Friday, October 20, 2017

Chess, existentialism, and boredom

I was just rereading Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground in preparation for the Existentialism course that I will be teaching again in the spring. It's an absorbing read, and yet every few pages I'd get a bit restless, and feel the urge to put the book down and play a game of online chess.

That was when I was suddenly struck by the difference in mood and outlook between chess and philosophy. Chess promotes--almost forces--a very positivistic and certain outlook on the universe. In the world of chess, there is only one, crystal clear final goal: Checkmate your opponent. All the pieces move according to fixed rules, and ideally at least, they all work together to bring about this one goal in the most efficient way possible. The knight never pauses to ponder the meaning of his existence ("Am I just a being that moves in an L-shape? Or can I transcend my knightness and become more than that?"). The queen never questions her undying loyalty to her king, and will not stop at anything--even self-sacrifice--to achieve the all-important goal of annihilating the enemy king. There is no room for existential musings in the game of chess.

Philosophy, as you might guess, is quite different. For the existentialists in particular, to be alive is to be thrown into a world in which one is constantly uncertain, constantly struggling to discover one's role/s in this world, continually negotiating (and re-negotiating) the meaning of this role/s. It is in this spirit that the Underground Man, the protagonist of Notes from Underground, declares that an intelligent man is not and will never be a man of action. To be a man of action, one must take something as the first cause and justification of one's life (money, honor, love, etc.). Secure in the conviction that this first cause offers, one's mind is then at ease, and one is able to act and feel with complete confidence and without the slightest trace of hesitation.

The intelligent man, however, sees an infinite regress where the man of action sees a first cause. Because of this, the intelligent man lapses into inertia, and has no motivation to feel and act in the way in which the man of action does. The intelligent man can still make himself feel and do things, but he only does this because he doesn't want to be bored.  

People often say that chess is a thinking man's game. I'm not so sure I agree. For me personally, chess is the only thing right now in my life that I can lose myself completely in. When I play chess, the demands of the chessboard absorb me so completely that I stop thinking about everything else. Temporarily at least, I become a man of action. I believe that if there ever comes a day when I lose this feeling of being completely lost in the game while playing chess, that day will probably be the day that I quit chess. Then again, that's just what I believe right now. What do I know?