The Play of Animals

Editor's Preface

Karl Groos

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IN this volume Professor Groos makes a contribution to three distinct but cognate departments of inquiry: philosophical biology, animal psychology, and the genetic study of art. Those who have followed the beginnings of inquiry into the nature and functions of play in the animal world and in children will see at once how much light is to be expected from a thoroughgoing examination of all the facts and observations recorded in the literature of animal life. This sort of examination Professor Groos makes with great care and thoroughness, and the result is a book which, in my opinion, is destined to have wide influence in all these departments of inquiry.

I wish, before speaking of certain conclusions which are of especial interest, to make some running comments on the contents of the book, without, of course, forestalling the reader's own discovery of its riches. Chapter I is an examination of Mr. Spencer's " surplus-energy " theory of play; the result of which is, it seems, to put this theory permanently out of court. The author's

(iv) main contention is that play, so far from being " by-play," if I may so speak, is a matter of serious moment to the creature. Play is a veritable instinct. This view is expanded in Chapter II, where we find a fine treatment in detail of such interesting topics as imitation in its relation to play, the inheritance of acquired characters apropos of the rise of instincts, and the place and function of intelligence in the origin of these primary animal activities. This chapter, dealing with the biological theory of play, is correlated with Chapter V, in which the Psychology of Animal Play is treated. Together they furnish the philosophical and theoretical basis of the book, as the chapters in between furnish the detailed data of fact. I shall return to the biological matter below. Chapters III and IV go into the actual Plays of Animals with a wealth of detail, richness of literary information, and soundness of critical interpretation which are most heartily to be commended. Indeed, the fact that the first book on this subject is at the same time one of such unusual value, both as science and as theory, should be a matter of congratulation to workers in biology and in psychology. The collected cases, the classification of animal plays, as well as the setting of interpretation in which Professor Groos has placed them—all are likely to stand, I think, as a piece of work of excellent quality in a new but most important field of inquiry.

With this general and inadequate notice of the divisions and scope of the book, I may throw together in a few sentences the main theoretical positions to which the author's study brings him. He holds play to be an instinct developed by natural selection (he gives good reasons for not accepting the inheritance of acquired characters), and to be on a level with the other instincts

(v) which are developed for their utility. It is very near, in its origin and function, to the instinct of imitation, but yet they are distinct (a word more below on the relation between play and imitation). Its utility is, in the main, twofold: First, it enables the young animal to exercise himself beforehand in the strenuous and necessary functions of its life and so to be ready for their onset; and, second, it enables the animal by a general instinct to do many things in a playful way, and so to learn for itself much that would otherwise have to be inherited in the form of special instincts; this puts a premium on intelligence, which thus comes to replace instinct (p. 71) . Either of these utilities, Professor Groos thinks, would insure and justify the play instinct; so important are they that he suggests that the real meaning of infancy is that there may be time for play (see his preface). This general conception of play has been set forth by other writers; but Professor Groos works it out in this book in a way which attaches his name permanently to it.

It is especially in connection with this latter function of play, I may add, that the instinct to imitate comes in to aid it. Imitation is a real instinct, but it is not always playful; play is a real instinct, but it is not always imitative. There is likely, however, to be a great deal of imitation in play, since the occasion on which a particular play-function develops is often that which also develops the imitative tendency as well—i. e., the actual sight or hearing of the acts or voices of other animals. Moreover, the acquisition of a muscular or vocal action through imitation makes it possible to repent the came action afterwards in play.

It is only a step, therefore, to find that imitation, as an instinct, has to have ascribed to it, in a measure, the same race utility as play—that of going before the

(vi) intelligence and preparing the way for it, by rendering a great number of specialized instincts unnecessary. It is interesting to the present writer to contrast this view with that which he has himself recently developed [2] — i.e., the view that imitation supplements inadequate congenital variations in the direction of an instinct, and so, by keeping the creature alive, sets the trend of further variations in the same direction until the instinct is fully organized and congenital. If both of these views be true, as there seems reason to believe, then imitation holds a remarkable position in relation to intelligence and instinct. It stands midway between them and aids them both. In some functions it keeps the performance going, and so allows of its perfection as an instinct; in others it puts a stress on intelligence, and so allows the instinct to fall away, if it have no independent utility in addition to that served by the intelligence.[3] In other words, it is through imitation that instincts both arise and decay; that is, some instincts are furthered, and some suppressed, by imitation. And all this is accomplished with no appeal to the inheritance of acquired characters, Professor Groos agreeing with Weismann that the operation of natural selection as generally recognised is probably sufficient (see his preface). For myself I find most helpful the theory of Organic Selection referred to by Professor Groos on pages 64 and

