Monday, January 22, 2007

Is chess dangerous to your mental health

This is an interesting passage from Chesterton's Orthodoxy. I suppose chessplaying philosophers are double-duty candidates for the asylum. Dennis? Bill V? Help me out here. You must admit that the two American players who ascended to the pinnacle of chess (Morphy and Fischer) do now speak well of the salutory effects of the Royal Game for one's mental stability.


GKC: Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man's mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram. Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into

21 comments:

Dennis Monokroussos said...

It's like shooting fish in a barrel; the only question is how much time Chesterton's ridiculous comment is worth. (There's also the rhetorical issue, where responding makes one seem humorless: "He's only being jocular, you know. Typical Chestertonian exaggeration." I'll keep my response short and take my chances.)

First of all, my experience is that strong chess players tend to have great imaginative abilities. (Anyone strong enough to appreciate what players like Mikhail Tal and Garry Kasparov can do on the chess board can only marvel at their genius, and it's not a genius of "logic" but of fantasy.)

Second and more important, there's a pretty obvious false-cause diagnosis at work. Even if he's right that logic-choppers and chess players go "mad" at a higher rate than leading English poets (nice of him to shrink the comparison set there - a real sign of self-confidence in his position), why not think that people with certain psychological predispositions are more drawn to one field or style of intellectual activity than the other? (A study of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, for example, found a significant correlation between its fellows and personal and family depression. Does that mean that writing is depressing? [Those working on a dissertation should not answer this.])

Third, his claim that creative artists seldom go mad is incredible. I'm not sure how he defines insanity, but the list of artists and writers who have had nervous breakdowns and even committed suicide is pretty impressive. In fact, if one compares the categories "Mathematicians who committed suicide" with "Writers who committed suicide" in Wikipedia, one might wonder if it's Chesterton who has gone insane.

Fourth, the problem that he describes isn't with logic or reasoning per se, but with a certain sort of reductionistic attitude about one's own beliefs, that all of reality must fit into one's present mental categories. But this attitude doesn't have to be held by the logically-minded, and its converse isn't automatically possessed by the imaginative.

That's enough of that for now. Time to cleanse my mental palate by reading something intelligent, like some intellectually rigorous, imaginatively conceived analytic philosophy!

Victor Reppert said...

Yes, I suppose that for every Fischer, Morphy, Rubenstein or Carlos Torre, there is at least one Sylvia Plath or Vincent Van Gogh. Still, the incidence of insanity amongst leading chess masters seems a little high to me, and I wondered what you made of it.

Deuce said...

I think that Chesterton may be on to something, but I don't think it's logic or philosophy themselves that cause insanity per se.

I think it's attempting to process logical perversity that drives one insane: the subjecting of one's self to logical contortions in order to convince oneself that incoherent positions make sense, or in a futile attempt to even understand them. I think the mind has an innate sense of absolute truth and logic, and wears down and eventually reaches a breaking point where it recoils against prolongued exposure to nonsense. At this point, you must either give it relief or end up destroying it.

It's just an unresearched hunch, but if I'm right about it, I'd expect nihilists, deconstructionists, and post-modernists to have the highest chance of losing their minds, particularly those who really make a strong attempt at understanding and rationalizing their position, followed by people who may deny holding these positions, but who nevertheless hold positions on other things that imply them (reductionists and eliminativists, for instance).

Anonymous said...

I think the cause of madness in chess players is loneliness.

JH Donner - a far subtler observer of human nature than his reputation of scandalous jokes would suggest - puts it like this:

"The chess player rejects life with its painful lack of transparency and its hopeless insolubility, and chooses and has chosen what seems transparent and soluble. It was his first inspiration, but this innermost motive turns against him in the end, when playing his games has become his life."

& then:

"The game of chess has a great attraction for lonely minds but its healing power is small. It engenders no viable 'expression' and will only enhance inner rigidity. No one is as lonely as the world champion."

The Chesterton quote doesn't make much sense for me.

Dennis Monokroussos said...

Victor:

How many leading chess players have been insane? I don't think there have really been that many, with the usual suspects being Morphy, Steinitz, Rubinstein, Torre and Fischer. But "insane", like "is", is slippery. Is Fischer literally insane? Torre (who I wouldn't call a "leading player") had a nervous breakdown, but recovered - does that count? And it has been a while since I've read biographical material on Steinitz, but was his problem anything more "interesting" than plain-old age-related dementia?

