Privileging Your Checks


The Seventh Seal, AB Svensk Filmindustri, 1957

by William Flesch

I am team-teaching a course on the later Wittgenstein this semester with a somewhat skeptical but radically open-minded philosopher. We were discussing language game (2), as it’s called, the one in which a builder says “Slab” to his assistant in just the circumstances where we would say “Bring me a slab.” Wittgenstein wants to show us that “Slab” is no more short for “Bring me a slab” than “Bring me a slab” is long for “Slab.” It is not an elliptical version of our more precise formulation.

This is always a very hard point to get right. Anyhow my philosopher-partner remarked that it was interesting how Wittgenstein always goes to chess for analogies to language games, and it occurred to me that he doesn’t go to chess enough. Because here’s what I think is a very helpful analogy.

When someone says “check” in chess, you might be tempted to take that word as one in Elliptical, properly translated into English as “your king is in danger.” The etymology of the word, though, shows that “check” meant “king,” from Persian (cf. Shah), via (most recently) the Arabic شَا (šāh). (I am following Wiktionary here: the OED offers some different and very interesting etymological byways, but as is the case with the way language develops, different etymological pathways converge and diverge and reconverge — for Wittgensteinian reasons — and the Wiktionary etymology is at least a big part of the story.)

This means that the word “check” means something like “king.” (Something. Like.)  Is that elliptical for “your king is in danger” as “slab” in language game (2) is supposed to be elliptical for the more precise “bring me a slab”? That is, should we say that when I threaten your king and say “check,” I am saying ’”king” as an elliptical way of saying “I am now threatening your king” (or some such more explicit, unpacked, and therefore accurate formulation)? Likewise, when I say “gin” that would mean “all my cards are now in completed sets and so I win the game” (and similarly with mahjong and any other game where the name of the game is also the name of a declaration within the game.)

But check is not elliptical for “your king is in danger.” The king cannot be put in danger. (As Pynchon says “once among nations, as in chess, suicide was illegal.”) “Check” actually means that the king must either move or be defended, either by blocking the piece that can move to the square the king is now on or by taking that piece. The king can’t be put in danger because it can’t be taken. If there is no way to get out of check, then the game is over and the player whose king is in check loses.

To sum up:

1) Check is like slab in language game (2): something that looks like a noun but isn’t one, though our translation of the utterance would contain nouns in our language.

2) There is no natural translation of the word that we could give without knowing how to play chess, since the closest candidate to a natural translation assumes the king could be put into danger, when it can’t. (At least “danger” in chess doesn’t amount to the king’s being put in check.)

What about “mate”? How do we translate that? Again, we might be tempted to say that mate or checkmate means: “I’ve won, I’ve won” or “You’ve lost,” or “There is no way you can now get out of check so that I have won [or you have lost].”

But the literal meaning of “checkmate” is “the king is dead,” from the Persian مات‎ شاه (šâh mât) (Wiktionary: if they’re accurate, though it doesn’t matter that much, apparently “check” comes from the Arabic but “checkmate,” under the influence of “check” comes directly from the Persian. The actual etymological paths are close enough to each other that what matters is the meaning of the phrase.)

All of this seems to bear Wittgenstein out beautifully in a way familiar enough to us that we can see what would be wrong with trying to find more “accurate” translations for “elliptical” terms like “slab.” Or “check.” Only when you know how to play chess do its terms make sense, and they don’t make sense just because check “means” king. Check means “check.” Teaching someone I might say, well think of it as meaning “your king is in danger.” But once she knows how to go on, how to play, she won’t understand it to mean that. She’ll understand it to mean that she’s in check.

Piece originally published at ArcadeCreative Commons License
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About the Author:

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).