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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The incident with the poker

Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers
David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Ecco, 2001

“Wittgenstein’s reputation among twentieth-century thinkers is … unsurpassed. … A poll of professional philosophers in 1998 put him fifth in a list of those who had made the most important contributions to the subject, after Aristotle, Plato, Kant and Nietzsche and ahead of Hume and Descartes (p. 231).” Yet there is nothing in this book that is comprehensible to the layman about Wittgenstein’s philosophy, or even, I have to say, much of an attempt to make it so. His eminence and influence and his credibility to other philosophers we have to take on trust.

On the other hand, Popper – the antagonist to Wittgenstein’s protagonist – has two well-known and accepted achievements to his credit, his book The Open Society and Its Enemies and his “falsifiability” theory on the structure of scientific hypotheses (though I have often wondered if “vulnerability” would not be a better term). But in Britain and America, Popper is slowly being dropped from University syllabuses; his name is fading, if not yet forgotten … a penalty of success rather than the price of failure (p. 230).” Or perhaps, being transferred from the useless category of philosopher to that of scientist? Far from turning his office there into a shrine, the LSE has had it converted into a lavatory.

The allusion in the title is, of course, to the famous incident with the poker on Friday, 25th October, 1946 about which none of the supposedly acute seekers after truth present could agree. This was the only time the two philosophers actually met, though both came from Vienna, both were of Jewish descent (though neither of religion), and both had to leave Austria when the Nazis took over. As far as I can make out, the dispute was whether philosophy, as a discipline, could or should deal with real “problems” (Popper) or merely with “puzzles” (Wittgenstein), say with language expressions. The meeting was of a discussion group at Cambridge University, called the Moral Science Club (MSC), of which Wittgenstein was actually the Chairman. He was, however, usually overbearing and difficult, tending to hog the discussions, often leaving meetings half-way through – something Popper probably didn’t know.

Popper had been invited to give a paper and Wittgenstein interrupted and shouted his disagreement, making his point brandishing the poker that lay by the moribund fire, laying it down when Russell told him to, and then leaving. Smoothing matters down, someone asked Popper for an example of a moral principle. “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers,” was the reply, provoking a laugh and, I imagine, relaxing the tension. Popper later claimed that Wittgenstein was still present when he made this retort, but the general agreement is that he had gone, one witness even accusing Popper of lying. The poker itself disappeared.

The book, however, is much more than an account or investigation of this episode. Tracing the lives of both personalities, both of them combative and obsessive, the authors also fill in the background they grew up in – the increasingly anti-semitic Vienna of the post-WWI war decades, despite the efforts of those of Jewish ancestry to assimilate, including many who discarded their religion and became Christians. Wittgenstein’s was an extremely rich family (though his grandfather had adopted the name of his aristocratic employer, to whom he was not related) but he divested himself of his own share of its wealth. He had served with distinction in the Austrian Army in WWI, volunteering for dangerous posts, being decorated several times and during it writing his seminal work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He ended the war in an Italian POW camp. On the other hand Popper, some thirteen years younger, came from a bourgeois but impoverished family. He had difficulty in escaping from Austria; with perhaps some exaggeration he claimed that taking a Chair in New Zealand left free for another (Waismann) an opening to a temporary lectureship at Cambridge (p. 221). His “war effort”, he said, was writing The Open Society (p. 71), though he tried, unsuccessfuly, to join the armed forces as well. “Popper’s impact on academic life [in the University of Canterbury, New Zealand] was greater than that of any other person, before or since,” judged that institution; he acted as a kind of intellectual champagne after the dry depression years (p. 172).”

Wittgenstein died in 1951, Popper in 1994. The authors do not try to give much information on the later work of either, though there is a joint chronology (pp. 245-242). They do seem, in my view, to be somewhat biased against Popper, if only because he’s left more evidence against himself; presumably also they cannot help but be influenced by the poll of philosophers given above (and in which, presumably Popper comes nowhere). Neither men come across as particularly pleasant, let alone lovable, though Popper seems to have kept friends as well as making enemies, while the impression is given that Wittgenstein despised everyone – no list of friends is given for him, though mention is made of disciples and acolytes who imitated his mannerisms. Although Popper died only six or seven years before the book was written and published, there is no indication that either author ever interviewed or even met him. It is also a little disappointing that no mention is made of any relationship between him and other thinkers on the right, such as Bauer and Hayek, who, in contrast with both Popper and Wittgenstein, was noted for his courtesy towards opponents. Perhaps these don’t qualify as philosophers. Isaiah Berlin is mentioned, but once only to have his philosophical pretentions pulverised by Wittgenstein (p. 24), and twice in passing.

A minor but irritating typographical blemish is the close resemblance between 3 and 5.

3 comments to The incident with the poker

  • I found it entertaining, though rather lightweight for a book found in the philosophy section of my bookstore.

  • Ramsey

    I do know something about Wittgenstein’s philosophy, and he is easily the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century; and he was actually quite a good man, he fought bravely for his native country in world war 1, he gave away most of his massive fortune, and he worked hard as a hospital porter for his adopted country in world war 2, when he could have just languished in Cambridge as a professor.

  • In a sense it’s no surprise Wittgenstein rides high while Popper has sunk. I suspect a pattern: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Lacan, Foucault, structuralism, deconstructionism – all bafflingly opaque and ‘difficult’, and hence exciting. Popper: readily comprehensible, at least on the surface, yet without the sparkling éclat of the others. I studied Wittgenstein at Oxford, and while his writings are definitely of great value they are no more so than those of Popper. Chomsky’s remarks about Wittgenstein (dismissing his work on the basis of its difficulty, in a nutshell) in Understanding Power are, like his dismissal of (the admittedly flawed) Rothbard in the same book, verging on the imbecilic. And that’s the problem with difficult writing: it’s easy to either sneer at it with absolute conviction or see it as the conveyer of profound truth – with absolute conviction.