Wittgenstein’s Poker is a ‘serious’ treatment of ‘a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers’ . This is how the book describes itself on its cover, by English authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow.
After the first chapter, I already saw it as having features of a detective story. The meeting, which is presented as a critical incident, is described with evidence from interviews with the surviving witnesses.
Readers are taken through the unfolding investigations into the background of the two main characters, two of the era’s most illustrious Austrians, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, at a time shortly after the defeat and death of their even more famous countryman Adolf Hitler.
Their monumental confrontation took place in a crumbling committee room in King’s College, Cambridge, in October 1946. Popper, a visiting speaker possibly encouraged by celebrity philosopher Bertrand Russell, had arrived with his intention of demolishing the theories of the home favourite Wittgenstein. The verbal battle deteriorated into a possible assault as Wittgenstein seized a fireside poker and wielded it threateningly at Popper before stalking out of the room. Curiously, the location of the weapon, the famous poker, remains a mystery to this day.
The book, to me, is a fascinating read, partly justifying the claims on the cover, and meriting its niche success. The structure is unusual. As a thriller, it is unusual, with the famous ten minute poker-waving incident revealed at the start.
The remainder of the book delves more deeply into the history and upbringing of the two protagonists, and building up a psychological rather than a philosophical explanation of what might have contributed to the Tweedledum and Tweedledee fracas.
Wittgenstein and Popper were both brought up in Vienna, the former into the family of the wealthy business magnate, ‘second only to the Vienna branch’ of the Rothchilds. Popper, in contrast was born into middle class comfort of a family excluded from the highest social circle of Viennese Jews admitted into the opulent Wittgenstein Palais.
Their first encounter was a meeting at Cambridge at a serious debating society already dominated by the brilliant and charismatic Wittgenstein, and attended by the best known philosopher of his generation Bertrand Russell.
We learn in the book that Popper arrived as guest speaker to discredit Wittgenstein’s contribution to philosophy, in the presence of Wittgenstein’s mentor Russell. The
The authors, brilliant journalists by profession, had shown the skills of engaging the reader without dangerous misinterpretations of their subject. So, they offer the reader only glimpses of the core aspects of Wittgenstein’s own distaste for Russell’s work which took the unreadable book (Russell’s own comment) Principia Mathematica three volumes and nearly 2000 pages to reach completion.
In contrast, Popper had reached prominence for his popular and influential work The Open Society and its Enemies, admired by, among others Bertrand Russell.
Popper’s line of attack was intended to reduce Wittgenstein’s attention to language as only dealing with puzzles not core philosophical problems. Wittgenstein’s work is also a rejection of accepted philosophy including Russell’s but through series of statements which were themselves neatly described by the authors as ‘opaque to the lay reader, and not much more transparent to the specialist (p55).
Anyone finding this story fascinating, may be ready to try the magisterial biography of Wittgenstein by the philosopher Ray Monk. Edmonds and Eidenow certainly did, as their account of that fateful battle follows Monk rather closely.