(8) Despite what Huizinga and Wittgenstein believe about the nature of play, some are tempted to ask, “Why do the characters of Hawk’s film play?” with an expectation of hearing an exact answer. We can call this group of people Reductionists because they deny play is manifold and remain unconvinced that play is an open-ended concept. “Surely there is an exact definition of play,” they will say. The Reductionists may explain that: “David is experiencing psychological frustration. He releases this tension by his activities with Susan. It seems simple enough to understand play as a function of our psychology.” The Reductionist endorses play as a bounded-concept – play is a mechanism of human psychology. Here are six Reductionist explanations of play:

1) Play as a sufficient satisfier of an imitative instinct.

2) Play as a sufficient satisfier of a desire for realization.

3) Play as an innate urge to dominate or compete.

4) Play as an outlet for harmful impulses.

5) Play as a form of wish fulfillment.

6) Play as a fiction designed to keep up the feeling of personal value.

(9) Now we have two mutually exclusive ways of explaining the concept of play. One explains play as open-ended and does not demand an essence of the concept. The other reductively explains play as a bounded-concept of human psychology. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein uses an interlocutor to make it clear why someone might try to explain a game as a bounded concept. I think we can parallel the worry of the interlocutor with the worry the Reductionist, who wishes to find a precise answer explaining why we play. The interlocutor states, “But if the concept ‘game’ is uncircumscribed, you don’t really know what you mean by ‘game.’” (Wittgenstein 33e). The interlocutor worries that if the concept ‘game’ is not a bounded concept, then the concept ‘game’ is useless. Similarly, a Reductionist might worry that without a bound, play will not be explained.

(10)Huizinga believes that reductive explanations of play are fundamentally flawed. Huizinga formulates his objection by asking, “What is . . . the fun of playing?” (Huizinga 2). The purpose of this objection is to strike at the core of a reductive analysis that fails to explain the intensity and absorption, the mirth and fun of play. The Reductionist explanation of play assumes that play must serve something that is not play. Huizinga thinks that play, by its nature, is a significant form. Play is not reducible to the mechanisms of human psychology. He points out that, “in play there is something ‘at play’ which transcends the immediate needs of life.” (Huizinga 1). As a significant form, play is categorical. “Play is a function of living but it is not susceptible of exact definition either logically, biologically, or aesthetically . . . the play-concept remains distinct from all other forms of thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life.” (Huizinga 6). Like Wittgenstein, Huizinga is convinced that play is cannot be defined with precise logical features, it remains an open-ended and complicated web, showing as many similarities and as differences. The most informative thing we can say of play is to call it ‘play.’[3]

(11)The search for a reductive explanation of play is acted out in the film. When Susan finds the leopard, called ‘Baby,’ on top of a house and she begins to sing to it. The inhabitant of the house, a psychologist, thinks that she must be have a problem – a psychological problem. We find the scene a humorous and thoughtful critique of the psychologist’s mistaken reading of Susan’s character. The psychologist treats Susan Vance as if she were ‘seeing things’— that is as if she were mentally ill and suffering from hallucinations. Maybe this belief is motivated by one of the reductive explanations of play, such as: “Play as a sufficient satisfier of an imitative instinct,” or, “Play as a form of wish-fulfillment.” Whatever motivates the psychologist’s beliefs, there is a leopard on his roof and it behaves a certain way when Susan sings to it. Moreover, Susan is playing a game. We should notice how frightened Susan is by the ‘psychoanalytic-attitude’ taken toward her. She is frightened that the psychologist does not see that she is only playing. We could say that the psychologist, who finds her disturbed, has disturbed Susan and has disturbed her play.

(12) The characters of the film spend their time in play, but they nonetheless worry about the nature of play. The film teaches us about play as an open-ended concept. David is characterizing the metaphysics of play when he tells Susan, “I am a victim of your unbridled imagination.” Imagination and reality are two important parts of Huizinga’s philosophy of play and we find these two components in David’s statement. On this topic Huizinga notes, “If we find that play is based on the manipulation of certain images, on a certain ‘imagination’ of reality (i.e. the conversion into images), then our main concern will be to grasp the value and significance of these images and their ‘imagination.’(Huizinga 4). This is a difficult passage, but I speculate that Huizinga is saying that the foundation of play is an imaginative process. It is process takes place between a person and the world. The play-process is the transformation of the world, reality, into images. The external world is transformed into representational ‘mind-images.’

