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Wittgenstein’s Poker:

The Story of a Ten-Minute

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper apparently met only once, although they were born only three years apart in the same city (Vienna), descended from members of the same caste (affluent assimilated-Jewish converts to Christianity), chose the same profession (philosophy), and lived most of their lives in the same country (Britain). The accounts of the two thinkers’ fierce single encounter are conflicting and can still excite the passions of the men’s respective disciples. To veteran BBC journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow, who were inspired by the clash to write a small book, the events of that meeting are an intellectual mystery story. And, as in many intellectual mystery stories, the point is not necessarily whodunit—or, in this case, whothunkit.

Before gambling buffs get excited, let’s note that Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers has nothing to do with card games. Wittgenstein and Popper’s confrontation involved an actual poker, the sort used to shift logs in a fireplace. At a meeting of the Cambridge Moral Science Club in 1946, Popper spoke on the topic “Are There Philosophical Problems?” while Wittgenstein toyed with a poker. According to the latter’s supporters, the philosopher was visibly peeved but left the meeting quietly. Popper partisans, however, recall that Wittgenstein threatened the speaker with the implement, which one observer even claims was red-hot. Popper’s own account of the incident is decidedly to his benefit: Wittgenstein challenged him to provide an example of a moral rule. “I replied: ‘Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.’ Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.”

This brief, contested exchange may not seem like the makings of a book, even a modest one like Wittgenstein’s Poker. And Edmonds and Eidinow do overupholster the tale a bit, mustering a number of details that are less than crucial, from the fact that the meeting room (poetically named H3) was drab and lacked central heat to a summary of the programs airing on the BBC at the time the two philosophers skirmished. They even located a witness who claims to have been distracted from the showdown by the presence of a woman who “was famed for not wearing knickers.”

Having recounted the various versions of the event, the authors turn to Vienna, where they find some odd confluences: Wittgenstein and Adolf Hitler were schoolmates, and in the bleak post-World War I era, Hitler was assisted by a Jewish charity for the homeless that was supported by Popper’s father. This part of the book is largely biographical, and it includes some fascinating tales, notably the saga of how two of Wittgenstein’s sisters—who remained in Vienna after the Nazis extended the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws to Austria—were reclassified as “Aryan” (or Aryan enough not to be deported to a concentration camp). The life-saving paperwork required elaborate negotiations and a significant chunk of the family fortune: 1.7 tons of gold, or the equivalent of 2 percent of the Austrian national gold reserve that had been transferred to Berlin after Austria was annexed.

It’s in Vienna that Edmonds and Eidinow believe they have unearthed the roots of Popper’s enmity for Wittgenstein. Although the former grew up in a moneyed family, his was considerably less wealthy than Wittgenstein’s, and Popper’s father lost his fortune in the 1919 economic meltdown. When Wittgenstein dismissed Popper’s talk at the Cambridge Moral Science Club as the product of an “ass [who] talked more mushy rubbish than I’ve heard for a long time,” they surmise that this was the contempt of an aristocrat for a bourgeois.

Yet there’s no evidence that Wittgenstein knew anything about Popper’s background. The younger man had been jousting with his famous elder since the ’20s, when he tried in vain to win the acceptance of a group of intellectuals known as the Vienna Circle, but the battle was entirely one-sided. At the time, Wittgenstein was considered one of the fountainheads of the movement known as “logical positivism,” which held that to be meaningful a statement must be scientifically provable. Having failed to damage Wittgenstein’s reputation in Vienna, Popper picked up his crusade again when he arrived in Britain after World War II (which he spent in New Zealand). But by the time Popper finally found himself in the same room with Wittgenstein, the latter had long since disowned logical positivism in favor of a relativistic view that turned on the ambiguities of language. Popper was battling the ghost—still a fairly influential ghost, it’s true—of Wittgenstein’s former position. (The views of the philosopher the book calls Wittgenstein II were not published until after his death, in the gnomic Philosophical Investigations, a book subject to endless interpretation.)

In this account, Popper emerges as a petty, dislikable man. Soon after World War I, he accused Wittgenstein of frequenting coffeehouses rather than trenches, yet it was Wittgenstein who served in the war, not Popper. In the next world war, Wittgenstein volunteered as a dispensary aide and declined to be paid for the weekend classes he taught at Cambridge, while Popper apparently never let his high principles interrupt his career ambitions. Popper was relentlessly self-aggrandizing and, according even to one of his own followers, an intellectual bully. The authors repeat the jibe that Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, a two-volume scholarly broadside against Plato, Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marx, “should have been renamed The Open Society by One of Its Enemies.”

This is not to say that Wittgenstein was more the easygoing of the two. He was brilliant and charismatic, and attracted many disciples, but was also fearsome. He was openly contemptuous of students and colleagues, although in retrospect some of his outbursts seem more amusing than intimidating. In 1925, Wittgenstein paid a visit to his patron and sometime friend John Maynard Keynes while the latter was honeymooning with Lydia Lopokova: “Lydia remarked to Wittgenstein, no doubt brightly, ‘What a beautiful tree.’ Wittgenstein glared at her: ‘What do you mean?’ Lydia burst into tears.”

Although Edmonds and Eidinow don’t make the case in quite these terms, it seems that Popper’s animosity toward Wittgenstein was that of the plodder for the poet. In Britain, which was already inclined toward common sense and against passion, one contemporary says Popper was “too normal to be interesting.” In contrast, Wittgenstein was a beguiling eccentric, a master of the abstract who was nonetheless a war hero, a village schoolmaster, and an exacting interior designer; a born aristocrat who relinquished his share of the family fortune to his siblings; and an academic star at Cambridge who periodically withdrew to remote cottages in Norway, Iceland, or Ireland for solitary contemplation. He was also gay—which may have had more impact on his character than the authors are prepared to admit. They don’t mention the fact until late in the book, where they quickly dismiss it.

Because it’s the solution to their carefully constructed mystery, Edmonds and Eidinow’s conclusion in the matter of the poker incident should not be revealed. The winner of the larger conflict, however, is no secret. The authors concede that Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery may be the 20th century’s most important

philosophy-of-science book, yet convincingly argue that its author’s name is “fading,” whereas Wittgenstein’s reputation is “unsurpassed.” The latter’s work and life remain the source of both philosophical inquiry and art, including Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Wittgenstein and several (perhaps all) of Iris Murdoch’s novels. Whoever did what with a poker, Popper failed to defeat Wittgenstein—or Plato, Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marx—with a more formidable weapon: words. CP