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The focus of this book is an infamous confrontation between the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, on October 25, 1946,
at a meeting of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club in Room H3 of King's College.  Popper had been invited to speak that night and he chose as
his text the question "Are There Philosophical Problems?".  Though seemingly innocuous to a non-philosopher, this subject was quite consciously intended to provoke Wittgenstein, which it did.  Wittgenstein--to the extent that I understand all this, which is a very limited extent--believed that the proper role of the philosopher was not to tackle "problems" but "puzzles".  He seems to have been an heir to the great British empiricists--Locke, Hume, Berkeley--with their belief in the fundamental uncertainty of human knowledge.  For Wittgenstein the problem lay in the confusions of language, the inability of language to adequately represent the things of which it tries to speak.  In a moment that seem to adequately convey the futility of this approach, Wittgenstein was once walking with one of the wives of John Maynard Keynes, Lydia Lopokova, who observed: "What a beautiful tree".  Wittgenstein wheeled on her and demanded: 'What do you mean?"  Ms Lopokova was reduced to tears.

The point is as easy to comprehend as the behavior and the totalitarian cast of mind on display are appalling.  Beauty is a difficult concept to define, it's subjective, yadda, yadda, yadda...  Indeed, it is quite impossible to prove in any meaningful sense that either the tree or Wittgenstein or Ms Lopokova ever existed or even that you or I exist at this moment.  This one of the oldest problems in philosophy and is, I think we can say by now, insoluble.  But, on the other hand, who can fail to understand what Ms Lopokova meant, at least in a general sense, which certainly suffices to communicate with one another.  And how could humans continue to function if we were not willing to set aside such "puzzles" and accept certain things, such as our existence, on faith?

Wittgenstein's is ultimately the kind of interesting but pointless conundrum that most of us settle to our satisfaction rather early in life and only bring out again on boozy nights when the conversation has wandered far afield and someone feels like being a pedantic nitwit.  But, sadly, it has come to dominate the academy, where post-modernism, deconstructionism and the like are premised on the notion that because we can play games with language we can never know what we're saying to one another.  In his book Postmodern Pooh, Frederick Crews parodied this tendency to devastating effect, showing how Winnie the Pooh can be made to yield to everything from Marxist analysis to Queer Theory.  Yet, oddly enough, parents continue to read Pooh books to their kids and, to the best of my knowledge, it's not caught on in gay bathhouses.  It seems we all pretty much got A.A. Milne's point, obscure as it may have been.

Sadly for professional philosophers, humanities professors, and theorists of modern art, this is quite often the case.  Despite the difficulty they imagine we must have in ever understanding one another or proving our own existence, the great majority of us seem to do just fine. When a friend's wife points put a beautiful tree we're more likely to agree than to try to browbeat her into submission.

Now, it should suffice that we do so, and it does for most of us.  But just in case anyone requires some philosophical underpinnings for our
capacity to function, Karl Popper provided some.  In opposition to the rather absurd and anti-human puzzlements of the Wittgensteinians, he offered a fairly simple and sensible set of propositions, which we might (with all due apologies to Mr. Popper and his enthusiasts) reduce to the following:

    (1) Let us doubt the ultimate truth of everything, or at least keep an open mind.

    (2) Let every theory and assertion of fact be subject to being disproved by experimentation and experience.

    (3) Let us discard those that are proven false.  But let us use those that hold true for so long as they hold true and prove useful.

While this surely does not settle the question of what "beautiful" means, any more than it proves that a tree actually exists, or that we exist for that matter, it does allow us to get on with our lives, instead of picking at language like so much navel lint.  To accept such a basic and commonsensical formulation would be the death knell of professors across the Western World, thus the confrontation.

So on that long ago night, as Karl Popper challenged the most cherished inanities of Wittgenstein and the gang of toadies who clustered about
him, Wittgenstein picked up a fireplace poker--a habit that the authors reveal he succumbed to fairly often during arguments--and began
brandishing it in Popper's general direction and/or thumping the ground with it as he chanted, in what the accounts make seem like the fashion of an autistic child: "Popper you are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG..."   In his autobiography, Popper recorded that at some point during their ensuing argument, Wittgenstein demanded that Popper provide an example of a moral rule.  Popper reports himself as replying directly to Wittgenstein: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers".  He then has Wittgenstein hurl the poker into the fireplace and storm from the room.