(13) We can understand ‘unbridled imagination’ to refer to Susan’s incessant game playing, but how are we to interpret David as the character who is her ‘victim’? This point is explained in the moment of the film when David realizes who Mrs. Random is. She is the character who is supposed to give a donation to the museum. Because of play, the world has been processed into an image in which David appears crazy. Frustrated, David realizes the games that Susan plays with him have a limited advantage, especially when Mrs. Random interprets them as strange and crazy. Mrs. Random will not want to donate money to a foolish person.[4]

(14) The film shows us that the play-concept can accomplish the following theoretical work: (a) Play is involved in how we represent the world. (b) Play is involved in what meaning our actions have to others in the world. Considering component (a), play is an activity and process that affects our picture of the world. Play does not change the world, but we should admit it changes what how we imagine it to be and what it means to us. The ability to change how we picture the world is intimately connected with component (b) of play. Pictures of the world change when the connotation and meaning changes. A certain picture of the world will change the semantic-value of our actions and understanding an action in a certain way will change how we picture the world.

(15)However, play cannot do this theoretical work if someone will not accept or ‘go along with’ the rules of play. When we are at play, we see the world in a certain way and we give human-action unique meaning. If a person is not playing the game, then they cannot see the world (or actions in the world) as the game-players perceive it. The semantic features of the play-world will be unavailable to the person who does not play the game. The player who withdraws from the temporary play-world is called a ‘spoil-sport,’ according to Huizinga. The character of the ‘spoil-sport’ can take away the illusion of play. “The spoil- sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others.” (Huizinga 12).

(16)From the initial scene of the film, David strives to procure a million dollar donation for the Museum of Natural History. When we observe David playing golf with Mr. Peabody, his real concern is also securing the fate of the million dollar donation. David’s first encounter with the Susan Vance is on this same golf course. Their long line of misadventures begins when Susan uses David’s golf ball for her own game. Susan enjoys playing games of ownership with David. We learn that David is going to be a ‘spoil-sport.’[5]

(17)At the beginning of the film, David and his fiancée Alice Swallow are introduced and we learn that they will soon become a married couple. Alice sets up a tension in the scene by arguing about how they ought to spend their time together. Alice, our philosopher of the ‘serious,’ is overtly trying to impose a certain order on the life that David and she will share. Our concern here is with what marks Alice as a ‘serious’ character.[6] Alice has no problem with order; in fact she intends to ‘seriously’ order their marriage by dedicating it to David’s work at the Museum of Natural History. The ‘serious’ rules surprise David, especially when it means foregoing the pleasures of a honeymoon together! It is correct to think that David does not like the rules of the game that Alice wants to play. We can say that David must know how to play by the rules that Alice wants to play by— the ‘serious’ rules. It seems reasonable especially considering David is about to marry her. However, he exhibits a preference for a game with some different rules – a game with a honeymoon!

(18)Alice notes to David, “There is a time and place for everything.” Alice is telling David that at a certain time we act a certain way, and at another time we act another way. What we do at one time is not what we do at the other time. Alice has just reminded David of the rules of the game and the location of their personal romantic playground. As Huizinga understands, a marker of play is the notion of a playground or a game-board. Huizinga says play, “ . . . is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and space. It contains its own course and meaning.” (Huizinga 9). A playground is a location where certain rules are in effect. We can relate this feature to another symptom of play -- its distinctness from ‘ordinary life’ in locality and duration. Alice is saying that her relationship with David is justified by a game of playing ‘serious’ and it is distinct from an ordinary married life -- one with a honeymoon.[7]

(19)When David meets Susan unexpectedly in the dining room of the Ritz Plaza Hotel, he is still in pursuit of Mr. Peabody. (This pursuit is a result of the aborted golf-game I mentioned in (16).) David is not receptive to Susan and she challenged by David’s ‘spoil-sport’ attitude. She wants to win David over. Susan begins a game closely related to games played by those whom the Greeks called the ‘Sophists.’ In this sense, Susan is a ‘Sophist’ philosopher. Huizinga notes that the Sophist character is often amusing and playful, especially in an attempt to defeat their rival in a public contest. The Sophist will try to win by exhibiting all their knowledge in a game. Comparing and contrasting Susan’s game with the Sophist’s game will illuminates how she treats David.

