The Creative Scholar: A Tribute to James Carse, Philosopher of Religion

Finite players win titles; infinite players have nothing but their names. — James Carse


James Carse, a philosopher of religion ‘by profession’ and an extraordinarily creative thinker at large, died on September 25 last year.  He was 87 years old. 

Carse was as far removed from celebrity culture as one can imagine.  That, along with the radical nature of his thought—radical, as will become clear, not even remotely in the conventional way in which ‘radical’ is commonly understood, especially by the dim-witted Republicans who have been fulminating about the alleged take-over of America by the left and the Marxists—might explain why his death went entirely unnoticed, and why it did not come to my attention until some days ago.  The New York Times fancies itself as some kind of purveyor of intellectual culture, as the publisher of “all the news that’s fit to print”, but it did not carry an obituary of Carse.  A quick glance at the internet shows only one obituary, published in The Greenfield Recorder on October 10, 2020.  Carse, the obituary states, “passed away peacefully in his home in Rowe, Massachusetts”, and Google informs us that the distance from Greenfield to Rowe is but 26.5 miles. 

Whether Carse was born in Rowe, or Greenfield, or indeed somewhere else, is not clear, but at least the locals in whose midst Carse perhaps lived out the last few years of his life, appear to have known what escaped the illustrious newspapers—to the extent that the country has any, considering how tame the New York Times is—of America’s major cities.  The obituary in the Greenfield Recorder surprises the reader, pleasantly so, with its generous tribute to Carse, beginning on more than a warm note with the observation that “the world has lost a giant.”  Describing him as a “thinker, doer, contributor and innovator”, the unsigned obituary—written very much in the spirit of Carse with the author choosing to remain unknown and keen on having the attention remain resolutely focused on the obituary’s subject—states that Carse had “inspired thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues”, and that his most famous book, Finite and Infinite Games, was translated into “over a dozen languages.”  The exceedingly parsimonious Wikipedia entry, all of practically four lines—lines, indeed, not pages, though we can see how many pages in contrast have been lavished on various influencers and social butterflies—also states, without elaboration, that his “book Finite and Infinite Games was widely influential.”

If Finite and Infinite Games was “influential”, unfortunately there is nothing to show for it.  In my nearly forty-five some years of academic life, commencing from my undergraduate days, I cannot recall ever having heard of Carse in a classroom, in a scholarly text, or in any other university setting.  I never met an academic who knew of the book.  But then, strange as it may sound to some, most academics should not be confused with readers of books:  they read, to be sure, but they often read from the standpoint of doing something called “research” (which is often very silly, and not less often boring and tedious), and many do not partake of the pleasures of reading.  The person who directed my attention to Carse, as he has to many other singularly interesting books, is an Indian cultural critic and political psychologist whom I shall leave unnamed.  The book’s subtitle is amply suggestive and permits me to segue briefly into Carse’s lifelong concern with how to live one’s life and the ethical practices of living before taking up the book itself.  One might say that Carse had a humbling if splendid gift for understanding the extraordinariness that lurks within the ordinary:  detecting a small mouse on his shoe one day, Carse found therein an occasion to ponder on forms of knowledge that are embodied within the animal world.  Where there is a mouse, there must also be a cat; but Carse is not interested in the familiar cat-and-mouse game.  He comes to the awareness that he can learn something about the power of silence, and thereby become proximate to his own silence, by looking intently into the “all seeing, unfiltered gaze” of his cat Charlie. These are but some of the meditations that unfold in Breakfast at the Victory, Carse’s set of explorations about the mystical insight that is to be gained not from a marketing executive masquerading as a spiritual guru or a planned “spiritual retreat” where aromatherapy and the soothing hands of a masseuse come with a $1000 invoice for each night, but rather from the wondrous intensity of everyday encounters.  The Victory of the title is the Victory Luncheonette, a nondescript diner in Manhattan’s East Village, an easy walk from New York University where Carse was Director of Religious Studies for a good many years before taking retirement. He was a frequent visitor to the diner, and there he watched the one-legged owner seamlessly working the counter.  “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”, Yeats said.  Or, as Carse puts it, “if we are looking for the mystical, we need go no further . . . than the most ordinary of our ordinary experiences.

