by Kirkland Tibbels
In the study of transactional philosophy, we think of any situation or concern that living organisms must confront in order to survive or avoid suffering as a “Condition of Life.” These inescapable circumstances are, on one end, as foundational as our biological needs for water, food, shelter and the like, and on the other, can emerge as social needs, including those more material or even aspirational. In this essay, I will be attempting to distinguish the unavoidable aspects and forms that constitute one of our “biological” Conditions of Life, referred to as “activity.”
Conditions of Life can be viewed as having a hierarchical organization. Similar in structure to “Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation,” on the most fundamental side of that organization we find situations related to our biological concerns. These are situations and circumstances related to our physical health and safety, which include a distinct concern for the needs we must inevitably face related to our bodies, and that correlate to specific circumstances, requiring us to think and act in order to do that.
Biological Conditions of Life comprise “health”, “activity”, and “knowing.” Here, I will be attempting to distinguish the unavoidable aspects and forms that constitute the Condition of Life “activity.”
Following those most primary biological concerns are conditions that are reliant on our ability to function among others, our sociality, in concert with our facility and use of language. These “linguistic conditions” include unavoidable concerns human beings must face to live a good life and include money, career, relationship, and more. The final group of concerns we confront that go beyond our individual or immediate personal needs are those more ecologically universal, including concerns for environment, aesthetics, politics and others – our “transactional” Conditions of Life.
Critters on planet earth that have brains – move. They must move to survive. Moving, in the case of human beings, is the most fundamental aspect of the Condition of Life we are addressing here – that of activity.
One form of this inescapable human concern is that of play. Play is a necessary activity for altricial species, those who are born helpless, who must learn while under parental protection and care, how to deal with the reality of a hostile and threatening world. Other forms of activity include “labor,” “work,” and the socially bound need of coordinating these as we attempt to satisfy loftier aims throughout our life – “action.”
Success in whatever form it may take, from basic survival to that of reaching the loftiest stations we might hope to reach, requires that we navigate and negotiate with our environments, from the most raw natural habitats where we may find ourselves to the highly complex social constructs in which we engage.
Moving about with our complex brains in tow, in continual engagement with other complex-brain-wielding critters, we eventually find ourselves satisfying more and more of our basic needs and wants. And, predictably, new needs and wants begin to emerge. Said another way, as we satisfy our basic needs and wants in one Condition of Life, new needs and wants in other Conditions of Life come into view. As Maslow suggests, to a starving person, food is God. We could consider this orientation and ask, when food is no longer our only aim, what becomes available to us? Do new needs and wants emerge from the very effort we make in moving around?
How we function among others in our process of moving around in the world matters in ways most of us rarely recognize. Our needs in our Conditions of Life – for example, our need for relationships, including the physical need for sex, the biological instinct to reproduce, and the psychological need for intimacy they fulfil – are informed by the constructs and social narratives we accept. Other needs and desires too, like our desire to have material comforts or social identities, come into view, in large part, from what we learn and what we attract to us as we navigate and negotiate with the elements we confront in our environment(s). Again, how we move around in our environments and (especially) how we engage others in the process, has a lot to do with the possibilities, opportunities, and threats that emerge as a result.
A helpful distinction in orienting ourselves to the inquiry of how we might move with others, is to recognize what kinds of specific activities are required to satisfy those needs, wants, and desires in the process. This concern is what we are all dealing with in the Condition of Life activity.
Recognizing the particular form of activity in which we are engaged can help.
Activity takes shape through four recognizable forms; labor, work, play, and action.
Labor is considered the inescapable circumstance in which every human being “must” engage in order to maintain satisfaction in their life and avoid unwanted suffering. Recurrent activities requiring labor are synonymous with, and no more or less significant than, that of maintenance. Labor refers to the need for recurrent and routine upkeep or preservation of our body and material existence. From the most biological need to maintain our health by acquiring daily supplies of clean water, and food, as well as finding safe shelter and more – maintenance is required.