So I don't think the picture painted by e.g. Harold C. Schonberg in Grandmasters of Chess is a fair one. But even if it is, I think he's got the tail wagging the dog - something I alluded to in the second point of my previous comment: "why not think that people with certain psychological predispositions are more drawn to one field or style of intellectual activity than [another]?" Perhaps those with certain sorts of psychological problems are more likely to loners than those without those problems. One doesn't have to be a loner to be strong at chess, but I think chess is the sort of activity that may well appeal to them. The result will be a disproportionately large number of such individuals playing chess, but that's a symptom of sorts, not a cause.

joseph said...

To play chess we have some knowledge on the chess.It is a game based on mind.
=============
Joseph
Arizona Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Anonymous said...

A quick comment I would like to make is that you are assuming that playing the game caused them to go crazy. I'm not so sure about Morphy, but I believe that Fischer had mental problems ever since he was a child. They may both have been crazy before they even started to play chess and it may have been their mental problems that allowed them to excel and surpass other players. If you have ever seen the movie rainman or beautiful mind you will no what I'm talking about.

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Anonymous said...

Many many times the problem is quemical, something about hormons that doesn´t work right indepently from logical or imagination, this is the reason why many doctor give pills because is chemical and if there is a big luck just with pill it works all right the brain but if not, better pray...

Anonymous said...

I don´t think that logical thinking cause damage to the brain, and imagination less, no, there are many poets, much more poets than chess players who get crazy,and mental ill,and the number of suicidal among poets are huge, don´t say chess cause illness because it´s not truth, as i said before the problemn is emotional independently of imagination or logical or at least chemical god should know but not about logical thinking even i think that is not very good for sane mental activity much thinking as chess but even if you don´t play a single game of chess if you are in the black list of unfortunates that suffer mental illenes just pray because maybe there is no god...

jorge langlenton said...

About rain man o beautifull mind i have to say that rainman or beautifull mind won´t survive because there is no gin tonic´s girl to help him to survive as in the films, films are films not reality,second, i suppose it´s true that playing chess need very hihg intelectual coeficienta and fantasy both i don´t doubt it, you can see Capablanca or Kasparov or Lasker or even Fisher, why not,to be crazy doesn´t mean to be fool, and third
for example Hitler is sad to say but he would probably be a very good player if he had dedicated to that, humanity would have suffer less his attacks, and maybe now Germany wouldn´t have the scare of being called nazis anytime they argue, there would have not been
and holocausto and the world would have been better, but he´d rather leaded german to the evil´s ground
if he had just used his sick intelligence but bright to play chess may the history of the humanity would have been diferent but things are not as we want rather as they are...

jorge langlenton said...

I would like to know why if there is someone on earth that knows why Rubistein was mad, emotionally talking,i dont care about neurons, it may be neurons but Freudian talking there is always a reason for the madness not only fisical, i would like to know...deeply talking and reasonably and without the command of autority just thinking...

jorge langlenton said...

Well as there is no answer i can tell this, probably Rubinstein was gay, you would say it´s not proof but the otherwise either, you can not say he was mad because of the neurons unless you are god and Knows him from inside which is imposible,so when Freud said and even Einstein and is no joke that chess involve violence is true, if you or someone very inteligent as Rubinstein goes to play chess first you have to look inside and see if you are man enough to play chess because you have to hit very hard that was the problem and now tell me i´m extravagant but may be i´m true which is mucho more sadder...

jorge langlenton said...

Natalia ParĂ©s is the typical type of playing chess that if she or he wouldn´t have converted and outsided to women wouldn´t get succex in chess,and i have to say that i agree with Polgar or Pulga in spanish that women should play with men, when you plan sepparatly your are thinking without saying it that famale are less inteligent than men which is not proof, but maybe women like to be mother and men warrier or football player but that´s different from being less inteligent, you can see Madam Courie who was a genie and was women and talk with Einsein about Fisics for example... and was boring ?? i don´t know...

jorge langlenton said...

i m not Hitler and if you persist on saying that, the bad people will be you not me, and you at the end will make feel like a saint without recognition but a saint, for god sake...

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chessastronomny said...

logic (chess, math, cashier) versus creativity (painting, poetry) which is better to for mental sanity ? good article
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