It is “a vision of life as play and possibility” that Carse puts forward in Finite and Infinite Games.  Nearly all of us are, nearly all the time, players of finite games, but we have it within us to turn ourselves into players of infinite games.  Contrary to the impression that the book might convey to many from the mere title, Finite and Infinite Games is not about sports—though, given that the commercial brick-and-mortar bookstore of the Barnes & Noble variety is run as just another commercial enterprise, scarcely from any knowledge much less love of books, it is likely to be found in the sports section of the bookstore. For a crude understanding of the argument, we may nevertheless turn to the example of sports, and the American culture of sports in particular. Americans are loath to play any sport where the game does not end in a decisive finish.  Thus, a NBA [National Basketball Association] game that is drawn at the end of regulation time must go into overtime to produce a decisive winner; if the first overtime produces a draw, the game must go into a second overtime, and so on.  The same, of course, holds true for (American) football, hockey, or baseball.  It may be that every culture likes winners and despises losers—even allowing for the fact that a faux culture of “sportsmanship” requires the commentator to congratulate the loser for putting up a gallant fight, and that viewers are as if on cue expected to commiserate with the loser who may be shedding copious tears—but America especially has little tolerance for losers. I suspect that no sociologist of sport will quite agree with this observation, but that is indubitably one reason why football—or what Americans call soccer—has, historically speaking, not had much traction in the United States.  Far too many football games at the league stage end in a tie.  Even more intolerable to Americans is the culture of cricket: imagine a test match lasting for five days only to end in a draw! Indeed, from the American standpoint, even winners in cricket are disguised losers. What could be possibly more non-productive than a test match that can linger on for five days?  One would have to be a loser to play cricket at all.  America perforce had to run far ahead of England in history, and baseball does what cricket, a game moreover that is punctuated by tea breaks, often cannot:  produce winners.  The game must have an end.

I am, to anticipate the most obvious criticism, mindful of the fact that the culture of cricket has changed for the worse as progressively shorter versions of the game have been introduced to produce decisive outcomes and transform it into a revenue-generating machine.  But that is another story. Finite and Infinite Games (The Free Press, 1986) is not about sports at all:  it is an invitation to think about sexuality but not sex, ponder on why the seeker of power can never be an infinite player, and the desirability of recognizing that the interpretation of the past must never be a closed affair.  The most daring finite player is capable of rearranging the elements within the frame but will never step outside the frame; in the language of Carse, “finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”  Carse may appear to be playing with nuances, as when he writes that “where the finite player plays to be powerful the infinite player plays with strength”, but the creativeness of his thinking should become apparent as he elaborates on the difference:  “Power will always be restricted to a relatively small number of selected persons.  Anyone can be strong.”  Imagine what the world might look like, or how politics, instead of being the cesspool of stench, chicanery, and unadulterated greed that it is today, might make us mindful of a conception of the human that lies dormant within us all if we reflected on the propositions that Carse places before us:  “Strength is paradoxical.  I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them” (italics in original).

On a personal note, I had the great food fortune of spending an entire afternoon over lunch with James Carse in Los Angeles a decade ago at the home of a common friend.  I had founded the Dissenting Knowledges Pamphlet Series, an initiative of the now-defunct Penang-based Multiversity of which I am also a founding member, in 2002 and I invited Carse to contribute a pamphlet to the series.  It took only a letter from me to gain his assent and in no time he produced a scintillating little work that goes by the name of “Ignorance and the Durability of Religion” (2009).  I will not attempt to recapitulate his argument here, except to share with readers his startling, some would say idiosyncratic conclusion, namely that “understanding each others’ ignorance is a condition of peace, for irenic co-existence.”

Note:  Readers who are intrigued by Carse may find of some interest my discussion of Finite and Infinite Games in my newly launched series of informal book talks.  They can access the talk at my YouTube channel.

Translated into Georgian by Ana Mirilashvili and available here.

A Spanish translation of this article by Laura Mancini can be accessed here.


10 thoughts on “The Creative Scholar: A Tribute to James Carse, Philosopher of Religion

  1. I became familiar with Carse through his debates with the so-called “new atheists”, a group that brings a bad name to the worthy traditions of atheism. His conception of religion is quite different, and more profound, than that of both the new atheists, and of the the priests, imams, and pujaris who have long passed themselves off as religious teachers.


  2. Hi Prof. Lal, I enjoyed reading your post very much. The discussion of finite and infinite is indeed very interesting. With the development of this fairly simple idea, some unexpected game features suddenly appeared, especially competitive games . If the purpose of a limited game is to end the game as a winner, then the game itself has obvious negative qualities. Since your opponent just wants you to be the loser, the game actually prevents them from achieving the desired result. Winning ends the game immediately. Limited players will find themselves in a strange situation: they are fighting the game itself. This contradiction has a number of consequences. For one, a combatant will appraise the strengths and weakness of the opponent so as to have a faultless strategy. If this is done perfectly, there is basically no game at all, merely the appearance of one. Though I am not a religious person, I am interested in the topic of religion very much. I find reading your post has deepened my understanding about the philosophy of religion.
    Tingyu Liu


  3. Hello Professor Lal! I believe there is some underlying idea considering how the U.S. enjoys finite games like American football while the British enjoy playing long drawn out games. I believe the trait of having patience is very notable in Britains international diplomacy while the stark and abrupt decisions made by the U.S. demonstrates their inability to wait and reflecting on the decisions they make. For instance, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the 2000s it was a very hasty process that a very general goal. Even to this day, American presidencies have long promised for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan without any solid plan and only when the people push back against the government is any work done. Therefore, if the U.S. was able to play the infinite game, it would plan ahead accordingly and play outside the “boundaries” instead of constantly trying the same tactics over and over again.


