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