Finite or Infinite Games: Which Do you Prefer?

“Which do you prefer?” is actually a rhetorical question, as everyone plays both finite and infinite games as defined in the James P. Carse book Finite and Infinite Games. In fact, Carse asks no questions in the book, which, amazingly, is now almost 30 years old.

Carse, a religious scholar and now-former NYU professor, posits a poetic philosophy built on a number of telling dichotomies. Carse’s distinction between the two kinds of games is more descriptive than prescriptive, but nevertheless carries tremendous weight.

The book seeks to illuminate the different ways individuals view their roles and actions in life, society and culture. How one responds to any particular situation depends on whether that person feels they are engaged in a finite game or an infinite game.

And the crystalline purity of the sentences can be mesmerizing:

“Myths, told for their own sake, are not stories that have meanings, but stories that give meanings.”
“What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.”
“The homelessness of nature, its utter indifference to human existence, disclose to the infinite player that nature is the genius of the dramatic.”
“Evil is not the inclusion of finite games in an infinite game, but the restriction of all play to one or another finite game.”

The structure of the book is 101 logically sequenced short sections that each jump off on a narrow thesis but end conclusively. The structure keeps the author’s thoughts succinct and orderly. The language is poetically inspired because it builds on the implications of simple statements by creating new meanings, which create new implications, which create new meanings, and so on.

The book starts with the difference between finite and infinite games, and then expands on other dichotomies that this semantic distinction might require. So begins section 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.”

These introductory statements open up realms of possibility by offering new perspectives on both mundane and spiritual aspects of human interaction, experience, and achievement. Dichotomies arise from the central dichotomy, pitting against each other refined definitions of Society and Culture, the Theatrical and the Dramatic, and Power and Strength, among others.

It is poetic, too, in the genius of creating an infinite game of its own. The book does not set out to achieve a stated goal. It merely builds on its own corollaries and inductive reasoning, and follows wherever that might lead, to compelling results.

I’d like to tell you how the ideas in the book relate to what we do here, but I’d rather you read it without any more preconceptions than I’ve already planted.


Buy the Finite and Infinite Games on Amazon.

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