Wittgenstein's poker : the story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers

by David Edmonds

Other authorsJohn Eidinow
Paper Book, 2001



Call number




London : Faber, 2001


On 25 October 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The encounter lasted only ten minutes, and did not go well. Almost immediately, rumours started to spread around the world that the two philosophers had come to blows, armed with red-hot pokers. But what really happened? Wittgenstein's Poker engagingly winds together philosophy, history and biography into a compelling piece of detective work. It ranges from the place of assimilated Jews in fin-de-siècle Vienna, to what happens to memory under stress, to a vivid portrait of Cambridge and its eccentric set of philosophy dons, including Bertrand Russell (who acted as umpire during the altercation). At the centre of the story stand the philosophers themselves, proud, irascible, larger than life, and spoiling for a fight. 'Those ten minutes shook the world of Western philosophy literally to its foundations . . . Edmonds and Eidinow have a very good story to tell, and they tell it wonderfully well.' Irish Times 'A meaty, exceedingly well-researched and engaging book. In its dramatic readability Wittgenstein's Poker brings to mind Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman; in the depth and breadth of its scholarship it evokes Carl Schorske's Fin-de-si è cle Vienna . . . a marvel of passionate journalism.' San Francisco Chronicle… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member peacemover
Edmonds and Eidinow provide a fascinating window into a very brief, yet meaningful exchange between several of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, and Bertrand Russell.

Wittgenstein and many of the philosophy faculty, graduate students and other
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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!
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LibraryThing member gregorybrown
While it purports to be about an emphatic argument between Wittgenstein and Popper, the book actually uses that incident as a way into exploring the cultural background of both authors, especially the way they were both shaped by Vienna and the rise o the Nazis. There is some philosophy there, but
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it's treated very lightly and simply. I probably would have gotten more out of the book if it wasn't retreading so much of what I already sorta knew, but it remains a breezy & easy-to-read exploration of the issue. The one unfortunate part was near the end where having covered all the ground and context, the author tries to lamely circle back to the original encounter and reenact it novelistically; it feels both poorly-written and hollow, since most of the vigor at that point has gone to the comparatively more interesting backgrounds of our two antagonists.

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!
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LibraryThing member joeteo1
The book centers around a brief encounter between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein during a seminar by Popper at Cambridge. Before starting the book I wondered how such a fleeting event could merit 200 pages of text but the poker incident is more of a metaphor for the opposing philosophical
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views of the two men. Popper and Wittgenstein were both giants of 20th century philosophy and this book presents an excellent summary of their work and continued influence on science and philosophy. Overall I found it a very enjoyable read.
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LibraryThing member joshuaferris
I enjoyed Wittgenstein’s Poker very much. I prefer the history of philosophy far more than actual philosophical problems/puzzles. This was a great book to introduce me to the persons of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper.

My largest criticism is the bias toward Wittgenstein over Popper. I do
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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.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
In 1946 Karl Popper presented a brief paper on the problems of philosophy to a seminar of the Moral Science Club at Cambridge, a direct challenge to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who held there are no problems, but only interesting puzzles about confusing language. Wittgenstein apparently gestured about
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with a poker from the fireplace, and may have threatened Popper. Popper, it is contended, may have later lied about the events of the meeting. The authors describe the meeting and the development of the two philosophers from their roots in Vienna at the turn of the century. Wittgenstein was born an aristocrat, but fought in the war, gave up philosophy for a long time after his "Tractatus LogicoPhilosophus" to be a country school teacher, and turned to an ascetic life at Cambridge, often disappearing into the woods. Popper was born respectable but not rich and the inflation after WWI wiped out his family financially, and he was desparate for a post and recognition. The authors deftly describe the background and truth of the argument, and the book was very entertaining, a sort of middle of the road intellectual history.
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LibraryThing member JayLivernois
Sets the record clear on the two different schools of modern philosophy.
LibraryThing member Lord_Boris
3.5 Stars.
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member elenchus
As good an event as any upon which to affix the term Linguistic Turn, and one which I don't recall coming across in my graduate studies. I suspect that's a good deal to do with my unorthodox curriculum, centered in American Political Science rather than Philosophy or English Language & Literature.
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Part of why the encounter is worthwhile knowing lies in the cultural conflict around the relevance of language as the root or merely contributing factor in philosophical questions, and how this surfaces in the event. Wittgenstein seems to assert language is at the root of philosophy, while Popper claims rather language is but a mediating variable. Another reason: the encounter, as discussed here, provides ample grounds for better understanding Wittgenstein's shift (Wittgenstein I and Wittgenstein II), as well as for understanding Popper as more than a "simple" adherent of the Viennese Circle (which he in fact wasn't).

Key elements of the encounter are ambiguous due to conflicting recollection from those attending. Was LW angry when he left? Did KP voice the jest about not threatening visiting lecturers with a poker before or after LW left the room? Was the poker brandished threateningly or used as a prop, and was it hot from the fire or cool?
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LibraryThing member Michael_Lilly
A disappointing book for me. It's mostly about the rigid personalities of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. I expected a more in depth discussion of their ideas, not just their personal spat with each other. The ideas of these two important philosophers were given only superficial treatment.
LibraryThing member kencf0618
An astute unpacking of an obscure hissy-fit which perforce unfolds mid 20th-century philosophy in all its splendor.
LibraryThing member burningtodd
This book claims to be the story of an argument between two of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. In fact it is more of a primer to different schools of philosophical thought with “the” argument has a leaping off point. Lots of good information, this book makes me want to read more
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LibraryThing member mykl-s
My first reading of this book left little impression, so much that revisiting it five years later I can hardly recall my earlier thoughts about it. The second reading has been more fruitful.

Edmonds and Eidinow spend more time than needed trying to imagine exactly what happened in the meeting in
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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.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
A history of the in(famous) poker incident between Wittgenstein and Popper, in which the meeting in question is scrutinized intensely to see if some sort of undisputed version can be arrived at. The authors use the meeting as a focal point through which to offer up biographies of the two combatants
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and their schools of philosophical thought, and it does the trick nicely. Readable and very interesting.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
This was holiday gift from a girl back in 2001. I read it in an evening and then let the girl read it. We soon broke up and I haven't seen it since. Oh, the story is interesting despite the paucity of actual events or substance within the celerbated conversation.
LibraryThing member breathslow
This is an entertaining account of the differences between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein, centering around a brief incident during a seminar at Cambridge in 1946, but extending beyond that into the social, political and philosophical contexts around these two men. It's a slender topic padded
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out with extraneous information (most absurdly, what everyone could have been doing for fun instead of philosophy on the night in question) and considerable repetition. And it lacks a thorough account of their philosophical differences in favour of a kind of reality TV detectives' investigation into who said what to whom, where they were on the night of 25 October at 8:42pm, and who was lying. I'm surprised the authors didn't provide a map of the room with which suspects were in which seats. If nothing else, it's clear by the end that Professor Plum did it with a hot poker in room H on staircase 3.
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Original publication date


Physical description

267 p.; 20 cm


057120547X / 9780571205479
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