Every Condition of Life includes with it an inescapable amount of maintenance. If we want to keep our teeth or stay in shape or build a legendary career, each condition, in its own way and depending on our aims, requires a great deal of upkeep, preservation, and maintenance. Each of us faces, on a daily basis, a continual confrontation with exactly how much labor we can afford to manage ourselves versus how much we can afford to outsource by sacrificing other resources from other Conditions of Life. Labor is an unavoidable and inescapable form of the Condition of Life “activity” – even if we aren’t the actual doer or source of it.
Recognizing the role labor plays in our lives in how we are occupied by the recurrent and repetitive routines of life, allows us some important facility in how we choose (or not) to move around in our environments. Recognizing labor as an aspect of activity can produce some freedom for some folks who otherwise are consumed with it or are mistakenly led to believe that they must do everything themselves. Maybe for others, recognizing how much maintenance they produce for others would be a useful consideration in understanding why they have difficulties in other areas of their life like their careers and relationships. The term “high maintenance” might be a commonsense reference to point to in recognizing how moving around in the world affects satisfaction in our Conditions of Life.
Work is another form of activity human beings encounter. Work refers to the activity associated with our overwhelming need and desire for objects and things. Like it or not, we human beings must confront our reliance and dependency on our constructed environment(s) – our object-oriented world. Simply put, we function through objects. We are, to say it baldly – wholly object-oriented critters. As a tool-using, object-oriented social being, we humans do a great deal of making and using stuff, relying on a variety of objects and things to survive and live a good life. We count on the production, construction, or fabrication of things for practically every activity of our modern existence. Sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel’s assertion that the human ego would crumble up and die without objects seems truer today than ever. Whether you make them or not, in one way or another – objects fulfill needs that each of us has and they produce a necessary experience of permanence we must have to live a satisfying existence.
Most of us seek to avoid the daily toil of the recurrent and sometimes hard labor required to satisfy our basic needs, and have enjoyed the freedom objects give us to enjoy other pursuits. We are not consumed on a daily basis with our individual functional security and existential certainty because of the worldhood of objects in which we share. A dwelling or home, its furnishings, personal items like photos and sentimental keepsakes, useful tools and equipment, and so much more, produce protection, comforts, and the kind of permanence and belonging we aspire to enjoy in our modern existence.
In this discussion of “activity,” we are distinguishing “work” from “labor” as the making and/or creating of things. In our concern and recognition of “work” as a form of activity, we mean the fabrication, production, building, or creating things/objects and, with little exception, doing so through the use of other objects or tools.
Physical or material objects are easy to see. Beyond material things that take up space, and consume our resources, there are other non-physical things that occupy much of the same. Philosopher Karl Popper attempted to confront these other objects which he named “mental and physiological objects.” Mental objects are thought of as content, such as scientific knowledge or art, whereas psychological objects live in the world of mental states that explain psychological traits and behavior. Psychological objects, such as the entity known as the United States of America, exist as shared knowledge. In this example, this shared knowledge comprises what it is to be “American,” whether that be mom, baseball, apple pie, or the rugged individual. We share in both the feeling and activity we can direct towards it. “Thoughts are things.”
Popper and others have declared, and it is worth considering, how much our ideas, constructs, theories, and more occupy us. Non-physical objects too often go unnoticed in terms of the cost they carry and the amount of maintenance they can produce. How we operate in our environments through the constructs of mental or psychological objects matters as we seek to engage others in effective and satisfying ways. For instance, a good idea or argument that results in all kinds of activity with which others must contend, are circumstances that involve no physical object in the moment – but certainly can produce a great deal of cost.
