The Glass Bead Game

It is believed that Hermann Hesse began serious writing of what was to become “The Glass Bead Game” in 1931. It took Hesse until 1942 to complete it, during this time the world was eclipsed by the horrors of Fascism, Stalinism and war. It was published in 1943 and by then Hesse’s books were prohibited in Nazi Germany. The dedication was to The Journeyers to the East. “The Journey to the East” had been written in 1930. The Glass Bead Game explores the world of reason in a time when reason was in peril. There are parallels with problems that Popper was working on at the same time, both were in exile.

“Alphabets” is a poem attributed to Joseph Knecht, The Glass Bead Game master and hero, an extract of which is:

“From time to time we take our pen in hand

And scribble symbols on a blank white sheet.

Their meaning is at everyone’s command”

This can be compared with a much later quote from P.J.B. Slater’s “An Introduction to Ethology” 1985:

“The form of signals: The message is what an animal encodes in a signal it sends; the meaning is what another makes of it. The signal is the physical form in which the transmission from one to the other takes place.”

A salient point of Popper’s thought is that he rejected meaning as a criterion of demarcation of science and metaphysics. Both of the above quotations make it clear why. It is not that  meaning is not an important problem for individuals or societies but that it belongs to Popper’s World 2 (mental) rather than World 1 (physical/natural world) or World 3 (the stated or expressed world of knowledge). Without living beings or their computers to create or interpret the messages encoded in the signals scribbled on blank white sheets they have no meaning.

“Alphabets” continues:

“It is a game whose rules are nice and neat.

But if a savage or a moon-man came

And found a page, a furrowed runic field,

And curiously studied lines and frame:

How strange would be the world that they revealed,

A magic gallery of oddities,.

He would see A or B as man and beast,

As moving tongues or arms and legs or eyes,

Now slow, now rushing, all constraint released,

Like prints of ravens’ feet upon the snow.”

We do have plenty of conjectural knowledge as in the Glass Bead Game. Objectivity arises in inter-subjective testability, which  means  through  dialogue. Objectivity is not secured by trying to hold on to justifications or dogmatic grounds.

“A Compromise

The men of principled simplicity

Will have no traffic with our subtle doubt.

The world is flat, they tell us, and they shout:

The myth of depth is an absurdity!

For if there were additional dimensions

Beside the good old pair we’ll always cherish,

How could a man live safely without tensions?

How could he live and not expect to perish?

In order peacefully to coexist

Let us strike one dimension off our list.

If they are right, those men of principle,

And life in depth is so inimical,

The third dimension is dispensable.”

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3 Responses to The Glass Bead Game

  1. Andrew Crawshaw says:

    I read The Glass Bead Game years ago, long before I heard of Popper, and also at that point I was reading a lot of counter-cultural stuff in the vein of Robert Wilson (who lead me to Popper). I found his philosophy in that to be especcially pertinent to my new found curiosity for knowledge and discussion. I think Popper would have liked, if he already did not, the implications of the Glass Bead Game itself. Furthermore have you ever seen the documentary about trying to store nuclear waste as safely as possible and trying to communicate this knowledge and to warn future generations (that stumble across the storage years down the line when the cultures that exist now have been long forgotten) about it, it is an intersting dilemma for the same reasons you talk about here.

  2. Bruce Caithness says:

    In thinking further about how my above post may be understood by the reader, I should clarify that a statement about meaning is objective i.e. capable of intersubjective criticism, but how the statement is understood by individuals (or interpreted in cultural dialogue) is subjective, at least at first.

    World One: the sounds waves sent or the ink marks on the blank sheet (signal)

    World 2: the mental understanding of the message encoded in the sounds or ink marks on the page

    World 3: the message encoded in the sounds or marks on the page. In analysing a hieroglyph for instance we make claims that the symbols mean such and such. This is a criticizable statement as to its truth value, i.e. objective but not certain.

    A raven signals a warning to the flock, but the message is vague to the other ravens who misread the intended meaning of the message and are killed by an approaching truck because they remain pre-occupied with their carrion pecking in the middle of the highway.

    The encoded message is objective. “This may also be seen from the fact that the person who produces a theory may very often not understand it. Thus it might be argued without paradox that Erwin Schrödinger did not fully understand the Schrödinger equation, at any rate not until Max Born gave his statistical interpretation of it; or that Kepler’s area law was not properly understood by Kepler, who seems to have disliked it.” (Popper)

  3. Bruce Caithness says:

    Another poem wherein one might envision World 1, World 2 and World 3:

    by Percy Bysshe Shelley

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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