  4. I find the topic of games needing a decisive result being so prevalent in American society to be extremely interesting. It made me think about if this concept has perhaps been a factor in the collective inability to have true peace in our nation. Of course there are many other factors to having peace in the U.S., but the necessity to have a winner in sports has subconsciously influenced American society more than I had realized. This idea starts to even be ingrained even in most children now as a majority of children play a sport for a great deal of their childhood. I wonder that if we did not strongly instill a culture of despising losers in an activity that is usually meant to be a pastime, if that would alter the nature of American society more than we would realize. Or perhaps Americans would just find yet another event to inculcate the culture of winners into our mindsets.


  5. The Creative Scholar: A Tribute to James Carse, Philosopher of Religion
    Before reading this post, I had never heard of James Carse. Why is he not mentioned in classes? I have taken philosophy courses and his name never came up in any discussions and lectures. My lack of knowledge about this man led me to do some research, and I learned that he was “religious in the sense that [he was] endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human, to exist at all.” Part of philosophy is trying to understand the human condition, and what it means to be alive, thus I am surprised that a man of his caliber is unknown and unspoken of in classrooms. Another one of his quotes that I found intriguing was, “The Bible… provides no guide to reading the Bible. In fact, it is full of such inconsistencies, contradictions, lacunae, obscurities, baffling tales, and poetic imagery that to quote it at all is to select from conflicting alternative passages. Every quotation is therefore necessarily an interpretation.” I think that fact that the Bible can be interpreted in so many different ways is problematic and also the reason why there are so many divisions within different branches of religions.


  6. I enjoyed the concept of American vs British sports ideology as it relates philosophy. Americans, as seen through U.S. capitalism, educational institutions, and the two party system, value a decisive winner and loser in most, if not all, aspects of life. Essentially, Americans believe you either succeed or fail. Life in the U.S. can be categorized by fierce competition: in school we are taught from a young age to lead and never follow — but how could one lead without a significant following? Similarly, the article touches upon reading for research rather than pleasure. American school systems encourage reading to outperform your peers rather than reading for the sake of enjoyment. Leisurely activities, even if they lead to knowledge, are considered unproductive and thus take on characteristics of laziness. How could one enjoy life following this philosophy? Spending the entirely of your years fighting to best others shows a finite player scrambling for power. James Carse’s idea on infinite players who manipulate boundaries and know strength stems from controlling the game rather than the players fascinates me. I had never before considered the difference between strength and power in such a manner. Limited power constricts players while strength sets the player free to enjoy the game; however, we are taught and encouraged to compete with others to obtain this scarce power. Enjoyment should come from play rather than outcome (hence peace stemming from every-day occurrences), and to change your point of view and behavior rather than struggling to change others drastically improves quality of life. America should take into account these principals politically and play not to win, but to produce the most peaceful, fulfilling outcome.


  7. Hello Professor Lal,

    First, I would like to briefly comment about your theory of American sports culture. While I agree that Americans value winners and losers, something has to be said about the distinct deficit in American attention span, especially when watching sports. Baseball games are said to last too long at roughly three and a half hours, and Formula One races are edited to only show the action sequences that Americans crave. Cricket is not popular in the United States not because it can end in a draw, but more because Americans don’t understand it and are unwilling to learn about it.

    Second, I would like to thank you for introducing me to the work of James Carse, who undoubtedly seems like a philosopher of the highest order. The thing that interests me the most about this eulogy you’ve written about him, however, is that although he was considered a philosopher of religion, traditional religious imagery was hardly mentioned. Religious thinkers generally like to hear themselves heard, and often see themselves superior to others, but it truly seems like James Carse was a great man who simply knew a lot about life.


    • The question of attention span is of course important, which is one reason why cricket — where the traditional test match can last five days and still result in a draw — has not become popular in the US. But there are a great many other reasons for it why it has not caught on in the US, and the blog essay was not a full exploration of the culture of cricket. Even the very fast-paced versions of the game of more recent years have not caught on. I wold be cautious in arguing from the present and suggesting that Americans don’t understand the game and are unwilling to learn it. In matters of cuisine, for example, many foreign cuisines have become immensely popular in the US, such as Japanese, Korean, and Indian, even though Americans did not know these cuisines until recently. We would also have to factor in immigrant cultures but here the interesting element is that the Anglo presence in US culture has not lead to cricket’s popularity in the US–though if the English had continued to predominate among immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it might have been a different story.


  8. I found your discussion of American sports culture to be very thought provoking professor. It made me aware of something that I had perhaps implicitly knew my whole life, but was not able to recognize it to that extent. Upon further examination, it appears that the Indian culture behind sports is very much opposite from that of America. Perhaps this was one of the reasons the British were so easily able to conquer the subcontinent: a culture of winners and loser placed on top of a culture that could care less is bound to result in one sided dominion.


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