- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Ecco; Reprint edition (September 17, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780060936648
- ISBN-13: 978-0060936648
- ASIN: 0060936649
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 7.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 119 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #322,237 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers Paperback – September 17, 2002
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About the Author
David Edmonds is an award-winning journalists with the BBC. He's the bestselling authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker.
John Eidinow is an award-winning journalist with the BBC. He's the bestselling authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker.
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As Popper spoke (with Wittgenstein interrupting him) Wittgenstein grew increasingly frustrated and picked up a red hot poker and began gesturing with it. Some thought he was simply expending nervous energy and using the poker as others would use a pencil or some other inanimate object. Russell, who was there, is reported to have thought that Wittgenstein was using the poker to threaten Popper. When Popper made a statement that some took to simply be a joke or a quip Wittgenstein put down the poker, left the room and slammed the door. The problem is that different accounts exist of what precisely happened. The purpose of the book is to attempt to determine what happened, but since there are remaining disagreements the discussion has to be widened and contextualized, so that we might better infer/guess what happened.
This means examining the plight of Viennese jews under Hitler, the importance of class/rank in the Vienna of Wittgenstein’s day, the personal lives of the ‘combatants’, their scholarly work, the ‘schools of thought’ with which they have been associated and their personal philosophical positions. We also get down to specifics: did Wittgenstein characteristically allow doors to slam? Did he characteristically leave in the middle of meetings? Was Popper using the occasion to kiss up to Russell?
For those interested in the history of ideas and the history of philosophy this is pure catnip. Essentially we have two iconic figures, one with a colorful personality, the other with an epic personality, coming together for an occasion (their only meeting) which exudes all of the attractions and repulsions which characterize academic interchanges and which create sublime academic gossip. While ‘riveting’ may be a bit too strong a word, the book seizes your attention and simply will not let go. I read a great deal of crime and suspense fiction and this book is the equal of the great majority of them. It is also exceptionally lucid (in philosophic areas which can be recondite and recalcitrant to explanation). There are a number of useful illustrations, a helpful chronology, brief bibliography and reprints of letters by several of the meeting’s attendees to the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT. The book elucidates the important period in which the contretemps occurred and provides a great deal of very interesting information. I knew, e.g., that Wittgenstein enjoyed mystery and detective fiction, but I learned from the authors that he particularly liked Norbert Davis’ stories of ‘Max Latin’ (which I have promptly ordered and look forward to reading and reviewing).
Bottom line: a truly great read.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was born to a wealthy family, one of the richest in Vienna. Karl Popper was not. But what this brief confrontation in 1946 came down to was philosophical world-view, and it was this: Wittgenstein’s obsession was language, and he believed that if we could understand how language worked, most philosophical problems would disappear. He believed that philosophical problems arise when we misunderstand “the logic of our language.”
This view was anathema to Karl Popper, who believed that there existed real philosophical issues, with real world consequences, and that focusing only on the language was akin to “the practice of cleaning spectacles. Language philosophers might think this is worthwhile in itself. Serious philosophers realize that the only point of the cleaning is to enable the wearer to see the world more clearly.”  Popper was a guest of the Moral Science Club that evening to present a paper titled “Are There Philosophical Problems”, and it was aimed directly at Wittgenstein and his views. At some point in the presentation, according to eyewitness accounts, Wittgenstein interrupted Popper, rose and shook a hot poker from the fireplace at him. That’s one account of many.
WITTGENSTEIN’S POKER is actually many things. It’s a biography of the combatants, Wittgenstein and Popper. It’s a overview of the prevailing philosophical views from the First World War to 1946. And, more to the point of the book’s raison d’être, Edmonds and Eidinow have performed something of an historical “dig,” an unearthing of the details of that evening which became the stuff of legend in academic circles, trying to piece together what really occurred between those two giants of philosophy. It may have been a mere 10-minute outburst, but the ripples from that evening are still felt today.
Although I haven't read any of Popper's works, I've read one of Wittgenstein's and, frankly, didn't come away thinking he was all that and a bag of chips. My opinion notwithstanding, Wittgenstein is ranked in the top 20 of world's most important philosophers, even though he only published two books. Popper was much more prolific and, from what I've read in "Wittgenstein's Poker," would be the philosopher that people would generally enjoy reading more, particularly "The Open Society and Its Enemies."