Wittgenstein's Poker

reviewed by Bruce Carlson

Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. HarperCollins Press, 2001. 340 pp. $24.00 Hardcover.

In the Shadow of the Chapel

Lots of people look forward to the Festival of Lessons and Carols broadcast live each year from the Cambridge University King's College Chapel on Christmas Day. The soaring music sung by boy sopranos, the lovely "Once in Royal David's City" processional, the beautifully read texts, and the thrilling acoustics of this vaulting, perpendicular Gothic chapel built by Henry VI combine for a spiritual and aesthetic treat.

A lesser known, but significant event occurred in the very shadow of this chapel on Friday October 25, 1946, at a meeting of Cambridge's Moral Science Club. The Chairman of this weekly discussion group was Professor Ludwig Wittgenstein, by far the biggest gun in Cambridge's celebrated Philosophy Department. The guest speaker was Karl Popper, an eminent Professor at the London School of Economics. A brief and furious discussion quickly developed about the nature and destiny of nothing less than philosophy itself when these two titans clashed. Popper stood for traditional philosophy with its classical problems and various branches such as metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. Wittgenstein was the champion of linguistic philosophy and vehemently dismissed the old non-epistemological categories.

Photo of the infamous poker

At one point in their debate, Wittgenstein grabbed a fireplace poker and brandished it in front of Popper's face. Then Bertrand Russell stood up and said firmly, "Wittgenstein, put down that poker at once." The agitated Wittgenstein soon gave up the poker and left the room, slamming the door.

In a recent book entitled Wittgenstein's Poker by Edmonds and Eidinow, this story is told and its background, context, and implications are elegantly drawn out. Popper was interested in big substantial issues whereas Wittgenstein's interests were in language and the techniques of philosophy. Wittgenstein was also extremely influential and charismatic; a 1998 poll of professional philosophers ranked him fifth among the great philosophers of history after Aristotle, Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche--before Hume and Descartes. Popper was also a giant and a philosopher of science. In his monumental book, The Open Society, he devastated Marxism and Freudianism as pseudo-science. He was active in the real world and interested in practical applications. His advice was heeded by important free world politicians such as Vaclav Havel. The legendary George Soros made a fortune in investments following Popper's principles.

Wittgenstein and Popper were poles apart, perhaps something like Arnold Schoenberg and Dmitri Shostakovich in the world of music. Their battle is a great story exceedingly well told. Don't miss this excellent piece of philosophical journalism.

Bruce Carlson (1940-2006) was the Executive Director of the Schubert Club and Pietisten Editor of Poetry and Navigation.

See all articles by Bruce Carlson