Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow13 November 2007
Vaguely buried under work here at the moment — a more complete update on InaDWriMo progress will follow once I’ve managed to clear a few things off my to-do list.
Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
For all that the title of this book begins with ‘Wittgenstein’, this book isn’t your typical philosophy book. It’s part philosophy, part biography, and part historical mystery. The focus of the book is an incident that allegedly took place at Cambridge University on 25 October 1946, when a philosophical discussion held in a set of college rooms turned into an open argument between two of the great twentieth-century philosophers — Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to some versions of the story, an agitated Wittgenstein actually picked up a fireplace poker and brandished it, openly threatening Popper with it, only to throw the poker down and storm out of the room, bringing an end to the confrontation.
One of the more intriguing things about this incident is that almost none of the eyewitnesses to the argument (there were more than two dozen people present for the discussion, I believe) seem to agree about what actually happened. Did Wittgenstein really threaten Popper with the poker? Did he merely wave it about, using it to gesticulate and getting a little too excited? Did Popper exaggerate the story afterwards to make Wittgenstein seem mentally unbalanced? And what prompted the argument, anyway? In Wittgenstein’s Poker, Edmonds and Eidinow examine this incident and try to make sense of a mass of conflicting information to determine what might’ve transpired.
Wittgenstein’s Poker delves deep into the personal and professional histories of Popper and Wittgenstein to illuminate their similarities and differences, and it shows how the clash was really operating on several levels. The argument was a debate about philosophy, but it had its roots in the social backgrounds of Popper and Wittgenstein (the former came from a struggling middle-class family, while the latter was of aristocratic lineage) as well as similar experiences (both had fled Austria to escape the Nazis). And the fundamental differences between Popper and Wittgenstein’s philosophy would certainly have given them enough to argue about…but not, perhaps, to the point where fire-irons ought to have been involved. The various stories on what happened with the poker are part and parcel of this clash, and each of the accounts has something to say about why these two men would’ve reacted so strongly to each other during what was supposed to have been a scholarly, civilised discussion.
Before I read this book, my only knowledge of Wittgenstein and Popper was a generally vague sense of their philosophical writings — I was slightly more aware of Wittgenstein than Popper, but what I could have told you about either of them would’ve filled something very small. Edmonds and Eidinow have written one of those books that truly piques the reader’s curiosity (or at least it piqued mine) on in a subject that might’ve otherwise remained an odd anecdote in the history books. Wittgenstein’s Poker is one of those books that I keep coming back to whenever I’ve a need to remind myself that even odd anecdotes can have a deeper historical meaning.