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


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, ...

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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 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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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.
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
Entertaining and thoughtful...there are enough funny stories about Wittgenstein to make the story interesting even to a resolute non-philosopher.
Forensically reconstructs a spirited intellectual battle between two heavyweights, divided by their common Viennese Jewish background.
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060936648
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 361,392
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 11.04 (h) x 0.88 (d)

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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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.

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Table of Contents

1. The Poker 1
2. Memories Are Made of This 6
3. Bewitchment 21
4. Disciples 30
5. The Third Man 39
6. The Faculty 57
7. A Viennese Whirl 73
8. The Concerts in the Palais 80
9. Once a Jew 93
10. Popper Reads Mein Kampf 106
11. Some Jew! 112
12. Little Luki 120
13. Death in Vienna 142
14. Popper Circles the Circle 165
15. Blowtorch 175
16. Poor Little Rich Boy 187
17. Trajectories of Success 206
18. The Problem with Puzzles 221
19. The Puzzle over Problems 243
20. Slum Landlords and Pet Aversions 253
21. Poker Plus 257
22. Clearing up the Muddle 274
23. All Shall Have Prizes 289
Chronology 295
Appendix Times Literary
Supplement Letters 306
Acknowledgments 313
Sources 317
Index 328
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction Many of us will find it difficult to conceive of how a 10-minute argument between two brilliant and rather cranky men -- one that took place not in a courtroom or boardroom but in a dank, drafty study in one of Cambridge University's classical buildings -- could achieve mythological status more than a half-century later. Especially since the account (and the ensuing debate surrounding it) focuses on a single witty statement -- and the question of whether it was uttered before or after someone left the room…

As this book clearly shows, philosophy is a discipline that encourages us to strip down ideas to their bare essentials. It is these kernels of truth that draw us to a better understanding of the world around us. And so this debate, and the single sentence at the heart of the matter, is revealed to possess a world of import. In Wittgenstein's Poker, the authors illustrate how history, personality, science, religion, culture, and civilization played a part in bringing two parallel lives into an explosive juxtaposition in 1946. But what triggered the explosion? Why, with so many eyewitness accounts of brilliant (although potentially fuzzy) minds, is the truth still impossible to establish? And, incidentally, why should we care?

There are myriad ways of appreciating this work of literary detection. The authors take us to the waning days of the Viennese empire, when an eminently civilized society became infected with hatred and disillusionment. They introduce us to two extraordinary men who emerged from a shared milieu to embark on widely diverging paths. They examine the inner workings of academic culture, where personalities loomedlarge and status and success were as capricious as the latest fashions. They provide an engaging and accessible crash course in Philosophy 101, providing the lay reader with a basic grasp of the ideas over which these two men fought so bitterly.

Fables, myths, and symbols help us comprehend history according to our individual truths. By dissecting a historic moment, revealing the variety of political and social forces, personalities, cultures, prejudices, and even natural phenomena that willed it into being, the moment is transformed into a symbol, a myth, a fable, its significance deepened by our understanding of the surrounding world. Its truth transcends its factuality. And there it hangs in the air, waiting for the next scholar to take it down and re-examine it in order to satisfy a different principle.

The authors of Wittgenstein's Poker have dissected this peculiar process, showing us the evolution of an event into an idea. That the event itself was concerned with ideas and truth provides the delicious irony that makes theirs such a compelling story. Do we, should we, continue to come to blows over abstract principles that seem only tangentially, at best, to affect our daily efforts to care for our families, further our careers, nurture our community and planet? Some of us may find that there are more pressing uses for our time; others may argue that abstract principles are the only measure we have for validating our existence. Whether you agree or not, we most likely will continue to argue about lofty ideas -- and this book shows us why.

Questions for Discussion

  • Among the many quotations cited by both philosophers throughout the book, two are frequently referred to: Wittgenstein's claim that "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent," and Popper's argument that "History is affected by discoveries we will make in the future." Why is each of these quotes important? What do they say about the men who spoke these words, as well as about the incident that is central to the book?
  • What was at stake during the debate for both Popper and Wittgenstein? Who had the most to lose?
  • Why do you think this debate achieved such legendary status?
  • Discuss the topic of the debate -- philosophical problems versus philosophical puzzles -- in the different contexts of post-war Europe and post-September 11th America. How do the events of history alter the debate? If you were a student at Cambridge in 1946, how might you have thought differently about this question than you do now?
  • What is the significance of each man's religious background -- including his rejection of his Jewish heritage -- to his position on philosophy?
  • How do the authors draw on 20th century European history and culture to illuminate the debate between Wittgenstein and Popper? How had both World Wars impacted the lives of each man?
  • What was Bertrand Russell's relationship to each philosopher? Why was his presence during the argument significant?
  • The authors describe both men as outsiders. Is this a necessary prerequisite to being a philosopher? Do you think each man achieved his successes because of his willingness to disassociate himself from society as a whole?
  • In addition to the basic theories of each man's philosophical leanings, the authors provide detailed information about Popper's and Wittgenstein's personalities as well as details about their daily lives. Is this information necessary? Does it enhance the book's recounting of the pivotal event, or does it confuse the matter, even detract from it?
  • Where do you stand on the debate between these two philosophers? Are philosophical problems real, as Popper argued? Or are they, as Wittgenstein insisted, just puzzles to be solved using language as a tool?
  • Who do you think won the debate?
  • How has this story affected your understanding of historical analysis? Is it important to get the facts right? Are the myths or memorable stories that grow out of historical events more relevant -- and often less engaging -- than the truth?
  • Where, on the political spectrum, do you think Wittgenstein and Popper would be on the major global debates of our times?
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 14, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    The Story of a Ten -Minute Argument...

