Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers by David Edmonds, John Eidinow |, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

by David Edmonds, John Eidinow
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper had only one encounter: Their brief public meeting in Cambridge in 1946 was an unmitigated disaster. BBC journalists Edmonds and Eidinow use that single argument as a microscope that reveals the irreconcilable ideas of two brilliant (and stubborn) thinkers. In their skilful hands, even the conflicting accounts of the heated exchange expose differences between the temperaments and philosophies of these two men, both of whom fled Hitler's Vienna. Whether you read it as an elegant whodunit or a fascinating primer on modern philosophy, Wittgenstein's Poker enchants as it educates.
Express
A fascinating book about an epic philosophical dispute.
Michael Frayn
It's a brilliant idea to take one small ambiguous incident as the starting point for investigating this century's philosophy, and all the historical events that shaped it. The authors have an extremely good grasp of the philosophical ideas, and a tremendous ability to explain them.
Will Self
A valuable contribution...recapitulates the biographies of both men, gives a brief survey of philosophy in the 20th century, and offers an inquiry into the status of assimilated Jews in pre-war Vienna. —New Statesman
Observer
Entertaining and thoughtful...there are enough funny stories about Wittgenstein to make the story interesting even to a resolute non-philosopher.
Independent
Forensically reconstructs a spirited intellectual battle between two heavyweights, divided by their common Viennese Jewish background.
Herald
In their dramatic reconstruction of the event, the authors succeed in conveying a narrative suspense usually associated with adventure fiction. Even if it didn't make the headlines, the clash between these cerebral titans was, in hinsight, among the most significant happenings of 1946.
New Scientist
A gripping aount of the fiercely intellectual peronalities and troubled histories of profoundly influential men.
Herald [England]
In their dramatic reconstruction of the event, the authors succeed in conveying a narrative suspense usually associated with adventure fiction. Even if it didn't make the headlines, the clash between these cerebral titans was, in hinsight, among the most significant happenings of 1946.
Publishers Weekly
In October 1946, philosopher Karl Popper arrived at Cambridge to lecture at a seminar hosted by his legendary colleague Ludwig Wittgenstein. It did not go well: the men began arguing, and eventually, Wittgenstein began waving a fire poker toward Popper. It lasted scarcely 10 minutes, yet the debate has turned into perhaps modern philosophy's most contentious encounter, largely because none of the eyewitnesses could agree on what happened. Did Wittgenstein physically threaten Popper with the poker? Did Popper lie about it afterward? BBC journalists Edmonds and Eidinow use the controversy as a springboard to probe the whys and whats of these two great thinkers, weaving biography, journalism and philosophy to produce one of the year's most entertaining and intellectually rich books. The authors show that the debate was a clash at several levels. First, of personalities: each was "bullying, aggressive, intolerant and self-absorbed"; in other words, accustomed to winning and unlikely to back down. Second, of class: Wittgenstein was an Austrian aristocrat, Popper was bourgeoisie (each fled Vienna to escape Hitler). And third, of ideas: Wittgenstein believed that philosophy boiled down to nothing more than a series of linguistic puzzles, while Popper thought philosophy involved real problems that immediately affected the world at large. Clearly, the stakes were high for both men in that lecture hall especially because their common mentor, the aging icon Bertrand Russell, was also in attendance. The debate thus took on the character of a succession for the throne. Tightly constructed and extraordinarily well written, this is a marvelous blend of lay and academic scholarship. It has every chanceof becoming a classic of its kind. (Nov.) Forecast: Smart, general readers will gobble up this latest addition to narrative nonfiction. It will surely find a place for itself among The Professor and the Madman and An Eternal Golden Braid. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An amusing anecdote about a clash between philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper gets stretched into a book that delivers biographical detail but little philosophical meat. In 1946, Popper gave a lecture at the Cambridge Moral Science Club titled "Are There Philosophical Problems?" Popper argued that there were, outraging audience member Wittgenstein, who believed there were not; instead, Wittgenstein argued, philosophy concerned itself only with linguistic puzzles, not substantive problems. For ten minutes the luminaries jousted verbally, while Wittgenstein grabbed a poker and waved it. In Popper's account, the drama ended when Wittgenstein asked him for an example of a moral rule and Popper replied, "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers"-whereupon Wittgenstein dropped the poker and stormed out. It's a good story, but over by page two, after which Edmonds and Eidinow, both journalists, pursue its tiniest nook and cranny (think Woodward and Bernstein crossed with Jerry Seinfeld). The journalistic justification is to investigate the charge (raised in a recent letter-exchange in the Times Literary Supplement) that Popper lied by distorting the events to make himself come out the victor. The authors interview surviving eyewitnesses, such as philosophers Peter Geach and Stephen Toulmin, and pick through the writings of deceased ones, such as Bertrand Russell. They trace similarities and differences between the antagonists (both Viennese and of Jewish descent; Popper middle-class, Wittgenstein aristocratic), and show why Popper had cause for professional jealousy: Wittgenstein was a "charismatic genius" who dominated Cambridge and is ranked with Plato and Kant, whilePopper was exiled to New Zealand and never got much recognition. Still, a great deal of the material feels like filler, and the attempted resolution to the mystery is unsurprising. As for the philosophical issues Popper and Wittgenstein debated, they receive only superficial treatment. An intellectual rhubarb that provides good academic gossip, but never reveals satisfying depths.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060936648
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
09/28/2002
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
532,148
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 11.04(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Poker

History is affected by discoveries we will make in the future.

— Popper

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.

Meet the Author

David Edmonds is an award-winning journalists with the BBC. He's the bestselling authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker.

John Eidinow is an award-winning journalist with the BBC. He's the bestselling authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker.

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