A Poker for Popper?

"God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train" - John Maynard Keynes speaking of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Edmonds and Eidinow described a lifetime squabble between Rousseau and Hume in Rousseau's Dog. In this book they deal with a ten-minute spat between two equally illustrious philosophers, Wittgenstein and Popper.

On October 25, 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. But precisely what happened in those ten minutes remains the subject of intense disagreement. Amost immediately, rumors spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red-hot pokers.

What really wnet on in that room? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, post-war culture, and the difference between global problems and logic puzzles?

Wittgenstein's Poker is an engaging mix of philosophy, history, biography, and literary detection. At the center of the story stand the two philosophers themselves: proud, irascible, larger than life—and spoiling for a fight.

The third man in this story is Bertrand Russell. Wittgenstein was Russell's brilliant pupil whom Russell looked upon as his natural philosophical heir. However, Wittgenstein came to regard Russell as his intellectual inferior and later in life told the American philosopher O.K. Bouwsma that they "passed but did not speak". Russell had given minor assistance to Popper in the furtherance of his career and did not know or respect him to the extent that he did Wittgenstein. Popper's attitude to Russell according to their contemporary Peter Munz was "verging on hero-worship".

In his review of this book Enrique Lerdau wrote: This book takes us back to a peculiar incident at Cambridge, England immediately after World War II, when the mystifying analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein met the combative and aggressive Karl Popper, both Viennese expatriots adrift in the aftermath of the century's European convulsions. Both men were accustomed to making waves among their peers, both had reputations for innovative thought which broke new ground, and both had legions of followers and disciples.

Wittgenstein, the older and more established of the two, was on his home turf (though, as always, ill at ease in the milieu he had claimed for his own) whereas Popper was something of an outsider, as he had been all his life. Popper apparently went to this philosophical tryst with the intention of overturning Wittgenstein's claim to being the gris eminence of the philosophical world and in order to replace Wittgenstein's vision with his own as the main philosophical theme around which others might rally or debate. He had, he felt, previously done just this with the so-called Vienna Circle's logical postivism which, as a philosophy, had developed under the spell of the early Wittgenstein. So Popper was looking for a reprise of his earlier success, but on a grander scale, as he matched himself up against the thinker who had been the logical positivists' idol. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, seems to have been distracted by personal issues at the time.

Overall, this is a marvelous book in the background and insights it offers concerning the two combatants, and those who surrounded them. A little light on the philosophical issues, to be sure, and taking some liberties when it purports to get us into the heads of the protagonists in the events immediately leading up to and following the encounter, it also fails to offer any real revelation as to who really did what to whom. But, as others have noted elsewhere, it is fascinating to try to reconstruct the story, based on eyewitness and near-witness accounts in light of the philosophical questions these men were mainly concerned with: what can we know and how can we know it? More, it shows us the very human sides of both men. As with all of us they were not always entirely likable.

What can we know and how can we know it?

Posted August 9, 2007


Janet Witherspoon said...

The first thing that struck me was the similarity in temperament between Rousseau and Wittgenstein. We discussed the Rousseau 'problem' in the previous thread (Rousseau Had a Dog?).

Like Rousseau Wittgenstein seems to have been a bit of an unstable personality also. Pacing up and down in Russell's room in a mood so savage that Russell feared he would break all of his furniture is just one example. Also he appears to have had a 'messianic' complex surrounding him - followers rather than students.


Avid Reader said...

The irony of this book is that philosophers continually worry over the nature of knowledge - what we can know through experience (if anything), and the nature of truth etc. Yet not one of them seems to agree about the facts of what went on in the Wittgenstein-Popper confrontation. And all of this over an exchange as to whether there are indeed philosophical ‘problems’ according to Popper or just ‘puzzles’ according to Wittgenstein!


Stan Preston said...

I did not know that the Nazis had all of those classifications for Jews nor did I know that so many of the Vienna Jews like the Wittgensteins and the Poppers had assimilated into Austrian society by marrying and integrating into the Christian religion. Under the Nazi laws if someone had three fully Jewish grandparents they were defined as Jewish. Those with two were Jewish only if they were also Jewish by religion or married to a Jew. Otherwise they were Mischlinge of the first degree. Only one Jewish grandparent and one was Mischlinge of the second degree.

The chapters on Austria in the 1930s and the trials of the Wittgensteins with the Nazis was fascinating.


Avid Reader said...

Janet, I agree about the messianic bit. I just read the part about A. J. Ayer writing to Isaiah Berlin that “Wittgenstein is a deity to them all” and Russell was merely a “forerunner of the Christ (Wittgenstein).”


Peter said...

Who said philosophy is good for nothing? George Soros, the billionaire Hungarian financier apparently made his money investing in the stock market using the principles learned at Popper’s feet!

Take care,

Vinny Hill said...

I liked this book – it gives a very nice readable overview of the philosophical positions of Wittgenstein, Popper and Russell.

I am firmly in the Popper camp as I can see no sense in Wittgenstein’s position that there are no genuine philosophical problems and what appear to be problems are simply puzzles that arise out of the misuse of language.

Popper’s refutation of this point of view was well put when he compared the interest in language to the practice of cleaning spectacles – language philosophers might think this is worthwhile in itself but serious philosophers realize that the only point of the cleaning is to enable the wearer to see the world more clearly.

Russell had dealt with the need for precision in language as a tool to tackling philosophical issues. His brief against Wittgenstein’s view that philosophy was nothing more than a minor puzzle caused by imprecise language was well summarized with the comment that philosophy was then “nothing more than at best a slight help to lexicographers”.

Wittgenstein was lost in a dead-end thought process in my view.


Neil said...


I too would be in the Popper camp especially his idea that human progress comes by trial and error. Error is always possible and a ‘truth’ is never certain. Science evolves not from a process of proving things to be so but from attempting to falsify one’s theories and beliefs. Thus one should always be open-minded to the possibility that even one’s most cherished belief, which one may hold as a ‘truth’, might some day be falsified.

I’m not sure, however, that I agree with Popper that the roots of fascism, fundamentalism, nationalism, chauvinism etc can be placed totally at the feet of Plato and Hegel. Popper argues for open societies as necessary for trial and error to operate and thus for progress to be made. Maybe Plato and Hegel suggested what ideal societies might be like but were they really advocating that such societies should be ‘closed’?


Brian McKay said...

Popper and Wittgenstein both seemed to have intimidated their ‘colleagues’. Popper especially seems to have been an intellectual bully. The incident with the doctoral student about to give an outline of his thesis on ‘primary and secondary qualities’ and being immediately interrupted by Popper before he got started ….. telling him off, implying that he had not understood the issue nor had he any new ideas …. reminded me very much of a similar incident with a VP at my place of work. One of the lower level employees had such stated what subject he was doing some research for the company when the VP immediately upbraided him for even thinking that such a research idea could merit any investigation.

It makes me wonder if both Wittgenstein and Popper might have been more successful in their own intellectual pursuits had they listened to others with a little more patience if not humility. Perhaps this is what happened in the poker incident. Neither man had any intention of listening to the other with any sense of patience and humility.


Diana Malcolm said...

Interesting to read that among a poll of professional philosophers in 1998 put Wittgenstein at fifth in the honor roll after Aristotle, Plato, Kant and Nietzsche. He comes in ahead of Hume and Descartes. Barely a mention of Popper!

I wonder how this will stand the test of time. Maybe too many of today’s philosophers were Wittgenstein’s ‘disciples’?

Di Di

Michael N. Hull said...

In an earlier thread (The Heart of Christianity) I opined:

One’s ideas can only be shared with others through the use of either a model or a metaphor – there are no other means available - and each is equally important and valid. Models use diagrams or mathematical equations to explain phenomena such as the nature of gravity or the nature of atomic fusion. Metaphors use symbols and imagery to explain such phenomena as the nature of grief, or the joy of laughter.

Models are descriptions of the way things might be, but never are. This means that one must maintain a state of agnosticism about one’s models since in the physical world - in this case the world of science, further information will eventually come along and the model will have to be dropped in favor of a new one that will be a closer approximation to the truth of the actual reality i.e. one’s model ‘might be’ that way but it usually never ‘is’. Once mankind believed that the sun orbited the earth; today we believe that the earth orbits the sun.

Metaphors are descriptions of the way things never were, but always are. In the metaphysical world we already understand many matters such as love, hatred, jealousy, greed, etc. However, one continues a never ending search for better ways to describe these realities. One’s metaphors are expressed in poetry, novels, and biblical stories that, while they may or may not be strictly factual, reveal intrinsic truths about human nature and our relationship with the Divine. Romeo and Juliet is not a factual tale but it reveals truths about love, human behavior, and death etc. Romeo and Juliet 'never were' but one learns from this narrative several truths that 'always are’. Some of our metaphorical narratives are the stories we tell about the relation between this world and the sacred. The bible should be read mostly from this perspective – the perspective of metaphorical narrative.

This thinking makes me ‘Popperian’ in my worldview. Popper’s position was at its core that there is no certainty in the physical world of the sciences and that the only thing we can do is to posit theories that have the possibility of being falsified.

Life is a process of not gathering new certainties since these do not exist but rather a process of trial and error problem solving where theories (or as I would express it – ‘models’) are perpetually replaced with better ones.

I think that this approach also applies to our use of metaphors in the metaphysical arena.

Where I get stuck with Wittgenstein is that he seems to have been hung up with the analysis of what a model or a metaphor are in lingustic terms and couldn't progress beyond that analysis. Bertrand Russell, who was Wittgenstein's philosophical 'father' also got stuck with him over this point.