Wittgenstein's Poker

David Edmonds and John Eidinow

Read May 2003

Books like this indulge in the unavoidable human temptation to rubberneck.  The setup is as follows.  Wittgenstein and Popper, two giants of philosophy, both Viennese emigres, meet only once in their lives, when Popper lectures to Cambridge's Moral Science Club, which includes Wittgenstein and his acolytes.  To heighten the romance of it all, the old sage Russell is also present.  Popper turns the invitation's wording (to speak of some "puzzles") into his subject matter (that philosophy has "problems", not merely puzzles, as Wittgenstein asserts).  Popper outrages Wittgenstein, who stalks out of the room.  Several accounts of the incident survive, each evidently tainted by the biases of the eye-witness, mostly revolving around whether Wittgenstein brandished a poker at Popper, and whether Popper made a funny but flippant retort to him.

There are many things you can do with such material.  The most important is doubtless to understand that the incident itself is of nearly no significance at all.  Reading the accounts of it, it seems no different from numerous academic debates, just one in which a principal had a tendency toward exaggerated reaction (itself also no big surprise) ... and access to a poker (mercifully removed from most academic rooms these days).

Whatever you do, it's hard to imagine you could do it more poorly than these authors.  The book contains biographical sketches of the three principals, and of important secondary players such as Moritz Schlick. It discusses Vienna and the rise of the Nazis.  It provides a most superficial understanding of the philosophy of Popper, Russell and Wittgenstein.  (Especially Wittgenstein; I never got the sense they really understood his work, and their treatment of it reads (perhaps fittingly) like semi-mystical claptrap.)  But then it goes on a lengthy pop psychology voyage of analysis, ostensibly to show that Popper envied Wittgenstein's upper-class upbringing, and that Wittgenstein looked down on Popper for his middle-class origins.  In other words, it apparently all goes back to Vienna, dear.  (How fitting, for the home of psychoanalysis.)  It's silly, and largely unjustified if not outright irrelevant.

To the authors' credit, they do actually track down most people still alive who were in the room that day, and enumerate the incident from all angles like good journalists.  But when they try to derive some moral out of it, they find nothing to grasp, which should have told them how little the incident itself counted for.

The book's lack of citations is distressing, especially when the authors dig up intriguing comments about Jews by both Franz Josef and Karl Luger, or when they quote an incindiary para about Wittgenstein by a contemporary Austrian literary type.  Craving to drop names, they posit that Turing's strong disagreement with Wittgenstein might have helped him in his code-breaking effort!  There is one desperate little first-order logic equation in the book, which the authors almost certainly don't understand.

In the end, the book is an exercise in contradiction.  The only thing that's interesting about this particular dispute between two academics is the viewpoints they represented—not their families, their fears, their wartime escapades.  Indeed, the book's subtitle—The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers—is patently silly.  No ten-minute argument is worth a book.  What made this topic interesting is that the argument was over three decades old (or much older, if you place it in the context of all epistemology). Too bad the authors didn't really appreciate what they were writing about.

A week after reading this book, coincidentally, I attended David Egan's The Fly-Bottle, a dramatization of the same incident.  The play is a lot better than the book, though, developed around the same time, it seems to draw too much from the latter (including the pop psychology).  The play's program at Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, MA, was a bit pathetic; the director gives the impression of not quite understanding the backstory, and at one point even presents Wittgenstein's contribution to Turing (gee, where did we see that before?) as one of his greater contributions.  Perhaps the playwright said, "Well, yeah, this is pretty heavy stuff, but there's this nice little book you could read ...".