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Ludwig Wittgenstein
April 2007

"Chess... is eminently and emphatically the philosopher's game"
-Paul Morphy-

The publisher of  The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, tells us:

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) is one of the most important, influential, and often-cited philosophers of the twentieth century, yet he remains one of its most elusive and least accessible. The essays in this volume address central themes in Wittgenstein’s writings on the philosophy of mind, language, logic, and mathematics. They chart the development of his work and clarify the connections between its different stages. The contributors illuminate the character of the whole body of work by keeping a tight focus on some key topics: the style of the philosophy, the conception of grammar contained in it, rule-following, convention, logical necessity, the self, and what Wittgenstein called, in a famous phrase, ‘forms of life’.

Additional Information on Ludwig Wittgenstein
          The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
          A comprehensive site on Wittgenstein

This article was written in its entirety by Lawrence Totaro of Ultimate Chess Collecting 


Ludwig Wittgenstein
(April 26, 1889 – April 29, 1951) 


“I might say that chess would never have been invented apart from the board, figures, etc. and perhaps apart from the connection with troops in battle.”


On page 186 of The Immortal Game, David Shenk offers examples of three prominent men in regards to their use of chess. He mentions at least one work for each except for Ludwig Wittgenstein.

He writes about Richard Feynman: “The legendary American physicist and physics teacher Richard Feynman relied heavily on chess in his lectures at the California Institute of Technology (later published in the 1904 book Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by its Most Brilliant Teacher) to help decode the scientific process for his students.”

As for Italo Calvino, Shenk goes on to write: “Italo Calvino, the whimsical and postmodern Italian author of Cosmicomics, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and other influential fictions, was impressed by chess’s ability to transform limitless data into a simple impression.”

The author continues: “Austrian-born British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, regarded by many as the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, was utterly fascinated by chess, referring to the game nearly two hundred times in his writings.”



It should be noted that “in his writings” means the grandiose work titled, Philosophical Investigations (1951, published posthumously) which mentions chess to a large extent depending upon which publication you own. According to the Blackwell published work he writes “chess” 181 times [see this excellent paper by  Steven B. Gerrard]  But not only is chess mentioned in Philosophical Investigations; a popular excerpt is given below taken from, The Blue and Brown Books:

a. "The meaning of a phrase for us is characterized by the use we make of it. The meaning is not a mental accompaniment to the expression . . . I want to play chess, and a man gives the white king a paper crown, leaving the use of the piece unaltered, but telling me that the crown has a meaning to him in the game . . . I say: "as long as it doesn't alter the use of the piece, it hasn't what I call a meaning.""

Also keep in mind that Wittgenstein, considered by students and many scholars, is considered “an Austrian philosopher” and not British as stated above.



In Wittgenstein's Lectures: Cambridge, 1932-1935 (Edited by Alice Ambrose) Wittgenstein mentions “chess” 54 times.
Below are some excerpts.

   Page 3

“2. Words and chess pieces are analogous; knowing how to use a word is like knowing how to move a chess piece. Now how do the rules enter into playing the game? What is the different between playing the game and aimlessly moving the pieces? I do not deny there is a difference, but I want to say that knowing how a piece is to be used is not a particular state of mind which goes on while the game goes on. the meaning of a word is to be defined by the rules for its use, not by the feeling that attaches to the words.”

   Page 101

“It is a fallacy to suppose these languages are incomplete. Primitive arithmetic is not incomplete, even one in which there are only the first five numerals; and our arithmetic is not more complete. Would chess be incomplete if we knew another game which somehow incorporated chess? It would merely be a different game. To think otherwise is to confuse mathematics with a natural science.”

   The most striking excerpt is from page 194

“I might say that chess would never have been invented apart from the board, figures, etc. and perhaps apart from the connection with troops in battle. No one would have dreamed of inventing the game as played with pencil and paper, by description of the moves, without the board and pieces. Still the game could be played either way. It is the same with mathematics.”

It is clearly evident that Wittgenstein mentions “chess” more than just two hundred times.
Below are excerpts from: Understanding Wittgenstein: Studies of Philosophical Investigations. J. F. M. Hunter (1985)

For naming and describing do not stand on the same level: naming is a preparation for description. Naming is so far not a move in the language-game -- any more than putting a piece in its place on the board is a move in chess. We may say: nothing has so far been done, when a thing has been named. It has not even got a name, except in the language-game.

