On October 25, 1946, in Cambridge, England, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face-to-face for the first and only time. The encounter lasted just ten minutes, and did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. Almost immediately, rumors spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red-hot pokers. Twenty years later, when Popper wrote an account of the incident, he portrayed himself as the victor, provoking intense disagreement. Everyone present seems to have remembered events differently. What really happened in those ten minutes? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, and the significance of language in solving our philosophical problems? Wittgenstein's poker is an engaging mix of philosophy, history, biography, and literary detection.
Wittgenstein and many of the philosophy faculty, graduate students and other scholars would gather weekly in a classroom on the campus of King's College in England for great philosophical discussions and stimulating debates.
On this particular occasion, at one of their meetings on a day in late October of 1946, Karl Popper was in the area giving a lecture and was invited to attend the meeting of the moral philosophy club. Wittgenstein's brief argument with Popper, which took place at that small classroom at King's College in the presence of Bertrand Russell and a handful of graduate philosophy students has become the stuff of legend.
Wittgenstein and Popper reportedly debated back and forth about their differing perspectives on the deep philosophical and linguistic argument at hand- including by some accounts Wittgenstein accentuating his point with a poker from the fireplace. Following this brief exchange, Wittgenstein reportedly made his point, threw down the poker and left the room. Reports differ as to who won the argument, but it has become part of both of their enduring philosophical legacies.
This thoughtful book sets the scene for this interesting exchange. The authors also provide a fascinating background into the early life and upbringing of both Wittgenstein and Popper- Wittgenstein as the son of a wealthy European oil tycoon who endured much tragedy in his younger life and eschewed wealth and privilege in his adult life; Popper coming from a more austere working class background.
A concise window into Wittgenstein's (and to some degree Popper and Russell's) works is also provided. Wittgenstein had published his brilliant yet somewhat obtuse "Tractatus Logico Philosophicus" some years earlier. Popper had written "The Open Society and Its Enemies," which was a scathing critique of authoritarianism and further developed the "open society" concept put forth by Bergson.
This book is a fascinating read, and provides enough concise background that one does not have to be a philosophy scholar to enjoy and benefit greatly from reading it. I highly recommend it!
My largest criticism is the bias toward Wittgenstein over Popper. I do understand the fascination by the more eccentric and quite possibly more brilliant Wittgenstein, but the authors do very little to shade their favor with ambiguity.
If people do not know who Popper or Wittgenstein are, they should pick up this book. I found the reading enjoyable and it perked my interest in Tractatus logico-philosophicus. We'll see if I actually read it.
Edmonds and Eidinow spend more time than needed trying to imagine exactly what happened in the meeting in question. More interesting is the history of some of the important ideas of the first half of the 20th century covered in this book.
Neither man is painted very sympathetic as a person, but both come across as the important thinkers that they were.
The value of this book is in how it presents the ideas of Wittgenstein and of Popper not in isolation but in relation to each other, and to philosophical thought of their time.
As far as literary relatives go, pre-anschluss Vienna is described extensively and exquisitely in Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, itself a series of essays and recollections on important figures of the last century. Errol Morris, in his essays for the NY Times, also will circle topics in the same sort of fashion—albeit with more gumshoe detective work and exploration into the ideological issues underlying the ambiguity. Both authors, James and Morris, are highly recommended above this book. But don't let that scare you off; it's a super-fast, surprisingly short read.
EDIT: Upped it to four stars retrospectively because I was leafing through the book and enjoying the hilarious Wittgenstein epigraphs. Really, the reason I (and most others) are so entranced with him is because he is hilarious to read about despite being an asshole in real life. He just said the funniest shit!
Ostensibly about a 10 minute argument between philosophers Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge in 1946, but much wider in scope than that. The book delves extensively into the background of each. Both being Viennese Jews we get many pages on the treatment of Jews before and after the Anschluss. Their place of origin being pretty much all they had in common apart from their formidable force of personality bordering on a kind of bullying when it came to arguing their philosophies. Wittgenstein adamant that philosophy was nothing but puzzles emerging from the misuse or limitations of language. Popper firmly ensconsed in the old traditions of philosophy trying to make sense of real problems such as the nature of science, meaning of infinity, probability etc.
The book does a good job in setting the scene for the argument by detailing the differences between the two. Along the way we get a between the wars European history lesson, a skim through the main areas of western philosophy at the time, a flavour of life at Cambridge University and a glimpse into the minds of a couple of geniuses.