Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers by David Edmonds and John Eidenow. Ecco Press/HarperCollins, 340 pages, $24.00.

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In his essay on Coleridge, John Stuart Mill asserted that “every Englishman of the present day is by implication either a Benthamite or a Coleridgian.” In Wittgenstein’s Poker, David Edmonds and John Eidenow suggest that all English-speaking persons who think about philosophy nowadays are either Popperians or Wittgensteinians. This claim is perhaps a little less galvanizing than Mill’s, but it’s a handy peg on which to hang this brisk and entertaining account of a celebrated philosophical joust.

Karl Popper (1902-1994) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) were two of the leading philosophers of the last century. Though their influence in England and America was and is enormous, both were born in Vienna. Wittgenstein’s father was a steel magnate, and the family was one of the wealthiest and most cultivated in Austria. Young Ludwig studied mathematics and engineering but was soon bitten by the philosophy bug. Never one to do things halfway, he abandoned his studies, travelled to Cambridge, England, and presented himself (unannounced) at the door of the world’s then most eminent mathematical philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Fortunately, Russell recognized that his extremely odd visitor was a genius.

Popper’s family was also affluent and accomplished, though less so than Wittgenstein’s. He too studied science and mathematics before migrating to philosophy, and he too taught school for several years before returning to an academic career. Perhaps most important, both were Jewish. Wittgenstein’s early life was comparatively sheltered from anti-Semitism; but after Austria’s annexation by Germany in 1938 he, like Popper, was an exile.

Overshadowing this similarity in background were drastic differences in presence and temperament. Popper was short, physically unimpressive, “a picture of sheer human ordinariness,” according to the authors. He was self-conscious and, until his reputation was made, not particularly self-confident. (Once it was made, however, he became dogmatic and overbearing.)

Wittgenstein, by contrast, was one of the most idiosyncratic, charismatic, personally compelling figures in modern intellectual history. Russell called him “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived: passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” A character in an Iris Murdoch novel speaks of “his oracular voice. We felt it had to be true.” When his father died in 1913 Ludwig became one of the richest men in Europe. The next year, when the war came, he volunteered for the front as an ordinary artilleryman. The war affected him deeply. After it ended he gave all his money to his brother and sisters – on the grounds that money was a distraction for a philosopher – and spent the next six years teaching elementary school in poor rural districts. Then he returned to Cambridge, holding classes in his rooms that consisted mainly of silence, soliloquies, and Socratic questioning. And like Socrates, he attracted many ardent disciples who imitated his manner and propagated his ideas after his death.

What ideas? Caveat lector: Wittgenstein’s ideas are notoriously difficult. Fortunately, one need not understand them fully in order to enjoy Wittgenstein’s Poker. (Or even – just between us, dear reader – to review it.) Broadly speaking, Wittgenstein sought to discover the relations among language, thought, and the world. At first he proposed that language pictured or represented the world. Propositions depicted facts. Not literally, of course, but in virtue of a shared logical form or structure, which could be shown but not described or expressed. Philosophy revealed the logical structure of the world.

Eventually he came to believe that the world has no logical structure. Propositions do not mirror facts; indeed, it’s misleading to consider propositions and facts, words and objects, as discrete entities. They are better understood as aspects of an activity or, as he famously put it, moves in a game. Language, mind, and world are not separate spheres but instead form a seamless, intricate web. So intricate, in fact, that it is impossible to avoid getting tangled up occasionally when speaking or writing. Wittgenstein thought that all philosophical problems originated in one or another of these linguistic tangles. The philosopher’s job is to get the rest of us untangled, after which we will recognize that philosophical problems are merely confusions or (his word) “puzzles.”

Popper disagreed vehemently. He believed that the traditional problems of philosophy were real, not illusory, and could be solved, not merely dissolved. Wittgenstein’s concentration on verbal oddities and obscurities struck Popper as frivolous, even perverse, in view of the scientific and political upheavals of the age. Popper’s own books, notably The Logic of Scientific Discovery and The Open Society and Its Enemies, confronted those upheavals directly, offering important insights about induction, probability, and historical determinism. Wittgenstein might not have disagreed with these insights but would certainly have dismissed them as lacking philosophical significance.

On October 25, 1946, Popper addressed the Moral Science Club at Cambridge University. Wittgenstein was Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and chairman of the club. Popper had recently arrived in England to take up a post at the London School of Economics, and “The Open Society” had just been published to great acclaim. He was on a roll. But Wittgenstein was already a legend, enthroned on his own private Olympus. He was accustomed to ignore, interrupt, and generally intimidate visiting speakers. A clash was inevitable. The meeting room was crowded with dons and students; even Bertrand Russell was there.

Popper’s talk was titled “Are There Philosophical Problems?” This was a red flag for Wittgenstein, who charged in, interrupting Popper. Popper stood his ground. Wittgenstein waxed wroth. The chairman’s seat was next to the fireplace, so Wittgenstein picked up a poker, jabbing the air with it as he paced and spoke. At one point Popper asserted that moral principles revealed the existence of philosophical problems. Give me an example of a moral principle, thundered Wittgenstein. Quick-wittedly Popper replied: “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.” Dumbfounded, Wittgenstein flung down the poker and left the room.

That, at any rate, was Popper’s version in his autobiography. It is hotly contested by Wittgenstein’s devotees. A mini-tempest about the incident a few years ago in the letters column of the Times Literary Supplement caught the attention of Edmonds and Eidenow, award-winning BBC journalists. They have supplied a great deal of historical background and turned it into a wonderful yarn for the philosophically inclined.

For all his superhuman austerity, Wittgenstein (like the great physicist Niels Bohr) was fond of relaxing with cowboy movies and detective stories. Perhaps the gods can afford to eat such intellectual junk food occasionally; but a tasty, high-fiber organic munchie like “Wittgenstein’s Poker” is just the thing for us mentally flabbier mortals in search of a snack.



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