Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophersby David Edmonds, John Eidinow
On October 25, 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, the great twentieth-century philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting which lasted ten minutes did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend, but precisely what happened during… See more details below
On October 25, 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, the great twentieth-century philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting which lasted ten minutes did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend, but precisely what happened during that brief confrontation remained for decades the subject of intense disagreement.
An engaging mix of philosophy, history, biography, and literary detection, Wittgenstein's Poker explores, through the Popper/Wittgenstein confrontation, the history of philosophy in the twentieth century. It evokes the tumult of fin-de-siécle Vienna, Wittgentein's and Popper's birthplace; the tragedy of the Nazi takeover of Austria; and postwar Cambridge University, with its eccentric set of philosophy dons, including Bertrand Russell. At the center of the story stand the two giants of philosophy themselves proud, irascible, larger than life and spoiling for a fight.
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On the evening of Friday, 25 October 1946 the Cambridge Moral Science Club a weekly discussion group for the university's philosophers and philosophy students held one of its regular meetings. As usual, the members assembled in King's College at 8:30, in a set of rooms in the Gibbs Building number 3 on staircase H.
That evening the guest speaker was Dr. Karl Popper, down from London to deliver an innocuous-sounding paper, "Are There Philosophical Problems?" Among his audience was the chairman of the club, Professor Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by many to be the most brilliant philosopher of his time. Also present was Bertrand Russell, who for decades had been a household name as a philosopher and radical campaigner.
Popper had recently been appointed to the position of Reader in Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics (LSE). He came from an Austrian-Jewish background and was newly arrived in Britain, having spent the war years lecturing in New Zealand. The Open Society and Its Enemies, his remorseless demolition of totalitarianism, which he had begun on the day Nazi troops entered Austria and completed as the tide of war turned, had just been published in England. It had immediately won him a select group of admirers among them Bertrand Russell.
This was the only time these three great philosophers Russell,Wittgenstein, and Popper were together. Yet, to this day, no one can agree precisely about what took place. What is clear is that there were vehement exchanges between Popper and Wittgenstein over the fundamental nature of philosophy whether there were indeed philosophical problems (Popper) or merely puzzles (Wittgenstein). These exchanges instantly became the stuff of legend. An early version of events had Popper and Wittgenstein battling for supremacy with red-hot pokers. As Popper himself later recollected, "In a surprisingly short time I received a letter from New Zealand asking if it was true that Wittgenstein and I had come to blows, both armed with pokers."
Those ten or so minutes on 25 October 1946 still provoke bitter disagreement. Above all, one dispute remains heatedly alive: did Karl Popper later publish an untrue version of what happened? Did he lie?
If he did lie, it was no casual embellishing of the facts. If he lied, it directly concerned two ambitions central to his life: the defeat at a theoretical level of fashionable twentieth-century linguistic philosophy and triumph at a personal level over Wittgenstein, the sorcerer who had dogged his career.
Popper's account can be found in his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest, published in 1974. According to this version of events, Popper put forward a series of what he insisted were real philosophical problems. Wittgenstein summarily dismissed them all. Popper recalled that Wittgenstein "had been nervously playing with the poker," which he used "like a conductor's baton to emphasize his assertions," and when a question came up about the status of ethics, Wittgenstein challenged him to give an example of a moral rule. "I replied: 'Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers! Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him."
When Popper died, in 1994, newspaper obituarists picked up his telling of the tale and repeated it word for word (including the wrong date for the meeting the 26th, not the 25th). Then, some three years after Popper's death, a memoir published in the proceedings of one of Britain's most learned bodies, the British Academy, recounted essentially the same sequence of events. It brought down a storm of protest on the head of the author, Popper's successor at the LSE, Professor John Watkins, and sparked off an acerbic exchange of letters in the pages of the London Times Literary Supplement. A fervent Wittgenstein supporter who had taken part in the meeting, Professor Peter Geach, denounced Popper's account of the meeting as "false from beginning to end." It was not the first time Professor Geach had made that allegation. A robust correspondence followed as other witnesses or later supporters of the protagonists piled into the fray.
There was a delightful irony in the conflicting testimonies. They had arisen between people all professionally concerned with theories of epistemology (the grounds of knowledge), understanding, and truth. Yet they concerned a sequence of events where those who disagreed were eyewitnesses on crucial questions of fact.
This tale has also gripped the imagination of many writers: no biography, philosophical account, or novel involving either man seems complete without a frequently colorful version. It has achieved the status, if not of an urban myth, then at least of an ivory-tower fable.
But why was there such anger over what took place more than half a century before, in a small room, at a regular meeting of an obscure university club, during an argument over an arcane topic? Memories of the evening had remained fresh through the decades, persisting not over a complex philosophical theory or a clash of ideologies, but over a quip and the waving or otherwise of a short metal rod.
What do the incident and its aftermath tell us about Wittgenstein and Popper, their remarkable personalities, their relationship, and their beliefs? How significant was it that they both came from fin de siècle Vienna, both born into assimilated Jewish families, but with a great gulf of wealth and influence between them? And what about the crux of the evening's debate: the philosophical divide?
Wittgenstein and Popper had a profound influence on the way we address the fundamental issues of civilization, science, and culture. Between them, they made pivotal contributions both to age-old problems such as what we can be said to know, how we can make advances in our knowledge, and how we should be governed, and to contemporary puzzles about the limits of language and sense, and what lies...
Wittgenstein's Poker. Copyright © by David Edmonds. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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