(vii) 65. Following up his kindly reference, I venture, with his concurrence, to reprint as an Appendix to this translation a short article of my own on Organic Selection.

The difficulty which I see to this conception of play as a pure instinct is that which is sometimes urged also against considering imitation an instinct — i.e., that it has no definite motor co-ordinations, but has all the variety which the different play-forms show. If the definite congenital plays are considered each for itself, then we have a great many instincts, instead of a general play instinct. But that will not do, for it is one of Professor Groos' main contentions, in the chapter on The Psychology of Animal Play, that they have a common general character which distinguishes them from other specialized instinctive actions. They are distinguished as play actions, not simply as actions. This difficulty really touches the kernel of the matter, and serves to raise the question of the relation of imitation to play; for imitation presents exactly the same conditions — a general tendency to imitate, which is not exhausted in the particular actions which are performed by the imitation. I shall remark on the solution of it below, in speaking of Professor Groos' psychology of play. It will be interesting to see how he treats this problem in his promised work on Die Spiele der Menschen for the imitative element is very marked in children's plays. In view of this objection to the use of the term " instinct " for play — " impulse " possibly being better — I venture to suggest that the theory which regards play as a native tendency of the animal to practise certain special functions, before they are really required of him, be called the "practice theory " of play.

Other matters of interest in this biological part are the great emphasis which Groos finds it necessary to

(viii) put on " tradition," instruction, imitation, etc., in young animals, even in enabling them to come into possession of their natural instincts; in this the book tends in the same direction as the later volume of Prof. C. Lloyd Morgan. The present writer has also emphasized the fact under the term social heredity. Again, there is an acute discussion of Darwin's Sexual Selection, a discussion which Professor Groos sufficiently explains in his own preface.[4] I find an anticipation of the position as it were, a happy intuition —in the Non-Religion of the Future of M. Guyau (page 302). Again, the imperfect character of most instincts is emphasized, and the interaction with imitation and intelligence.

Finally, I should like to suggest that a possible category of " Social Plays " might be added to Groos' classification; plays in which the utility of the play instinct seems to have reference to social life as such. In such a category it might be possible to place certain of the animals' performances which seem a little strained under the other heads; and also those performances in which the social function of communication is playfully exercised. A good deal might be said also in question of the author's treatment of " Curiosity " (Neugier). He makes curiosity a matter of the attention, and finds the restless activity of the attention a play function. My criticism would be that while curiosity does bring the animal into possession of the details of knowledge before they are pressed in upon him by harsh experience, yet attention does not altogether fulfil the requirements of the author's psychological theory of play.


Turning now to the interesting question of the psychological theory, we find it developed, as it would have to be, in a much more theoretical way. The play consciousness is fundamentally a form of "conscious self-illusion" — bewusste Selbsttäuschung. It is just the difference between play activity and strenuous activity that the animal knows, in the former case, that the situation is not real, and still allows it to pass, submitting to a pleasant sense of " make-believe." It is only fair to say, however, that Herr Groos admits that in certain more definitely instinctive forms of play this criterion does not hold; it would be difficult to assume any consciousness of self-illusion in the fixed courting and pairing plays of birds, for example. The same is seen in the very intense reality which a child's game takes on sometimes for an hour at a time. Indeed, the author distinguishes four stages in the transition from instincts in which the conscious illusion is absent, to the forms of play to which we can apply the phrase "play activity" in its true sense — i.e., that of Scheinthätigkeit. The only way to reconcile these positions that I see is to hold that there are two different kinds of play: that which is not psychological at all—i. e., does not show the psychological criterion at all—and that which is psychological as " conscious self-illusion." Herr Groos does distinguish between " objective " and " subjective " Scheinthätigkeit (p. 292). The biological criterion of definite instinctive character might be invoked in the former class, and the psychological criterion in the other; and we would then have a situation which is exemplified in many other functions of animal and human lifefunctions which are both biological and instinctive, and also psychological and intelligent, as, e. g., sympathy, fear, bashfulness. Then, of course, the further question

(x) comes up as to which of these forms is primary; again the old problem as to whether intelligence arose out of reflexes or the reverse.

