Calvino’s Card Game and the appearances of nature

Von Uexküll  said that nature teaches no doctrines, it simply presents appearances that a scientists can take as answers to the questions they ask. The idea can be given concrete expression (and universalized) by Calvino’s Card Game metaphor.* Put briefly, you come to a party and a host escorts you to a table where everyone is completely silent. A card game is in process and you are dealt a hand, but the cards are no the familiar suits but have tarot-like images on them. One player after another lays down a card face-up, moving in clockwise fashion so that you become convinced that your turn is coming up. So what do you do?  All options are in play: it’s not clear whether you should play this game at all, and you could choose to play or not on the basis of a thousand different motives. Maybe you bolt from the table because you think this is an occult seance or maybe you stay because you think the same thing. Maybe you keep sitting because you are just the sort of person that lets situations play out, or maybe you stay because you think the cards are pretty, or maybe you despise the game but find one of the players attractive. But if you stay, you’ll probably try to figure out what to do by looking at the cards (though it’s not a given that the cards are what you should be looking at).  So someone lays down a card with a man holding a sword triumphantly while standing over a dead lion, the next lays down a card with a red dragon. Both cards are also festooned with a good number of curlicues and decorative patterns, some being other pictures, others numbers. So what are you supposed to do? You need to find some sort of pattern (what Aristotle would call a paradigm or form, but which also gets called a rule) in order to play, but where will you look for it and what sort of ability will uncover it for you? What does it mean to act well? If the paradigm is a narrative, that is, if all the players are attempting to tell an unfolding story, then you need poetic or myth-making or literary skill to play well. If this game is an expression of some sort of basic mathematical pattern, then you need mathematical skill to play well. IF this is all some elaborate seance or religious ritual, then you need occult skill or priest-craft in order to play well. That said, you also might be able to convince everyone you’re playing well (even yourself) without in fact knowing the rules at all. Perhaps there just happens to be some mathematical structure in a paradigm that isn’t fundamentally mathematical at all, the way that Shakespeare’s plays were divided into five acts. Then again, there could just as easily be a narrative appearance to something that is fundamentally mathematical.

And so Von Uexkull’s point can be universalized: nature appears to us (which is not the same as saying nature is an appearance) but the appearances are not such that the scientific account is objective while the literary or religious account is not. Objectivity is the way in which the players of the game respond to our plays or to each other, or perhaps the way in which they respond well to our plays. But the very possibility of this response cannot be entirely separated from the paradigm, pattern, or form we are working from. This paradigm/rule/form has an obvious subjective element, but at the same time one of the reasons we value this element is because it facilitates playing well, i.e. because it is the actual rule or form at play in the game. In fact – and this is one of my main take-aways from Calvino’s card game – patterns, forms, rules, and paradigms all transcend the opposition between the subjective and objective. If they did not, there is no sense to objectivity at all – which in turn makes an idea like “subjectivity” either false or superfluous. Subjectivity and objectivity, and even the knower and the known, are all of themselves in darkness, and are only brought forth by that form which illumines and instantiates them without being limited to either of them.


*What follows is not the same as what Calvino said, but his Card-Game metaphor is so powerful and universal it is inevitable that it get told in many ways – some of which he might well have thought totally missed the point. But his metaphor was bigger than any one expression – like the “brain in a vat” or the evil deceiver,  it could never be kept within the confines of what its author wanted wanted to say.

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