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Philosophy Looks at Chess

Philosophy Looks at Chess

Edited by Benjamin Hale


For the first time, this book offers a collection of contemporary essays that explore philosophical themes at work in chess. This collection includes essays on the nature of a game, the appropriateness of chess as a metaphor for life, and even deigns to query whether Garry Kasparov might—just might—be a cyborg. In twelve unique essays, contributed by philosophers with a broad range of expertise in chess, this book poses both serious and playful questions about this centuries-old pastime.

Perhaps more interestingly, philosophers have often used chess in discussions of their work. Walter Benjamin compares the marching of history to an automaton playing chess. John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce utilize chess to explain their pragmatism. The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure employs the analogy of chess to explain the exchange of signifiers. There are approximately 181 uses of the word chess or one of its cognates in the published works of Ludwig Wittgenstein. John Rawls explains that one might want to make a distinction between constitutive and regulative rules, which can best be understood by examining a game of chess. John Searle, deeply convinced of this distinction, explains further: "The rules of football or chess are given as an example of constitutive rules because they 'create the very possibility of playing such games.'" Hubert Dreyfus and Daniel Dennett have had extensive public discussions about the issue of artificial intelligence and chess. Dreyfus, utilizing chess examples, has written extensively on what computers still cannot do. Meanwhile, in spite of his protestations, chess-playing computers continue to fascinate those who work in the area of artificial intelligence.

The game of chess has endured since at least the sixth century. Its earliest variant, the Indian game of Chaturanga, was from the beginning a game for thinkers. Since its inception, scholars, statesmen, strategists, and warriors have been fascinated by the game and its variants. German philosopher Emmanuel Lasker and famed French artist Marcel Duchamp were both Grandmasters at chess. Karl Marx played chess avidly, as did Sir Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the logical positivist Max Black. Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentions in his Confessions that, at the time, he "had another expedient, not less solid, in the game of chess, to which I regularly dedicated, at Maugis's, the evenings on which I did not go to the theater. I became acquainted with M. de Legal, M. Husson, Philidor, and all the great chess players of the day, without making the least improvement in the game." More recently, philosopher Stuart Rachels reports that his father, the late philosopher and prominent ethicist James Rachels, received a bribe from a Russian Grandmaster while he was the chair of the U.S. Chess Federation's Ethics committee.

"Whether you’re a professional philosopher, an armchair chess player, or something in between, Philosophy Looks at Chess gives you hours of thought-provoking reading. With chapters on technology, ethics, hip hop, and backward analysis, this book carves out a new space in the literature on both chess and philosophy"
—Jennifer Shahade, two-time U.S. Women's Champion and author of Chess Bitch

"Chess and philosophy are natural mates that have been awaiting the proper introduction. This wide-ranging collection of stimulating essays is the perfect opening gambit for philosophical chess enthusiasts."
—Will Dudley, author of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Philosophy: Thinking Freedom

Benjamin Hale is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the Director of the Center for Values and Social Policy in the Philosophy Department, as well as Affiliate Fellow in the Center for Science and Technology Policy. Dr. Hale holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and an M.P.A. in natural resource policy. His articles have appeared in journals such as Metaphilosophy, Think!, Journal of Medical Ethics, and Philosophy for Everyone.