From Publishers Weekly
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.
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*Starred 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 HerbstCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved