The Books

Book #2

Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse

Recommended by Reuben Thomas. I first met Reuben at Cambridge where he was working towards his PhD on Virtual Machines. Reuben had, at that stage, spent a significant proportion of his life as a member of the St John’s College Choir, as a chorister, then a choral student, then a volunteer, and later as a Lay Clerk, and we then became colleagues about ten years later at Westminster Cathedral, where he still sings. Working with Reuben has always been entertaining, mystifying and humbling – he is without question one of the most intelligent people I have met, and he writes on a number of disparate topics rather beautifully – examples to be found on his website. It was with some trepidation that I asked him for a recommendation, and I was amused to receive his short and to the point message in response to my plea for help with ordering: “Read Carse first. Short, sweet, and if it works will change your mind about everything, including the rest of this year.”

I wasn’t organised enough to order a copy in time to start it on my birthday, but my copy arrived a few days later and I embarked on the journey, not quite sure what to expect. The book is indeed short – only 149 pages, split into 101 chapters and organised into 8 sections. Carse (a religious philosopher) divides the world into a place of finite and infinite games, in fact I shall quote the whole of Chapter 1:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

This gives a very brief flavour of the writing style – I am not sure how to describe it. Stark? Terse? Certainly devoid of excess. I can see how it appeals to Reuben – every word is important to Carse’s arguments – he relies entirely on short aphorisms where every word counts – there is nowhere for the brain to relax in this book!

Interestingly, the book is also completely devoid of opinion. Carse makes no judgements as to how one should behave, merely makes statements based on the logical evolution of his thesis. These statements take plenty of digestion though – this is not a book for skim-reading. Perhaps another example or two might highlight the point, from simple, blunt statements, frequently backed up with examples, but not necessarily justified:

Poets cannot kill; they die. Metaphysics cannot die; it kills

to longer passages encircling the point they are making:

It is in the nature of acting, Shaw said, that we are not to see this woman as Ophelia, but Ophelia as this woman. If the actress is so skillful that we do see Ophelia as this woman, it follows that we do not see performed emotions and hear recited words, but a person’s true feelings and speech. To some extent the actress does not see herself performing but feels her performed emotions and actually says her memorized lines – and yet the very fact that they are performed means that the words and feelings belong to the role and not to the actress. In fact, it is one of the requirements of her craft that she keep her own person distinct from the role. What she feels as the person she is has nothing to do with Ophelia and must not enter into her playing of the part…… What makes this an issue is not the morality of masking ourselves. It is rather that self-veiling is a contradictory act – a free suspension of our freedom. I cannot forget that I have forgotten. I may have used the veil so successfully that I have convinced myself I am Ophelia. But credibility will never suffice to undo the contradictoriness of self-veiling. ‘To believe is to know you believe, and to know you believe is not to believe’ (Satre). If no amount of veiling can conceal the veiling itself, the issue is how far we will go in our seriousness at self-veiling, and how far we will go to have others act in complicity with us.”

I found myself flummoxed by this, and many other assertions throughout this book, only to re-read them and notice that I had missed a crucial yet subtle change of word somewhere.

The question is, has this book changed my mind about everything? Has it “worked”? I’m afraid that the answer is no. I suspect that is more down to me than the book, and due to the fact that I’ve put myself under some time pressure with this challenge, and therefore can’t dwell on pages for too long. Perhaps I need to give this another go next year, but I found it more like a grand essay arguing semantics than a persuasive or coherent argument. The one thing that it might have changed my mind about  so far is my own ability to understand philosophy! Sorry Reuben, this one has gone a little over my head at the first reading.


  1. I suspect that you’re right about the time pressure. I first read it in small doses (during homilies!); and my point of comparison was with the book I read at more or less the same time, in the same way: Theodor Adorno’s “Minima Moralia”, which I found much less accessible. Maybe the way to think of “Finite and Infinite Games” is as effectively a 300-page book, just with half the words. The concision of the writing does perhaps mean one should take it more slowly. I hope you find the time to go back to it one day.

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