We can now perhaps better understand §31. Having been told about the various pieces and how they move, without being shown a chess set, one can, when the men are produced, ask 'Now which of these is the king?', that is, which of these is the piece that moves one square in any direction, cannot move into check, and so on; and one can in a different case, not yet having had the game at all explained, but knowing something about board games, ask 'Which piece is this?', meaning something like 'Which of the roles you will be telling me about attaches to this one?' One can understand the words 'That is the king' without knowing any more than that if a piece has a different name from other pieces, it will have a different role; but anyone knowing less than that will not understand. He will not have grasped the essential point that although (blindfold chess aside) there must be a re-identifiable physical object, that object is not called the king on account of its physical properties, but on account of its role in the game. (That needs some qualification: it is good practice to design all chess sets in such a way that players will not have to learn afresh with each set they use, which piece is which, but it is not as if one simply could not play using a salt shaker for a king

It is obvious that chess could be taught and played without ever naming the pieces, and that if we were nevertheless fond of names, each player could have his own set of them without in any way affecting the play. Some awkwardness would arise when the game was discussed, or a player's record of the moves was studied, but it would be a simple business to reach complete understanding of any player's terminology. It is not so clear however what the importance of that fact is, when we remember that it is using words, not doing things with the objects they name, that we are trying to understand. It is not what corresponds to managing to play chess that we are concerned with, but what corresponds to managing to talk chess language.

There would also be intermediate cases, of which chess pieces would be a nice example. Propositions about the role of a piece would be like statements of the function of a knife; and there are also propositions like 'It is not a knight if its shape does not represent a horse's head'. The latter propositions would tend to establish the word 'knight' as the name of an object, were it not that they are true only of certain chess sets, and were it not that we can play chess without any object holding the knight's place, but cannot play hockey without a puck. We could perhaps say that when playing chess with a given full set of pieces, 'knight' is the name of an object, but that a role is more essential to knighthood than any physical property. When we confer knighthood on a salt shaker, we are not conferring an equine shape, but a role.

It is not such plain sailing if we take words that have subtly different senses. The word 'game' has a different sense in 'Olympic games' on the one hand and 'Chess is an absorbing game' on the other; and a different sense again in 'How about a game of chess? The difference here could not be explained by comparing the objects referred to. How could one compare the game of chess we played this evening with the game of chess? What objects would one select if one wanted to compare Olympic Games with polo or hockey? Olympic Games are not a species of game, the way board games and card games are. The activities that go to make up board games are all games, but Olympic Games are mostly non-games: sailing, skiing, swimming, high-jumping. That Olympic Games are not a species of game is not a fact about the set of phenomena we call 'Olympic games', but about the use of the expression 'Olympic games'. We do not notice on reviewing them that they possess a characteristic that we call 'being Olympic', whereas we notice on reviewing scrabble, backgammon, chess, and snakes and ladders that they are all played on a board.

'Chess is a game' is a grammatical remark, whose primary use is in teaching language. It does not express an opinion or an attitude, but conveys an item of uncontroversial information about how these words are used. From it we learn for example that if someone says he feels like a game of something, chess is among the things we may suggest without revealing linguistic incompetence (whereas boxing is not); but if someone says philosophy is a game, we take him to be expressing an opinion, and in no way expect that if at another time he says he feels like a game of something, he will accept 'How about philosophy?' as at least a competent, if perhaps not a welcome suggestion. He has noticed certain things about philosophy that he dislikes and expresses by calling it a game; but one can no more notice that chess is a game than that bachelors are unmarried.

Dr. Michael Negele writes: “I just found a curious relation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Emanuel Lasker. Ludwig spent 100,000 Austrian crowns just at the beginning of WW I to support Austrian artists. Else Lasker-Schüler, who was the only non-Austrian (and the only woman) received 4,000 crowns of these funds. She was married from 1894 with Berthold Lasker, the brother of Emanuel (the marriage was finally divorced in April 1903, but the couple separated already years before) whom met her in Wuppertal (in those times, Elberfeld)”

Else-Lasker Schueler,
  received 4,000 crowns from
  Ludwig Wittgenstein’s funds
  and went on to become a
  prominent literary figure of the
  early twentieth century. She was
  also a sister-in-law to World Chess
  Champion, Dr. Emanuel Lasker.


For further reading:

Wittgenstein on Mind and Language. David G. Stern - author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1995.

Wittgenstein, Mind, and Meaning: Toward a Social Conception of Mind. Meredith Williams - author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: London. Publication Year: 1999.

Wittgenstein: Connections and Controversies. P. M. S. Hacker - author. Publisher: Clarendon Press. Place of Publication: Oxford. Publication Year: 2001.

The Voices of Wittgenstein: The Vienna Circle Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Waismann. Friedrich Waismann - author, Ludwig Wittgenstein - author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: London. Publication Year: 2003.

Recommended links

Ludwig Wittgenstein -

Else-Lasker Schueler - 

Emanuel Lasker -



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