I think some light falls on this time-honoured problem from the statement of it in connection with this new question of play; especially when we remember Herr Groos' theory of the function of imitation with the extension of his view suggested above. If imitation stands midway between instinct and intelligence, both furthering the growth of instinct in some cases, and also, in other cases, leading to its decay in the presence of intelligence, then we might hold something like this: In proportion as an action loses its consciously imitative and volitional character, to that degree it tends to be incapable of "make-believe" exercise, becoming real in consciousness and instinctive in performance (and this applies to the cases in which imitation has itself become habitual and instinctive, as in the mocking-bird) ; and on the contrary, in proportion as an instinctive action is modified and adapted through imitation and intelligence, to that degree it becomes capable of assuming the " make-believe " character and is indulged in as conscious play. I can not enlarge upon this here, but it seems to square with a good many of the facts; both with those which Professor Groos cites as showing that imitation opens the way for the decay of instinct with the growth of intelligence, and with those which Professor Lloyd Morgan and I have cited as showing that imitation keeps congenital variations alive and so allows their, to accumulate into instincts. It is also consistent with the view that imitation is a sort of meeting point of race habit, represented by instinct, and race accommodation, represented by intelligence: just the double function which imitation serves also in the development

(xi) of the individual, as I have argued in detail in my volume on Mental Development in the Child and the Race.

Going into the analysis of the play psychosis, Herr Groos finds several sources of pleasure to the animal in it: pleasure of satisfying an instinct, pleasure of movement and energetic action, but, most of all, " pleasure in being a cause." This last, together with the " pleasure in experimenting," which characterizes many play activities, is urged with great insistence, and properly so. Even the imitative function is said to produce the joy of "victory over obstacles." Yet here again the author is compelled to draw the distinction between the play which is psychological enough to have a represented object, and the instinctive sort in which the pleasure is only that of the instinct's own performance. The pleasure of overcoming friction of movement, also, seems very doubtful, since in most games we stop playing when the friction and inertia of the muscles come to consciousness as fatigue. Much more, however, is to be said for the pleasure of rivalry, or of overcoming an opponent, in the higher types of play; but Herr Groos scarcely does this justice.

The second element in the play or Schein consciousness is the feeling of freedom (Freiheitsgefühl.). In play there is a sense of " don't-have-to," so to speak, which is contrasted both with the necessity of sense and with the imperative of thought and conscience. This idea seems to be part of Schiller's theory of play. So Groos thinks the general feeling of freedom holds in consciousness only while there is a play of motives, to which the agent may put an end at any moment a sense of " don't-have-to " in the life of choice. This sense of freedom keeps the "make-believe " consciousness pure and prevents our confusing the game with

(xii) the real activities of life. This is very interesting and suggestive. The sense of freedom is certainly prominent in play. Whether it should be identified with the sense of control which has been used by some writers as a criterion (both in a negative and in a positive sense) of the belief in realities already experienced, or again with the freedom with which choice is pregnant, is more questionable. Without caring to make a criticism of Professor Groos' position, I may yet point out that in our choices there are those which are free with a °don't-have-to " freedom, and there are choices — and these are the momentous ones, the ones to which freedom that men value attaches—which are strenuous and real in the extreme. Indeed, it seems paradoxical to liken the moral life, with its sense of freedom, to a " game of play," and to allow the hard-pressed sailor on the ethical sea to rest on his oars behind a screen of Schein and plead, "I sha'n't play." Seriously, this is what some other writer might press on to; and it comes out again in the author's extremely interesting sections on art, of which I may say a word in conclusion.

