Sep 01 2007

Wittgenstein’s Poker

Published by at 7:37 pm under Books

by David Edmonds & John Eidinow

I decided to read this book because of a bad interpretation of its title. I took ‘poker’ to refer to the card game and thought it was somehow worked into an exploration of some of Wittgenstein’s ideas! Wittgenstein was a name I recalled from graduate student days, but I had never really read anything he wrote. On that shaky basis, I picked it up.
Instead of a game, the poker was a fireplace poker that was involved in a ten minute encounter between two eminent philosophers in a meeting room at Cambridge University in 1946. A very contentious meeting in which Wittgenstein used a fireplace poker either for emphasis or as a threatening weapon depending on who is telling the story. At the time of the incident, Wittgenstein was the reigning philosopher king of Cambridge and the speaker was Carl Poppers a less well known but influential lecturer at the London School of Economics. Both were immigrant Jews exiled from Vienna due to the rise of the Nazis. They had circulated in similar intellectual circles in Vienna, but had never met. They had different backgrounds and by the time of the meeting they had very different views on the content and purpose of philosophy. Both have had a large influence on modern philosophy and academic thought.
This ‘poker’ event is then used to motivate informal partial biographies of the two, descriptions of the “Vienna Circle” and its pre-war influence, the assimilation of Jews in Austria, and the takeover of Austria by Nazi Germany (the Anschluss). All centered around the two philosophers who lived in Vienna at the same time but were nearly a generation apart in age. Wittgenstein was the scone of a very rich family. Popper was younger and of middle class origins. Both worked as school teachers when they were young; Wittgenstein by choice and Popper by necessity as well as inclination. Both were able to get out of Austria before the Anschluss.
While this book treats their philosophies only lightly, it makes clear the broad outline of their disagreements. Wittgenstein focused on language and logic. The role of language in shaping thought and limiting what can be discussed and known. Poppers was more interested in bigger questions of value to society; a contrast posed as ‘puzzles’ vs. ‘problems’. Popper also did some early influential work on the philosophy of science most importantly on the role of falsification as opposed to proof. The authors seem to give Wittgenstein more credit as an major influence on subsequent philosophical developments.
So, it turned out to be a good choice based on a false belief. (That sounds like a Wittgenstein issue.)

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