Chess, psychoanalysis, psychology and pseudoscience

6/7/2008 – Is the driving force behind the game of chess the desire of players to use the queen – the mother piece – to attack and neutralise the king – the father piece, in a monumental Oedipal struggle? Certainly a number of Freudian psychologists have held this view, which is described in David Shenk's book "The Immortal Game". Evolutionary psychologist Massimo Pigliucci takes issue with the theory.

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Chess, psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychology
and the nature of pseudoscience

In his article for Secular Philosophy Massimo Pigliucci, philosopher and biologist, discusses a "delightful history of chess" he is currently reading: The Immortal Game by David Shenk. Pigliucci has got to the chapter dealing with the dark side of chess: the fact that a small but significant number of top players throughout history have gone off the deep end.

"As is usual with correlations (playing chess <=> your brain goes bonk)," he writes, "it is not clear which way the causality goes, if at all. It could be that playing chess at the highest levels affects the mind in negative ways; it may be that abnormal minds are more likely than others to be attracted by the game; or it could simply be that the correlation is spurious, i.e. non-causal."

After this Pigliucci picks up the subject of a wide-spread Freudian theory on the role of chess piece, one that is described in Shenk's book. Ernest Jones, biographer and protege of Sigmund Freud, once stated that “It is plain that the unconscious motive activating [chess] players is not the mere love of pugnacity characteristic of all competitive games, but the grimmer one of father murder.” Pigliucci's reaction: "What??" he writes, "It’s the good ‘ol Oedipus complex – itself rooted in the all-encompassing Freudian explanation for human behavior, sex drives – that pushes players to protect their Queen (=mother) and checkmate the King (=father)."

Pigliucci quotes more from Jones (from page 147 of Shenk’s book): “It will not surprise the psychoanalyst when he learns ... that in attacking the father the most potent assistance is offered by the mother (=Queen). ... It is doubtless [its] anal-sadistic feature that makes the game so well adapted to gratify at the same time both the homosexual and the antagonistic aspects of the father-son contest.”

Like Pigliucci we too, for many years, have been baffled by the Freudian interpretation. In our innocence, we have always been using our queen (mother) to protect and further the interest of our king (the father), even to the point where on rare and deeply enjoyable occasions we have sacrificed the mother piece to save or bring victory to the father piece. On the other hand we have not really though about the psychoanalytic implications of using your maternal piece to attack your enemy's paternal piece. Surely there is much to be said about that, in the mystical frame of Freudian interpretation.

In this connection we are also reminded that while the word for the chess queen is generally feminine in European languages, elsewhere in the world it either does not have gender or is masculine. In the original Arabic it was firz or firzan (counsellor). In Estonian, we are told, the queen is lipp (a flag), in modern Arabic it is wäziir or firzan, in Russian ferz, in Farsi (Persian) vazir, farzin, in Uzbek farzin, in Hindi farzi, wazir, and in Turkish vezir. They all seem to be getting quite strong without the Oedipal context.We should also remember that in the Middle Ages the firz was the third weakest piece (after the pawn and the fil). It became the strongest piece in the middle of the 15th century. And finally we would like to remark that chess probably took the word dame or queen from the game of draughts, where patricide clearly does not enter into any possibly interpretation. The "queen" in chess was simply introduced to pair the pieces in the center.

Back to Massimo Pigliucci's entertaining article. He quotes more "psychobabble about chess" and writes: "The point is that these quotes perfectly illustrate why Karl Popper thought that Freudian psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience: it’s no so much that the above is not true (though I very much doubt it is), but that there is not a single shred of evidence that would count for or against such statements. They are, to use Popper’s phrase, unfalsifiable."

The rest of Pigliucci's article is about evolutional psychology and definitely a worthwhile read.

Frederic Friedel

Massimo Pigliucci is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution and of Philosophy at Stony Brook University in New York. His research addresses questions of nature vs. nurture and conceptual issues in evolutionary theory. He received a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara in Italy, a PhD in Botany from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has published about a hundred technical papers and several books on evolutionary biology. In 2004 he was elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the areas of outreach and critical thinking, Prof. Pigliucci has published in national magazines such as Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer, Philosophy Now and The Philosopher’s Magazine. He has also been elected as a Consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.



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