Action is another form of the Condition of Life “activity” and is meant to represent a purely social construct that lives predominantly in the world of trans-action. For our purposes, we relate to “action” as the coordination of purposeful activity with and through others; a coordination of labor, work and play. Action occurs through the purposeful coordinated activity engaged in by others and more often than not it finds its ultimate expression in groups aimed at events. Taking action asserts a processual orientation that, for the most part, has a particular conclusion in view. If “activity” is related to as a state, then that state or situation is arrived at through the creation of something(s) (work), the continued maintenance of that thing (or things), and is rarely if ever an isolate but always a part of something else. Act-ion is an abstraction that asserts a pursuit of some outcome or result.
Action denotes, when transactionally applied, a reciprocal, processual, and relational set of acts and efforts that are aimed toward bringing about, through social discourse and engagement, particular outcomes. Occurring in the result of social ‘acting’ – action actualizes activity.
Play, as a form of the Condition of Life ‘activity’ where we engage with others (or things) in our environment in a particular way, is distinct from the forms of activity we have referenced thus far. We tend to find ourselves in highly reflective, concentrated, and sometimes energetic and/or physical activity when we play. Playing has a particularly unique orientation of being less “consequential” than other forms of activity in terms of satisfying basic needs and wants. In other words, we do not depend on or rely on specific acts of play (explicitly or immediately) for our survival or to satisfy the most important needs in our life. That being said, play is critically important in the early physical and social development of human (and mammalian) life, and maintains its relevance throughout our adult lives in the continued development of skills and facilities in every area of our existence, especially in sociality and other linguistic Conditions of Life. To be clear, skills developed while in the protective environments of play can translate to the ability for surviving other situations in the day to day activities of life. The actual and immediate activity of play, in a protected and confined environment however, is to be viewed as non-threatening and limited in its immediate consequence.
Although there are numerous modes of play identified in scores of research around human development and psychology, in the context of this essay, we are going to focus on the two primary modes of trans-actional play, “gaming” and “practice.” In gaming, we set up a structured and typically closed environment that enjoys a sense of separation from the immediacy of our day to day “real” or “normal” life. Games almost always mimic or carry with them some relationship to active daily life and can offer outstanding opportunities to hone skills and exercise practical applications of those activities we use in our routines or specific occupations. Gaming allows us to experience a healthy escape from the rigors and toil of everyday life – unless – of course, we stay too long and thus negatively affect other Conditions of Life.
Considering the term “practice” as play is another useful view of this form of human activity. When we are practicing, we set up much the same kind of structured event as we might if we are gaming. However, practice tends to be closely associated with developing knowhow and skills for more explicit “real-world” application – or more serious gaming. Robert Bellah, in his book Religion in Human Evolution, From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, offers that play holds a significant place in the development of early social constructs – relating to it as primal and fundamental to how human beings formed the early workings of language and community. Play, according to Bellah, is a luxury, void of the stresses and concerns of daily life. It mimics and often exaggerates purposeful acts of human life. We use gaming, for example, to learn skills we can apply in actual (real life) situations or aspirational endeavors. As ‘practice,’ play offers opportunities to fail our way to success in learning highly consequential skills that otherwise might be catastrophic if not learned or mastered before applying them, like flying an airplane. In practice and gaming, we can learn how to perform in more beneficial or valuable ways that enhance our labor or work. For example, to borrow again from Robert Bellah, we can play-fight, or play war games, but if we fight too hard or are hurtful - the game is over. We can role-play in our intimate relationship, but try too hard or take it too far – the game is over. You can play with spending your money, but if you can’t play with it without worrying about losing it and threatening the survival or comforts of real-life – the game is over.
Like “labor” and “work,” “play” exists in every Condition of Life.
Practices that once seemed difficult make their way into the background of our activity and become more non-reflective and habitual over time. Transferring skill sets and knowhow into a background of familiarity is one of the main applications of play in our lives.
“Play is the luxury of luxuries” declares Bellah, as he points out that “play is expensive. It makes playing animals vulnerable to predators and keeps them from helping to forage. So we have many theories of the functions of play – it is exercising the muscles, it is learning to be social, it is learning to outwit the other players, and so on – yet few observers doubt an element of sheer joy that is seldom seen in other things animals do.” 1 Gaming can, for good or bad, offers Bellah, “artificially create a separate reality” and produce unrealistic expectations about a player’s abilities, competencies and/or fitness.
