Although Mark Jenkins’ review of Wittgenstein’s Poker (City Books, “Brains’ Storm,” 3/22) was in the main unobjectionable, his conclusion, perhaps also the conclusion of the book’s authors, was false. It is Popper, not Wittgenstein, who has had the greater impact on the world; if not in academia then certainly in the greater world beyond the ivory tower. Although Wittgenstein may be more interesting as a person to nonacademic intellectuals, Popper’s ideas hold far more relevance and have had far greater impact in the world beyond the university.
Popper’s book The Open Society and Its Enemies is a powerful argument against the tyranny of abstract ideas over human beings. This type of tyranny, in the form of communism, was perhaps the characteristic bane of the 20th century. Popper’s book is a ringing endorsement of human freedom and has influenced, at least indirectly, such persons as the Austrian economic school of Hayek and Von Mises, the Libertarian movement in the United States, and the activities of financier and philanthropist George Soros.
Jenkins correctly notes that Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery is one of the most important books in the philosophy of science, but he doesn’t say why. In that book, Popper developed the idea of falsifiability, which states that a scientific theory is valid only if it contains statements that can be proved false. Obviously, as it stands this idea needs a lot of development, as Popper himself realized. Clearly science wouldn’t get very far if theories were discarded after a single anomalous observation. However, falsifiability serves as a useful rough-and-ready guide for distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. As such, it has been used by countless skeptics and has even been mentioned in the Straight Dope column run in your paper. Incidentally, falsifiability is perfectly compatible with Kuhn’s ideas of scientific revolutions.
By contrast, it is hard to see any larger consequences of Wittgenstein’s ideas about language. The linguistic atomism of the Tractatus has been entirely abandoned, by Wittgenstein himself, among others. The idea of language games developed in Philosophical Investigations is intriguing but little understood, not least because of Wittgenstein’s oracular style. It is difficult to see any impact at all of Wittgenstein’s ideas outside academia. Even within academia, the study of language is being advanced far more by the kind of scientific linguistics pioneered by Noam Chomsky, as well as cognitive scientists and other empirical investigators.
Wittgenstein’s personality—his brooding intensity, spiritual angst, homosexuality, and aforementioned oracular style—make him a far more interesting person than Popper. As such, he has attracted the interest of numerous nonacademic writers, from the sublime Iris Murdoch to the ridiculous Derek Jarman. But if the impact of a thinker is measured by the effect of his ideas on the larger world, it is Popper, not Wittgenstein, who has won the battle.