Cover image for 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
Edmonds, David, 1964-
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Ecco, [2001]

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x, 340 pages : illustrations ; 19 cm
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B3376.W564 E37 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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On October 25,1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face-to-face for the first and only time. The encounter lasted just ten minutes, and did not go well.

Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. Almost immediately, rumors spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red-hot pokers.

Twenty years later, when Popper wrote an account of the incident, he portrayed himself as the victor, provoking intense disagreement. Everyone present seems to have remembered events differently.

What really happened in those ten minutes? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, and the significance of language in solving our philosophical problems?

Wittgenstein's Pokeris an engaging mix of philosophy, history, biography. and literary detection. David Edmonds and John Eidinow evoke with dazzling clarity the tumult of fin-de-si#65533;cle Vienna, Wittgenstein's and Popper's birthplace; the tragedy of the Nazi takeover of Austria; and Cambridge University, with its eccentric set of philosophy dons, including Bertrand Russell, who acted as umpire at the meeting. At the center of the story stand the two philosophers themselves -- proud, irascible, larger-than-life -- and spoiling for a fight.

Author Notes

David Edmonds and John Eidinow are award-winning journalists with the BBC

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Here is ivory-tower drama at its crackling best. On Cambridge University's campus in 1946, two of the twentieth century's most notable philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, squared off in an intense 10-minute exchange rumored to have led to Wittgenstein brandishing a red-hot poker. What actually happened in this now-legendary clash, and how it reflects the development of philosophy and the times, is what Edmonds and Eidinow set out to discover. Wittgenstein came to the encounter with a reputation as a "charismatic genius." Popper, by contrast, presented a mundane picture, his academic life falling in the shadow of Wittgenstein, whose views on philosophy he fiercely derided. Both men were of Jewish extraction, displaced from Austria by the Nazi takeover. But Wittgenstein's wealth had allowed him freedoms denied the more middle class Popper. Feelings from all these myriad gulfs spilled over into the Cambridge encounter. The authors' profiling of the audience, which included Bertrand Russell, further illuminates what stoked the philosophical fires that day. Moving quickly from one brief chapter to another, Edmonds and Eidinow bring rich interpretation to the extraordinary incident, a BBC documentary on which is in the making. Philip Herbst

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 chance of 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. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



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... (Continues...) Excerpted from Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Copyright © 2001 by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

1. The Pokerp. 1
2. Memories Are Made of Thisp. 6
3. Bewitchmentp. 21
4. Disciplesp. 30
5. The Third Manp. 39
6. The Facultyp. 57
7. A Viennese Whirlp. 73
8. The Concerts in the Palaisp. 80
9. Once a Jewp. 93
10. Popper Reads Mein Kampfp. 106
11. Some Jew!p. 112
12. Little Lukip. 120
13. Death in Viennap. 142
14. Popper Circles the Circlep. 165
15. Blowtorchp. 175
16. Poor Little Rich Boyp. 187
17. Trajectories of Successp. 206
18. The Problem with Puzzlesp. 221
19. The Puzzle over Problemsp. 243
20. Slum Landlords and Pet Aversionsp. 253
21. Poker Plusp. 257
22. Clearing up the Muddlep. 274
23. All Shall Have Prizesp. 289
Chronologyp. 295
Appendix Times Literary
Supplement Lettersp. 306
Acknowledgmentsp. 313
Sourcesp. 317
Indexp. 328