(20)David is baffled by the discursive verbal games that Susan likes to play. For example, when they find out that the leopard has escaped Susan seems quite upset. David admonishes her, “ . . . don’t lose your head.” Susan responds in a witty verbal game, she says, “I got my head. I’ve lost my leopard.” This is the element of anti-logia or double reasoning in the Sophist’s and Susan’s performance. The nature of ‘Sophistic’ game is intimately connected with the riddle and the trick question. Both devices are intentionally used to deceive and stump their rivals. We realize that part of Susan’s intention is to keep David guessing. Similarly, the Sophists used verbal games to catch people off-guard and unable to answer the trick question.

(21)At one point in the film, David asks Susan to be ‘serious’ for a moment and to promise to conceal his identity from Mrs. Random. But Susan interrupts his ‘serious’ discussion with the comment; she says, “You’re so good looking without your glasses.” David is upset because he cannot exactly explain the game that Susan is trying to play with him and it seems as if she is not paying attention to him. (He does not have reason to be upset, though because Mrs. Random is still confused about David’s identity.) But when Susan admits to her aunt, “ . . . he is the only man I have ever loved,” we realize that her game is motivated by love. What David has not understood is that Susan’s games enter into the justification of her love for him.[8]

(22)The situation of David’s romantic relationship with Susan is in bold contrast with the situation of David’s romantic relationship with Alice. David knows the rules of Alice’s romantic game and he does not like them. However, it is different with Susan. Susan’s play is not a ‘serious’ game. It is like the game described by Huizinga, " . . . as an interlude in our daily lives. . . It adorns life, amplifies it and to that extent is a necessity both for the individual— as a life function— and for society by reason of the meaning it contains, its significance, in short as a culture function.” ”(Huizinga 9). But David does not know how to play Susan’s ‘Sophistic’ game. She brings out the apprehensive ‘spoil-sport’ in David. Nevertheless, he accepts the detainment voluntarily and this is evidence of his desire to play Susan’s game.

(23)– Why should David wonder how he was ‘mixed up’ in a relationship with Susan? (See footnote number (8).) Wittgenstein has said, “If you use a trick in logic, whom can you be tricking other than yourself.” (Wittgenstein 24e). The comment suggests that if you use a trick in logic, say to win an argument, you are only tricking yourself by not attempting to find the truth. Wittgenstein’s remark brazenly picks out the contradiction in David’s character. David likes to play with Susan and, simultaneously, hates to play with Susan. Though he feigns a confusion of her game, David’s ‘spoil-sport’ attitude is like the trick in logic. It may seem as if David does not play fairly with his attitude, but in a sense the only person he is tricking himself. He tricks himself by failing to see the truth of his relationship with Susan. The games they play together are romantic in nature. David must voluntarily play because it is an activity of free will. Physical necessity or moral duty never imposes play as a necessity. To pretend not to know how he got involved in a romantic relationship with Susan is a trick in logic and David can only be fooling himself.

(24)It is possible that the ‘spoil-sport’ attitude David assumes is just a ‘Sophistic’ move in his own game. David plays as if he did not want to play at all. We should remember Huizinga’s truism, continually repeated in Homo Ludens, that the contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. At the Hotel David says, “Would you do something for me . . . Let’s play a game . . . I’ll put my hand over my eyes and you’ll go away.” But in a game of hide and seek you cannot hide in a place outside the boundaries, or in a place that now one will ever find you. Though he says, “ . . . you’ll go away,” he is going to find Susan after the count of ten. The game of hide and seek provides a rough diagram of the relationship between Susan and David. While we might initially think that David has a ‘spoil-sport’ attitude. But as it turns out he just playing a game with ‘Sophist-Susan.’ Even when David is asking her to leave, it seems likely that he is trying to get her to stay. We can remember what the psychologist tells Susan about men, “The love impulse in men reveals itself in terms of conflict.” This would make the psychologist partly correct, at least as his proposition concerns David. If we accept this, then David is admitting he loves Susan when he says to her, “Our relationship has been a series of mis-adventures from beginning to end.”


Hawks, Howard. Bringing Up Baby. 1938.

Huizinga, Johannes. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. New York, NY: Roy Publishers, 1930.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil, Blackwell, Oxford Publishers, 1969.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Malden, MS: Blackwell Publishers, 1953.


[1] I will bring up the work of two other authors outside the aetiology of the film. Howard Hawks did not write these works into the film, but we can consider these works to be on the theoretical ‘horizon’ of the film. Much of my discussion of play-concepts will rely on the work of philosophical anthropology entitled Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johannes Huizinga. I also will bring up various points in works by Ludwig Wittgenstein, these works include Philosophical Investigations, Culture and Value, and On Certainty.

[2] In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein discusses the number of possibilities, “And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.” (Wittgenstein 32e).

[3] For Huizinga, the whole purpose of play is play. When Susan and David play together and all they are doing is playing. On the contrary, the Reductionist explained that Susan and David were mentally unstable characters ( . . . experiencing psychological frustration . . . releases this tension . . .). We can now see this is incorrect because the film shows these two characters as sophisticated and aware. Susan is having fun when she is with David. The Reductionist explanation made us assume something that was clearly false.

[4] An example of what Huizinga accounts for when he describes the foundation of play as an imaginative process is in remark (13). Play gives a meaning to David’s actions that he does not care for— Mrs. Random thinks that he is crazy. Both because psychology does not determine play and because it transcends immediate needs, play can impart a peculiar semantic quality to playful action. Play can give our actions meaning. Through play our actions become more than mechanistic drives and instincts, they have a feature of ‘aboutness.’ “All play means something.” (Huizinga 2).

[5] This is the first indication of David’s problem with Susan— he does not know how to play her game. She finishes her game of golf, with David’s ball, and then tries to leave in David’s car. David tries to reason with her, explaining to her that she is in his car and not her own car. Still, Susan keeps up the game of wits by asking, “ . . . is there anything in the world that doesn’t belong to you?” In one sense, Susan shows her knowledge of David’s ‘spoil-sport’ attitude by scolding him, but in another sense this is like an open-ended Socratic question. Susan’s comment could be either a joke, or a profound question. Distinguishing its locality as serious or playful question is difficult.

[6] At the same time, we are interested in the possibility that Alice, who is so seemingly stoic, is just playing ‘serious’ with David. As Huizinga reminds us, order is a main feature of play. Remember this when we watch Alice lay down the rules of their relationship, and we can understand her to begin a game with David. As the film continues one should note how all the characters play various games with each other— each game possessing a special order of its own. Huizinga thinks that play creates order, or, you might say, is order. David is apprehensive about order.

[7] Like David, we tend to think play is the direct opposite of seriousness. However this is tricky point because while play is the opposite (that is non-serious), it can simultaneously be very serious. Some games we play seriously and this is what Alice wants to teach David.

[8] The situation between David and Susan becomes even more complicated (more open-ended) when Mrs. Random’s dog buries the ‘intercostal clavicle.’ This bone belongs to the Museum of Natural History and now David and Susan must chase after the dog with the hope it will lead them to the bone. Susan takes this to be another game, she says, “Isn’t this fun David? Just like a game!” Mrs. Random asks her, “Susan what on earth are you doing?” Susan replies, pointing at David, “Well Auntie, he’s just playing with George [the dog].” David at some point realizes he is ‘unavoidably detained,” and wonders, “ . . . how I got mixed up in all of this.” Like David, we realize part of Susan’s play is detainment. She desires his company so she does everything within her power to detain him. She is expressing her love to him in the form of a game that will keep him detained.
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