If true in all its particulars this would obviously have been a spectacular victory for Popper and his philosophy.  As the authors go on to show, there were many added layers of complexity in this confrontation between two Viennese philosophers of Jewish descent, including their different socioeconomic origins (Wittgenstein was very wealthy) and their unequal standings in their field of study (Wittgenstein was revered--Popper near unknown).  The exploration of these differences and of the different life paths that had brought the men to Room H3 make up the bulk of the book and it's quite interesting.  But it is framed by an almost obsessive dissection of the poker incident which seems to miss the point entirely.

It doesn't really matter whether it was Wittgenstein who asked for the moral rule or not--it appears not to have been.  It doesn't matter whether Wittgenstein stormed out because Popper was winning the argument or if he just made a habit of behaving like a boor--which seems to have been the case. It doesn't even really matter whether Popper embellished the story intentionally or accidentally--the latter appears more likely. What truly matters is that while Wittgenstein remains the more influential and respected of the two within the ivory towers of academia, it is Popper won the argument on the ground.  There may be many a doctoral candidate who owes his thesis to Wittgenstein, but folks like Margaret Thatcher and Vaclav Havel acknowledge their debt to Popper.  Wittgensteinism may win you a professorship, but Popperism--especially in its insistence on openness and the falsifiability of theories--directly contributed to the defeat of Marxism.

Bad enough that the authors fail to see this fundamental point, but they also fail to see the great irony in the poker itself.  For in a sense, this confrontation echoes another great moment of physical comedy from the annals of British philosophy and the differences between the two instants is especially revealing.  The earlier pratfall came courtesy of the great Samuel Johnson, responding to one of Wittgenstein's intellectual forebears :

    When Boswell suggested that it was impossible to refute Bishop Berkeley's assertion that matter did not exist, Johnson reacted in
    characteristic fashion: "I shall never forget," wrote Boswell, "the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force
    against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus .'"
    -Samuel Johnson and Philosophy (David Cody)

How delightful then, that in Room H3 it was Berkley's heir who wielded the prop, implicitly conceding Johnson and Popper's case.  It's all well
and good to deny reality, but in a pinch we grab for the poker.  One especially strange admission of this fact seems to come from Wittgenstein himself.  In an unexplained epigraph to Chapter 21, the authors quote him as saying: Let's cut out the transcendental twaddle when the whole thing is as plain as a sock on the jaw.  Wittgenstein the sophist would ask: What color sock?

The irony at the heart of the poker flourish makes the cover of the American edition of the book--which we'll assume the authors had nothing to do with--rather unfortunate. It shows not one but two arms brandishing pokers, almost like dueling sabers, which unfortunately obscures the truth of the matter.  Of course, the British version--in which the authors may have had some say--is perhaps overly revealing in that it shows only Wittgenstein.  This seems to too accurately reflect the authors perception of the relative importance of the two men, with Popper merely a second banana, unworthy even of the cover.

There are also several moments in the book when the authors seem to be more or less covering for Wittgenstein.  For instance, they mention only in passing Wittgenstein's admiration for and identification with Freudianism.  This topic is precisely one of those where the superiority of Popper's ideas shines through.  The rigorous application of Popperism shows Freudian theory to be, as is now generally recognized, "twaddle".  Likewise, the subject of Wittgenstein's homosexuality, including an apparent attraction (shared with the communist traitor Anthony Blunt) to "rough trade", is dispensed with as if it had no bearing on his life.  And Wittgenstein's marked suicidal tendencies are brought up and then dropped with dizzying speed.  All of these reflect somewhat poorly on Wittgenstein and seem worthy of fuller exploration than they are granted here.

That the author's reticence may have served to shortchange readers is readily apparent if we consider just one of these issues.  While the whole world now sides with Popper in doubting the efficacy of Freud's theories, it seems important that Wittgenstein bought into them.  For instance, mightn't it be fruitful to examine Wittgenstein's ready resort to a large phallic object when he tried to dominate other men?  Or are we to blindly accept Freud's admonition, with slight variation, that sometimes a poker is just a poker?

The authors then, albeit unintentionally, show us precisely why Karl Popper might have nursed something of an inferiority complex and why he might have puffed himself up a bit in his own account of the poker episode.  In the closing pages they even offer a glimpse of Popper's current plight, which we can see at work in the pages of their book:

    [P]opper is slowly being dropped from university syllabuses; his name is fading, if not yet forgotten.  This, admittedly, is a penalty of success
    rather than the price of failure.  Many of the political ideas which in 1946 seemed so radical and were so important have become received
    wisdom.  The attacks on authoritarianism, dogma, and historical inevitability, the stress on tolerance, transparency, and debate, the embracing
    of trial-and-error, the distrust of certainty and the espousal of humility--these today are beyond challenge and so beyond debate.  If a resurgence
    of communism, fascism, aggressive nationalism, or religious fundamentalism once again threatened the international order based on the open
    society, then Popper's works would have to be reopened and their argument relearned.