Play is a kind of event or activity that begins and ends, and it takes place in the context of daily life, from which it is to some degree differentiated. Bellah refers to Gordon Burghardt:
“whose book The Genesis of Animal Play is the best recent treatment of the subject. Burghardt sums up by indicating five things that must in some way be present before we can call something ‘animal’ play:
- Limited immediate function
- Endogenous component
- Structural or temporal difference
- Repeated performance
- Relaxed field
The first criterion, limited immediate function, indicates that play is ‘not fully functional in the context in which it is expressed,’ that it does not contribute to current survival. If, according to Darwin, evolution can be characterized as ‘the struggle for existence,’ and according to Spencer as “the survival of the fittest,” then play is something different from the ‘paramount reality’ of the world of daily life in evolutionary history, and the something different is the first alternative reality.
The second criterion is that play is something “done for its own sake,” pleasurable in itself, spontaneous and voluntary; it is not a means to an end. This is what Burghardt means by speaking of its ‘endogenous component’. The third criterion, ‘structural or temporal difference,’ indicates that play may use behaviors from ordinary life, like fighting, chasing, and wrestling, but without the aim that such behaviors would ordinarily have. It uses features of ordinary life playfully, for their own sake, and not to achieve the aim that they have in ordinary life. This is one of the bases for seeing play as not serious. The fourth criterion is that play behavior is performed ‘repeatedly in a similar, but not rigidly stereotyped form’. It is then, something that is repeatedly performed, often in bouts, during a predictable period in the animals’ life, which in some cases can span a life. The fifth and final criterion is related to the first one: play behavior ‘is initiated when an animal is adequately fed, healthy, and free from stress (e.g. predator threat, harsh microclimate, social instability, etc.) or intense competing systems (e.g. feeding, mating, predator avoidance). In other words, the animal is in a ‘relaxed field’. This criterion is important for helping us understand the origin of play and the reason why it is limited, largely but not absolutely exclusively, to mammals and birds, and also why it is often limited to the young, though in some species it continues throughout life. One can think of a variety of conditions that would produce a relaxed field, but an obvious one is parental care. Young animals whose primary needs are taken care of by others, who are fed and safe, are the ones mostly likely to play. Also, a hierarchical social structure that provides some relief from aggression within the group and a more adequate defense against external dangers could provide conditions that encourage play, not only for the young, but for adults as well. This might be especially true for hierarchical structure like that of the chimpanzees, one that has moved away from despotism toward something that begins to look like a “constitutional monarchy.” 2, 3
Activity is an inescapable and unavoidable Condition of Life that every human being must face to live a good life and avoid suffering. How we move makes a difference in how we live our lives. These distinctions are useful in recognizing where we spend our time and where we might want to reconsider our activity. How might we deploy our limited resources around “work” and “labor” (including where we might be better off delegating or outsourcing activity) so that we can spend our limited time and resources in other ways? Distinguishing certain activities as “play,” rather than work or labor, can help lighten moods and produce more enjoyable situations in our day to day lives. Allowing play to be not only acceptable but necessary to the satisfaction of our life and wellbeing, can go a long way towards alleviating the angst we often feel when we believe we are wasting time or not getting anything done, when in fact – we’re just living very active lives.
* This essay references an extensive study found in the curriculum of Influential U’s Mechanics and Practice Two Program, written by Kirkland Tibbels, and with the exception of cited works by Robert Bellah, references here to that extensive body of work were originally influenced by and include the following references:
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money
John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley, Knowing and the Known
1 Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Belknap Harvard) XXI-XXII
2 Bellah, 76-78
3 For a fascinating and deeper dive into the origins, function, and further distinctions of animal play, see: Bellah 74 – 83.