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Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers Hardcover – October 23, 2001

4.1 out of 5 stars 121 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

*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 Herbst
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; 1st edition (October 23, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0066212448
  • ISBN-13: 978-0066212449
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1.2 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (121 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #527,603 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This was a fun read and I devoured it in about three days. It provided fascinating biographical and historical details and it was decent overview of the philosophical issues of the time. Yet I came away feeling a little short-changed. The book didn't offer a very clear view of Wittgenstein's philosophy, how he used it and how he applied it. The same perhaps could be said of the book's characterization of Popper but I knew much more about Popper coming in. Finally, the book never really provides a blow-by-blow account of the argument -- Popper said this, Wittgenstein responded with that, Popper replied thusly, and so on. It seems like that at least a speculative paraphrasing of the argument would have been possible given the research the authors did. I was disappointed they didn't even try. All I came away with was a general idea of what the argument was about -- philosophical problems versus puzzles -- and the atmosphere of the scene at Cambridge. I wanted more.
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Format: Hardcover
Wittgenstein's Poker by Dave Edmonds & John Eidinow, a distant cousin to The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, is a good book, but not a great book. The book is a parallel biography of two of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. The book starts with the one meeting between the two philosophers, which ended with Wittgenstein wielding a fire poker at Popper. I was originally going to give the book a full 5 stars, but I feel the ending let me down. I was expecting the authors to tie all the disparate threads followed in the book together better than they did, but was disappointed when the book just whimpered to an end, especially after such a clever beginning. I would still recommend the book to folks interested in philosophy, Wittgenstein, Popper, and the history of the first half of the 20th Century. If I could, I'd give the book a 4.4 stars. ...
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By A Customer on February 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I'm quite familiar with both Wittgentein's and Popper's work and I found the discussion of their Austria-Jewish roots quite interesting. Nevertheless, I felt the authors were creating a false controversy between the two philophers. The more interesting personal issue was Popper's obsession with Wittgenstein who was essentially oblivious to Popper's existence. The authors admitted as much, but still set the book up as a kind of "high noon" shoot out. Wittgenstein had much bigger fish to fry than Popper, notwithstanding how the authors tried to equate the importance of the two philosophers. The authors erroneously talked about how Popper dealt with the big problems while Wittgenstein dealt with puzzles. Indeed, Wittgenstein dealt elegantly with some of the more profound issues in epistemology such as skepticism, the limits of language/thought etc. Wittgenstein is sui generis, one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century. His work has hardly any progenitors (save perhaps Frege) while Popper, although making some interesting contributions to the sociology of science, built his work directly from/reacting to his predecessors. (not a bad thing, but not in the same league as Wittgenstein). I would also have liked to have seen, as mentioned in other reviews more explication of the philosophy of Popper and Wittgenstein, similar to what Monk has done in his excellent biographies of Russell and Wittgenstein. Further, the discussion on how Popper's idea of a free society has actually come into existence is simple minded, triumphalist clap trap that takes away from the good things in this book.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper were two leading philosophers from Vienna who settled in England after WWII. Both were fringe members of the Vienna Circle, but they only met once, in Cambridge. Wittgenstein held the chair in philosophy. Popper, a professor at London, had been invited to speak. An argument quickly broke out that later had philosophers around the world wondering whether Wittgenstein had threatened Popper with a fireplace poker. This book takes the event as a springboard for an investigation into the backgrounds of these two men and the philosphical, Viennese and Jewish cultures that they grew up in. The authors give a compelling description of a time when philosophical disagreements were worth fighting over. What really happened in that room in that room in Cambridge? Why was Wittgenstein so angry? And did Popper lie about the events in his autobiography? If so, what does this say about the role of truth in his philosopy? I should confess that i've been an avid student of Wittgenstein's writings, as well a student of Popper's work. Nonetheless, i think this book would be accessable and enjoyable by anyone interested in learning more about these great philosophers.
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Format: Hardcover
Karl Popper, the distinguished philosopher of science, and Ludwig Wittgenstein met only once, for perhaps ten minutes, in a tense confrontation over their diametrically-opposed views of what philosophy was for. Always excitable, Wittgenstein brandished a poker, then put it down. Soon he left the room. Did he threaten Popper with the poker? Did he storm out of the room in response to a clever quip of Popper's? Eyewitness accounts vary.
"There was a delightful irony in the conflicting testimonies. They had arisen between people all professionally concerned with theories of epistemology..., understanding, and truth. Yet they concerned a sequence of events where those who disagreed were eyewitnesses on crucial questions of fact."(p4)
The authors use this rather well-known (to academic philosophers) but murky incident as a focus for a book that takes us back to the Vienna of the Hapsburgs, where the extremely wealthy Wittgensteins moved in the highest echelons of culture and social life, and the more modest Poppers also enjoyed the wide and deep intellectual life of this city of coffeehouses and tolerance. Later (but before the storm) there was the Vienna Circle, which courted Wittgenstein and excluded Popper. (Or did he exclude himself?)
This is a book about two great men who were both Viennese, intense, egotistical, brilliant, and contentious to a degree rarely seen. To each, every discussion bearing on philosophy became a contest that each had to win, and almost invariably did. Ironically, they never met until that night in 1946, in Cambridge, England, of all places. So it is also a book about philosophy in the 20th century that brings in G.E.
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