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By positioning the vita activa between homo faber (man the maker) and homo ludens (man the player), Goethe’s concept of Spiel captures the existential, aesthetic, and philosophical instability in the human condition. Himself a master of play and the game, Goethe broadened the semantic field of the concept by projecting it onto tensions associated with his early verbal, visual, and corporeal quest for pleasure and beauty. As such, Spiel is situated in Goethe’s philosophical lexicon at the nexus of the aesthetic and the practical (including the ethical). This position locates the writer biographically as well: his professional court life and his creative project, including his scientific work, are precariously balanced between the imaginative and the mundane.
Spiel as a philosophical concept also reflects Goethe’s lifelong performance of multiple identities, manifest in rehearsals of bohemian and bourgeois masculinity. Not least, his life and work express a personal and professional relationship to an eighteenth-century environment articulated as a quasi-religious devotion to the forces of nature. Closely related to concepts of fate, divine agency, and luck, Goethe’s gift for play would craft and stage a series of Schauspiele (shows), Lustspiele (comedies), and Trauerspiele (mourning plays) that ultimately equipped his concept of Spiel to do philosophical work. Both literally and figuratively a player, Goethe constructed dynamic models of Spiel as gambling across a range of practices and activities that include play as magic (Taschenspieler); pedagogical games; children’s play and amusement; acting (eine Rolle spielen); and personal and social role playing. And while play maintained a relationship to labor and accountability throughout the writer’s life, the serious philosophical work of Goethean Spiel also typically involved the disruption of rigid systems of thought that purport to defy the precarious stability of being human.
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