    Can a ten minute argument be a stuff for- what ¿the New Yorker¿ called<BR/>¿A terrific Book¿? Yes, if the argument is between two great philosophers of the last century.<BR/>David Edmonds and John Eidinow in their work Wittgenstein¿s Poker , brings to light in a really interesting manner the in/famous ten minute confrontation between two great philosophers ¿ Ludwig Wittgenstein<BR/>and Karl Popper .<BR/> In 1946, Wittgenstein was working as a professor of Philosophy in Cambridge University and the Chairman of Moral Science Club- a weekly discussion group for the university philosophers and philosophy students. In the same year January , Karl Popper arrives in England as he was offered the readership in Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics , London University . <BR/><BR/>The stage of confrontation is set, when Wittgenstein chaired Moral Science Club called upon Popper to present the paper ¿Are there Philosophical Problems?¿. Popper started his paper by inviting the attention of the audience to the invitation of the secretary of Moral Science Club ¿¿¿ a few opening remark, stating some puzzle¿.¿.<BR/>Popper¿s argument is that philosophical problems are not really puzzles but genuine problems . Wittgenstein interrupted and at some point took up a poker and gesticulated rather freely. Disagreement on puzzle Vs problem drew to such a level that , Popper as an example for ¿moral principle ¿ gave a situation induced example-¿one ought not threaten visiting lecturers with poker¿ . Wittgenstein left the meting the before the end of the session ¿slamming the door behind him¿, ending a ten-minute long argument. <BR/><BR/>This book is not only a real exploration into history of Philosophy of the twentieth century but also provides a historical peek into Vienna - Birth place of the two philosophical juggernauts , postwar Cambridge University, and The black days of Nazis occupation of Austria . Authors also provides a detailed analysis of the philosophical statements of Wittgenstein and Popper underlining their position in the philosophical terrain of last century and centuries to come.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2004

    Poke This!

    Who would think that a full-length book could be written about a ten minute argument/incident between two philosophers? And who would think that such a book would turn out to be a fascinating page turner? But that it is, with enough style, clarity and background to make the story 'matter'. Popper was arrogant and Wittgenstein loony, but their encounter, a microcosm of the biggest issue facing 20th century philosophy, was dramatic as this reconstruction boldly shows.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2002

    Entertaining and Edifying

    Dealing with technicalities and fine points mainly of interest to the world of professional academic (and specifically Western) philosophers, this book takes us back to a peculiar incident at Cambridge, England immediately after World War II, when the mystifying analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein met the combative and aggressive Karl Popper, both Viennese expatriots adrift in the aftermath of the century's European convulsions. Both men were accustomed to making waves among their peers, both had reputations for innovative thought which broke new ground, and both had legions of followers and disciples. Wittgenstein, the older and more established of the two, was on his home turf (though, as always, ill at ease in the milieu he had claimed for his own) whereas Popper was something of an outsider, as he had been all his life. Popper apparently went to this philosophical tryst with the intention of overturning Wittgenstein's claim to being the gris eminence of the philosophical world and in order to replace Wittgenstein's vision with his own as the main philosophical theme around which others might rally or debate. He had, he felt, previously done just this with the so-called Vienna Circle's logical postivism which, as a philosophy, had developed under the spell of the early Wittgenstein. So Popper was looking for a reprise of his earlier success, but on a grander scale, as he matched himself up against the thinker who had been the logical positivists' idol. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, seems to have been distracted by personal issues at the time. Overall, this is a marvelous book in the background and insights it offers concerning the two combatants, and those who surrounded them. A little light on the philosophical issues, to be sure, and taking some liberties when it purports to get us into the heads of the protagonists in the events immediately leading up to and following the encounter, it also fails to offer any real revelation as to who really did what to whom. But, as others have noted elsewhere, it is fascinating to try to reconstruct the story, based on eyewitness and near-witness accounts in light of the philosophical questions these men were mainly concerned with: what can we know and how can we know it? More, it shows us the very human sides of both men. As with all of us, I suppose, they were not always entirely likable. For my part, I found the comparisons of the Wittgensteinian and Popperian viewpoints quite edifying and that, by itself, made the read worthwhile for me. If this stuff interests you, as well, then go for it. A fine book. -- SWM

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2002

    Penny Ante Poker Bluff?

    Instead of a serious concern with the content of the controversy between Wittgenstein and Popper - the purported subject - the journalist authors focus on their personalities. Some of the background information provided for this is interesting, much of it is trivial or irrelevant. Moreover, one discerns a quite unwarranted ani-Popper bias, some of it leading to quite unworthy speculation and innuendo. And while the thesis that today W. is of greater interest to philosophers than P. may be correct, Popper is of much greater current interest to social scientists than Wittgenstein. Any citation count would confirm this.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2001

    Very difficult to put down

    This book is well-written and provides intimate insights into the character of the antagonists and their spectators. A must for anyone who is vaguely interested in philosophy!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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