Chess and philosophy

Gideon asked:

What is the value of chess to philosophy?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

It is occasionally referred to in philosophical literature, but in most cases by philosophers who don’t play chess with adequate mastery, or else by players with insufficient philosophical background. Moses Mendelssohn once wrote that as a game it is too serious; as a serious pursuit too frivolous. Nevertheless the Soviets put it as one of the cornerstone of their whole culture, and they had some good reasons for this. They saw it as character building, promoting mental toughness, inhibiting lies and hypocrisy, promoting creative engagement with ideas etc. The practical end was that they produced grandmasters by the dozen; but this has no bearing on philosophy.

The sole exception was Emanuel Lasker, a world champion and trained philosopher. In 1907 and 1925 he published work on chess with philosophical merit. His point of departure was that chess is an ideal struggle – a struggle between two minds in the process of generating ideas. Since, however, in the actual struggle at the board, the whole nervous system of the combattants is involved, it is feasible to extract from this form of contest a system of ethics. It is not a socially or politically dominated ethics, as e.g. Aristotle or Hegel, but rather of a Darwinian cast, with the struggle for survival imposing its imperatives. For Lasker this represented a value stronger and more enduring than the artificial systems of school philosophy, which (as even Marx said) tend on the whole to apologise for the states and nations that exist than to pose genuine ethical issues.

If you are interested, the relevant text is accessible in Lasker’s “Manual of Chess”, Section IV, or in his book entitled “Struggle” (Kampf).

However, there is a further relevant aspect not mentioned by him, nor (as far as I know) by any other philosopher. This has to do with the creative aspects. The essence of chess are the ideas that are actualised in the course of the struggle. For aficionados who keep scores of master games the result is usually immaterial; for them the contest of ideas, problems and solutions is an aesthetic experience. There is, so to speak, a highly inventive story being unfolded, not unlike a symphony or sonata; and this consanguinity with music invites us to consider the analogous possibilities of chess. The sense of beauty is entangled; personalities step out of the web of incidents; the choreography of the pieces exhibits a kind of ever-changing mosaic made up of expectations, anticipations and surprises.

I have often had occasion to draw attention to this last-named as a feature chess shares with some works of art. A joke (i.e. a kind of surprise) stales in the repeated telling. A surprising turn in music delights an audience; the surprise never stales, but is sought out by music lovers as the very thing that gives them the greatest pleasure. Likewise with many incidents on the chess board that are called combinations. Lovers of combinations can’t get enough of them, no matter how old they are. But a philosophical treatise on this aspect has not been written. What little there is in the chess literature that bears the name philosophy, is usually mistakenly so called, and nothing other than one or another method of strategic management.

Yet so many university students are passionate chess players. I can’t help wondering why none ever seems to get their philosophical head around the aesthetic component with enough interest to write something about it!


4 thoughts on “Chess and philosophy

  1. Well, as Fischer said: Chess is a search for truth. So if you are serious in finding out the mystery of existence chess is a lot like thinking about that. Obviously many philosophers think looking into ultimate reality is bullshit. However, chess players might try that because they are used to the deep meditation and thoughts endured by chess evaluation. I am a strong master chess player and also interested in questions about ultimate reality. The real problem as I see this is chess being degraded by computers. Otherwise without computers chess would indeed be some path to truth. However, in the world of transhumanism this is not so clear.

  2. This is a very interesting article by Jürgen Lawrenz. I have been thinking the same for some time. I have some ideas on the philosophy of chess and a book on the subject is certainly possible.

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