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#4: The Glass Bead Game

The Cascadia Protocol

As a reminder from last time, what I’m addressing, to a large extent, in this column is epistemology…the theory of knowledge…the study of how we make sense of things.  I was first introduced to epistemology by reading Hermann Hesse’s 1946 Nobel Prize winning novel, The Glass Bead Game, as a junior in college.  However, I was not aware that that was what was happening at the time.  You see, The Glass Bead Game, is essentially an extended epistemological parable that does not identify itself as such.

The Glass Bead Game has, over time, become a metaphor for the unification of human knowledge, a long sought after goal.  Like Alice in Wonderland, it is one of those works of fiction that is often referred to in academic philosophy. Hesse began the novel in 1931 and it was published in 1943 and would be his magnum opus.

The Glass Bead Game takes place in the future in what might, from the descriptions, be Germany or Switzerland.  However, all that we are told specifically is that the bulk of the story takes place in a province called Castalia.  Castalia is totally dedicated to scholarship and the life of the mind.  Residents are financially supported by the state, live a monastic, ascetic lifestyle and are permitted to devote themselves entirely to the pursuit of their subject of interest.  Residents are all male (unfortunately for everyone, residents and readers, alike.)

The crowning achievement of the province is The Glass Bead Game.  As the name suggests, the game was, at least initially, played with a set of glass beads.  The bead set had a very curious feature.  It was somehow constituted such that a mathematician could use his specialized knowledge to play the game against, say, a biologist or a theologian, or a historian  etc, who used his specialized knowledge to play. Thus the beads provide for this cross disciplinary connection, this unification.  And we see now that we are again talking about epistemology.  The main character, Joseph Knecht, rises to the position of The Magister Ludi, The Master of the Game.

Hesse positively gushes about the beauty and majesty of The Game but never tells us how such a thing might actually work.  The allure of this mystery has much to do with the international cult status that this novel enjoys.  Here’s a quote from the novel…

These rules, the sign language and grammar of the Game, constitute a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and music (and/or musicology), and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines.  The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette.  All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property -- on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on the organ.  And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number.  Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

Interestingly we are told in the Introduction, that the story takes place in what the narrator refers to as the Age of Feuilleton.  The connotation of this French word, in the context of the story, is a tabloid…Like The National Enquirer.  Thus the Age of Feuilleton refers to a time when society has been degraded and trivialized.  Politics, the press and the professions have been thoroughly corrupted.  The trades and commercial activity in general have suffered similarly.  We can see many parallels in the present day.

Over time, the glass bead set was replaced by a calligraphic symbol set.  The centerpiece of my Natural Philosopher project is the creation of just such a ‘second order’ Glass Bead Game.  You can view this work at Vashon Intuitive Arts during the month of December.

Rod Smith, creator of The Natural Philosopher, may be reached at