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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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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.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I enjoyed the book, but would have enjoyed it more had there been a bit of meat at the end of that poker.
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.
The incident that is the very reason (although it sometimes seem juts to be a pretext for describing the intellectual environment and the characters involved) illustrates very well that it's not just a clash between very strong characters but also between two intellectual world views that are strongly felt about by both and their view associates.
I did however feel that the authors are biased towards Wittgenstein. Though, they have tried to portray the man's general behavior towards his colleagues, his sympathizers and his students using examples of his dismissive attitude, one cannot run away from the distinct feeling that they are favoring the version of the story that makes Popper turn out to be the devious scheming instigator of the argument.
Also, some more details from the actual exchange would have been great and would have been a perfect finish to what is otherwise a decently written and entertaining book.
and rather opposed each other's positions...the worlds of Vienna, Austria,
England,money, personalities and thinking are all examined in a careful but engaging piece,
sometimes a bit repetitious (as if the chapters did not trust each other).
Although I know the philosophy pretty well and missed some of that
detail, I didn't know much of the context, so I enjoyed "the gossip", much of it
enlightening and all of it enriching...However the authors have a serious
problem with their unwillingness to speak of homosexuality
and its expression (or repression) in England, so that is someone else's task...
did I miss that book? And this book makes one yearn for a similarly congenial
look at the psychology of important philosophers.
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Great book.Read more