Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

HarperCollins 2001  340 pp. 24.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 


In England, on 25 October 1946, the Cambridge Moral Science Club met to discuss philosophy.  Almost immediately, two of the world’s preeminent philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, flew into a rage at one another.  Wittgenstein brandished a fireplace poker at Popper, threw it to the floor, and stormed out of the room. 

To which the rest of the civilized world might justly respond, “so what?”  However, from this heated, though seemingly obscure event, David Edmonds and John Eidinow have constructed an engaging, interconnected series of accounts—of prewar Vienna, the difficulties of Jewish assimilation, the peculiarities of international academic politics, and, of course, the conflicts of twentieth century philosophy—that will entertain and instruct anyone with even a casual interest in the history of ideas.

Known to the intellectual world through their writings, Wittgenstein authored Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which secured his early fame, while Popper’s two most important works, The Logic of Scientific Discovery and The Open Society and Its Enemies, both had problems finding a publisher.

In comparing the clear, rational Popper and obscure, oracular Wittgenstein, the authors have discovered a fascinating series of connections and contrasts.  “A poll of professional philosophers in 1998 put [Wittgenstein] 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.”  Popper, on the hand, has been eclipsed by such writers as Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn, and, despite his contributions to the philosophy of science and democratic thought, is today largely forgotten.

Both men “shared one ineradicable characteristic: they belonged to assimilated Jewish families in the most assimilated city in Europe.”  Popper’s middle class family was sinking deeper into poverty induced by the aftermath of the First World War, while following the death of Wittgenstein’s father in 1913, “Ludwig was said to have then become the richest man in Austria and one of the richest in Europe.”  Popper sought recognition and fortune, while Wittgenstein gave his personal wealth away to his sisters, and, at the height of his renown, left England to teach children in an obscure Austrian village, telling his friend John Maynard Keynes “that he had given up on philosophy to teach in a village school in Austria in the 1920s because the pain that teaching gave him overcame the pain of doing philosophy.”

While Wittgenstein’s genius was recognized and fostered by Bertrand Russell, “It was only at the age of thirty-five … that [Popper] took up his first full-time lecturership—in New Zealand, hardly the beating heart of philosophy.”   Popper spent his life climbing the academic ladder, while Wittgenstein spent his life seeking solitude.

The rancor these men felt toward one another was not, however, principally founded in class, in background, in ethnicity, or in professional aspirations, but in the conflict between their clearly opposed ideas.  Their quarrel is “the story of the schism in twentieth-century philosophy over the significance of language: a division between those who diagnosed traditional philosophical problems as purely linguistic entanglements and those who believed that these problems transcended language.”

Wittgenstein saw philosophy as a type of rational therapy; its goal was to examine what seemed to be genuine dilemmas--those of identity, knowledge, and truth—and see them for what they really were, just puzzles induced not by our existence, but by the properties of our language.  Popper, on the other hand, saw philosophy as a tool to help explore these genuine quandaries, and was enraged at what he saw as Wittgenstein’s aim: the destruction of a vital mode of understanding the world and our place in it that has endured for over twenty five hundred years. 

“Physically small and exhaustingly intense, neither man was capable of compromise.  Both were bullying, aggressive, intolerant, and self-absorbed.”  Yet, regardless of the palatability of their public personae, these men were engaged in a genuine and important struggle, that of how we are to approach the construction of meaning in our lives.  This delightful account of these two men and their intellectual and personal differences will gratify anyone with an interest in European history and ideas.