The Instinct of Play

The previous post was about two different instincts, the sensuous and the formal instinct.

Two instincts that are opposed and that make us struggle to integrate in our human nature.

This is again a post about The Letters on Aesthetic Education of Man from Friedrich Schiller, like a few of my previous posts.

I am trying to understand what he says, by using his words as much as possible, but re-arranging his sentences, because (for me) he is rather difficult to read.

But I think he says some really very interesting and important things about human nature, that I did not find anywhere else yet so extensively explained.

At this point I get to where Schiller comes up with a solution for the problem of those basic, but opposing, human instincts. Schiller saw the solution in a third kind of instinct. An instinct that he calls the instinct of play.

Before I start with that third instinct, first a short overview of the two opposing basic human instincts according to Friedrich Schiller.

Two opposing instincts

The sensuous instinct:

  • requires that there should be change
  • requires that time should have contents
  • wishes to be determined
  • wishes to receive an object
  • excludes all autonomy and freedom
  • controls us physically

The formal instinct:

  • requires that there should be no change
  • requires that time should be suppressed
  • wishes to determine itself
  • wishes to produce an object
  • excludes all dependence and passivity
  • controls us morally

The third instinct lets them play together

So because those two basic instincts are each others total opposite, and because they can not be integrated in the human nature, Schiller noticed something else. A third instinct that he calls the instinct of play.

The instinct of play, in which both act in concert, will render both our formal and our material constitution contingent; accordingly, our perfection and our happiness in like manner. And on the other hand, exactly because it makes both of them contingent, and because the contingent disappears with necessity, it will suppress this contingence in both, and will thus give form to matter and reality to form.

So the third instinct (the instinct of play) lets the two opposing instincts (the sensuous and the formal instinct) act together. Even though they are each others total opposite, it is possible to play with them, let them be there at the same time.

As long as they are playing together, there has to be no conclusion on what is true and what is false. During the play, the mind can be physical and moral at the same time.

Feeling in harmony with reason

The play takes the dynamics out of feeling and passion. And it takes the moral out of reason. So feeling can be in harmony with rational ideas.

There shall be a communion between the formal impulse and the material impulse – that is, there shall be a play instinct – because it is only the unity of reality with the form, of the accidental with the necessary, of the passive state with freedom, that the conception of humanity is completed.

So the instinct of play makes a communion possible between two opposing instincts. They exist together without a final conclusion.

Somehow this communion has to do with what Schiller calls beauty. Beauty that can not exist without one of the opposing instincts. It needs both. And as a result it needs the third instinct of play to let them exist together.

The instinct of play

Image: Source


  1. The form, the matter, and the instinct of play – a state of mind that probably has to be attained through training, and Schiller is trying to help.

    The instinct of play is not a third impulse, in my opinion.

    This has been dealt by several people and in scriptures written centuries ago. The sense desires and an innnate urge for spiritual elevation in man, the war between them and finally when a balance does strike between these two, the equilibrium thus obtained (usually through ascetic practises, but then could be other ways, like art for eg, which i believe was Schillers way).

    This state of equilibrium (not perfect equilibrium, but the sensous and formal impulses oscillating – beautiful analogy by Schiller) is the ground from where the path to Nirvana starts. The state of equilibrium itself is characterised by absence of grief, eternal bliss, etc etc – depending on which prophet/scripture/culture you read.

    Schiller experimented with the theme – to emancipate humanity from the dirt that they writhe in, and help them attain this bliss through the pursuit of aesthetics. Lot of respect for that man.

    The ultimate aim is to be one merge into the infinite, thats where we belong. but then, a conscious pursuit of this goal comes with its issues. Schiller stayed at the practical level, showed us an achievable goal.

    But trying to find sense in his works in isolation might not give us the full picture. There are treatises which deal with further stages from here. The Advaita school, for eg.

    But then an issue arises, since many of these schools of thought have been patented by religions. Schiller and other European thinkers who arrived at similar conclusions were comfortable with the term philosophy than religion.


  2. Interesting comment. And it made me very much think about how much Schiller was talking about the religious part.

    So far I thought it was mainly about individual vs collective. With a certain free space inbetween.

    I guess it is a space for creativity and beauty. Where beauty has very much to do with equilibrium. Which would indeed be the ground where the path to Nirvana starts.

    Sounds very natural now, but I had not thought that far yet.

  3. Space for creativity and beauty.. very much

    It is indeed about the individual versus the collective *consciousness, the merger of both. There is no space between them anymore.

    the self is but an expression of the universal. realizing them as one, the search for this union ends.

    creativity emerges since the creation now identifies itself with the creator.

    schiller was creative. both of us agree.


  4. Hi, Anne :D
    It’s another rainy morning here in Korea.

    I’m happy to see this post, since days ago I wrote a post on my blog which seems quite in relation with this yours. (surprising, again!)
    I got the idea while I was reading Goethe’s _Faust, and this post gives me lots of information, not to mention the insight.

    I basically share Schiller’s idea, but I did not yet go deeper into the religious sphere. Well, I should think about it no sooner.

    Health and Peace,

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