Those who have read Professor Groos' former stimulating book, Einleitung in die Aesthetik, will anticipate the connection which he finds between play and art. The art consciousness is a consciousness of an " inner imitation," which is in so far " make-believe" as contrasted with reality. The " self-conscious illusion " of the play consciousness is felt in extreme form. in the theatre, and it is found to be pleasurable even when we play with painful situations, as in tragedy, In art the desire to make an impression on others shows the " pleasure of being cause." This intent to work on others is a necessary ingredient in the art impulse. Groos differs from K. Lange, who holds a similar view of the

(xiii) necessary division of consciousness between reality and " make-believe" in the aesthetic, in that Lange thinks there must be a continual oscillation between the two poles of the divided consciousness, while Groos thinks there is rather a settling down in the state of illusion, as in an artist's preoccupation with his creations, a novelist with his characters, and a child with her doll. In art the other great motive of play, " experimenting," is also prominent, and is even more fundamental from a genetic point of view.

Here again the question left in my mind is this whether the " make-believe " motive is really the same as the art motive. Do we not distinguish between the drama (to take the case most favourable to the theory) as amusement and the drama as art? And does the dramatist who is really an artist write to bring on a consciousness of self-illusion in the spectator by presenting to him a " make-believe " scene? Does he not rather aim to produce an " inner imitation " in him which shall arouse the emotional and volitional attitudes of full reality? There does seem to be, in a work of fine art, a strenuous outreach not only toward the imitation of truth, but toward the actual conviction of truth. It may be that we should distinguish with Aristotle between truth which comes to us didactically and truth which comes artistically, and find in the method of the latter, and in that alone, the source of esthetic impression; but even then we should not have to feel the aesthetic creation to be " make-believe." In any case the theory of Professor Groos, which has its roots in the views of Lange and Von Hartmann, is extremely interesting and valuable, especially as contrasted with the recent psychological theory of Mr. H. R. Marshall. As to Professor Groos' theory, musical art would present diffi-

(xiv) -culties, and so would lower sensuous aesthetic effects generally.

Genetically art rests upon play, according to Herr Groos, in that the three great motives of art production, "Self-exhibition" (Selbstdarstellung), "Imitation," and "Decoration" (Ausschmückung), are found in the three great classes of animal plays, respectively, "Courting," "Imitation," and "Building Art " (Baukünste, seen in birds' nest-building, etc.). On the strength of this, Professor Groos finds both aesthetic appreciation and impulse in the animals, and all rests upon the original "experimenting " impulse of play. Of this, however, Professor Groos does not give a satisfactory account, I think. Experimenting seems to be a necessary part of effective learning by " imitation," and the use made of it in the selection of movements may be its original use. I have suggested elsewhere (Social and Ethical Interpretations, sections 98 to 102) some reasons for thinking also that decorative art may have sprung from the "self-exhibiting " impulse, thus reducing the aesthetic motives to two.

On the whole, Professor Groos' book is both a pioneer work and one of great permanent value. In venturing to criticise it I have thought it best to raise points of discussion — even though to a thinker like Professor Groos they may be trivial and easily answered — as fitted to give to the lay reader a sense of the larger issues for the sake of which, after all, the delightful stories of animal life in the book have been collected by the author.


The translator wishes it to be said that all the alterations made for this edition have been either requested or approved by the author, only some few footnotes of a bibliographical sort having been added after Professor Groos saw the proofs. The additions made by the translator in the notes are put in brackets, both those which Professor Groos has seen and also the very few others which were subsequently added. The reader will also notice from the title-page that the author has now been called from his former position at Giessen to the chair in Philosophy in the University of Basel.

J. M. B.


  1. In this preface certain passages are repeated from a review of the German edition of Professor Groos' book, printed in Science, February 26, 1897.
  2. See Science, March 20, 1896.
  3. In a private communication Professor Groos suggests to me that the two views may well be held to supplement each other. The case is very much the same with early intelligence, in the form of Association of Ideas: where it fully accomplishes the utility also subserved by an instinct, it tends to supersede the instinct; otherwise it tends to the development of the instinct (Groos, this edition, p. 71, and Baldwin, Science, April 10, 1896).
  4. "Sexual" is referred back to "natural" selection, although the direct results of such preferential mating would still seem to be a " determination " of variations for natural selection to work upon (cf. Science, November 23, 1896, p. 726).

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