Wittgenstein on Chess

Jul 31, 2007, 12:50 AM |

Wittgenstein on Chess 

So far as I know, Wittgenstein is not known for any games of chess that he played.  On the other hand, the Austrian born philosopher frequently made of use of the game to clarify his notion of a language game.  I intend to quote all of the instances where Wittgenstein speaks of chess in the Philosphical Investigations in order to see what sort of light they shed on language, thought and meaning and the game chess itself.  To begin, the first passage in the Philosophical Investigations where W. speaks of chess is section 31:


"When one shews someone the king and says: 'This is the king', this does not tell him the use of thise piece--unless he already knows the rules of the game up to this last point: the shape of the king.  You could imagine his having learnt the rules of the game without ever having been shewn the actual piece.  The shape of the chessman corresponds here to the sound or shape of a word.

"One can also imagine someone's having learnt the game without ever learning or formulating rules.  He might have learnt quite simple board-games first, by watching, and have progressed to more and more complicated ones.  He too might be given the explanation 'This is the king',--if, for instance, he were being shewn chessmen of a shape he was not used to.  This explanation again only tells him the use of the piece because, as we might say, the place for it was already prepared.  Or even: we shall only say that it tells him the use, if the place is already prepared.  And in this case it is so, not because the person to whom we give the explanation already knows rules, but because in another sense he is already master of a game.

"Consider this further case: I am explaining chess to someone; and I begin by pointing to a chessman and saying: 'This is the king; it can move like this,....and so on.'--In this case we shall say: the words 'This is the king' (or 'This is called the "king"') are a definition only if the learner already 'knows what a piece in a game is'.  That is, if he has already played other games, or has watched other people playing 'and understood'--and similar things.  Further, only under these conditions will he be able to ask relevantly in the course of learning the game: "What do you call this?"--that is, this piece in a game.

"We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it can significantly ask a name.

"And we can imagine the person who is asked replying: 'Settle the name yourself'--and now the one who asked would have to manage everything for himself."


-Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 31 


What does it take to learn the game of chess?  What does it take for a four year-old to learn the game of chess?  Legend has it that Capablanca learned to play chess at four years old by watching his father.  At bottom, what is necessary for learning to play chess is to understand what a piece in a game is.  Without mastery of this most basic human custom learning chess would be impossible.


Imagine alien anthropologists landing on planet earth.  They discover the ruins of our civilization, long since destroyed by the ravages of time and human folly.  Among the artifacts they discover is a chess king.  Despite their advanced technology that includes interstellar travel at speeds greater than 186 thousand miles per second (don't ask me how), mind-reading and teleporting, the chess king remains an enigma to their understanding.  They are yet to find a chess board, let alone other chess pieces.  Without these other artifacts, the chess king is only a chunk of wood (or plastic, or...).  Yet even after they find a bishop, and a knight, and all the rest, without the custom of playing chess, these things are but empirical data...


To understand the meaning of a word, or a sentence, you must already understand what you might do with it.  A word or a sentence can be used to do something in the game that is our language.  When I say "hammer," I expect that you will hand me the hammer (And you need not have had it explained to you what a hammer is for in order to know what to do with it after you have watched someone else use a hammer...).  It is exactly in such a way that I expect that when I say "This is the king," you will understand that it has a certain role in the game. 


The meaning of calling a piece "the king" is solely defined by its role in the game.  Why we call the king "the king" is without meaning.  We could call it something else if we liked: Settle the name yourself.  But that it is the king is known by the role it plays in the game.  In the case of chess, the king is known because it plays a role in the game unlike any other piece.  We could teach someone who had only watched games of chess, who had never learned the rules, to identify the king like this: "The king is the piece that is never captured."


In this way, we could define the chess pieces like this:

'Pawns' are pieces that can be promoted.

'Kings' are never captured.

'Pieces' are everything not covered by the other two definitions...


For next time, secion 33:

...a move in chess doesn't consist simply in moving a piece in such-and-such a way on the board...