Wittgenstein on the other hand, while spectacularly wrong, was a tortured genius, and remains the darling of the intellectuals.  How much you enjoy this book will depend very much on which, given the chance, you'd rather have as your own legacy--vindicator of the open society or tragic genius.  Personally, it doesn't seem a tough call.  Indeed, one hopes that history will be written by a free people in an open society who will judge Popper more kindly than they will his foe and more kindly than does this interesting but essentially unfair book.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : The Poker
    -EXCERPT : Popper Circles the Circle
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Dave Edmonds talks with Steve Paulson about an incident in the life of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and explains why Wittgenstein's views have been supplanted.  (To the Best of our Knowledge, 3/17/02,  NPR)
    -The Moral Sciences Club (Cambridge)
    -ESSAY : Wittgenstein's Poker : A Moment of Destiny (Colin Amery, Philosophy Pathways)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Jim Holt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Edward T. Oakes, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Andy Martin, The Independent)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Philip Hensher, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker  (STEVEN E. ALFORD, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (John Romano, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (N.L. Malcolm, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Heller McAlpin, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Mark Edmundson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Anthony Gottlieb, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (J. Daniel Janzen, Flak)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Will Self, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Paul Trachtman, Smithsonian)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Vince Kueter, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Lev Grossman, TIME Pacific)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Sunil Khilnani, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Deane Rink, samizdat)
    -REVIEW : of Wittgenstein's Poker (Stephen Murray, Culture Dose)

     -The Karl Popper Web
     -ESSAY : Science as Falsification (Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 1963)
    -Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) (Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. , Friesian)
    -Karl Popper, F A Hayek and William Bartley (Rafe Champion)
    -Karl Popper's Falsification Principle (Quack Files)
     -ESSAY : A Skeptical Look at Karl Popper (Martin Gardner, Skeptical Inquirer)
    -ESSAY: A legacy of swans left to science: He is thought of as rightwing but is Karl Popper just misunderstood? (Roger James, April 27, 2002, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY : Pound, Popper, Beckett & Erikson: chance encounters (Robert Fulford, The National Post, January 15, 2002)
    -ESSAY :  The Democratization of Science (Brian Harvey, First Things, March 2000)
    -ARCHIVES : "karl popper" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "karl popper" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW: of Reason and Imagination: Philosophical Writings on the Works of Karl Popper and William Bartley by Rafe Champion (Jeffrey Shearmur, Policy)

    -Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) (Brian W. Carver)
    -ESSAY : "Am I Just Talking to Myself?" : Extending Wittgenstein's Analysis of Language to Religious Forms of Thought and Inward Speech.(Joel A. Dubois, Harvard Theological Review, July, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Stomach tracts (New Statesman, January 08 1999 by Ben Wilson)
    -ARCHIVES : "ludwig wittgenstein" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : wittgenstein (Mag Portal)

    -REVIEW : of Bertrand Russell : The Ghost of Madness by Ray Monk (Thomas Nagel, The New Republic)

    -Critical Thought and Religious Liberty
    -ESSAY : Questioning Everything? (Daniel P. Moloney, November 1998, First Things)
    -ESSAY : The End of Science? : Why do many now view science as a failed ideology rather than as an epistemological ideal? Should science be viewed that way? (Theodore Schick Jr., March 1997, Skeptical Inquirer)


Yes, the choices you make determine what you write.

- oj

- Oct-14-2005, 12:56


OJ, you are a pathetic fool. Please stop pretending to understand. Be honest, and simple. Do any of my lifestyle choices have any bearing on what I just wrote? Can you tell that I am/am not gay by the arrangements of letters on the page. This site is probably the best/worst example of narrowminded American exceptionalist philosophy; I hope some unsuspecting student doesn't stumble on this without realizing that they are being fed the worst kind propaganda.

- Ivan

- Oct-14-2005, 12:53


The most delightful irony is that people look to these philosophers for answers to life's biggest questions and they can't even get a few facts straight.

- oj

- Sep-14-2005, 08:54


I need your help

I have concern about Wittgenstein`s Poker By David Edmonds and John Eidinow

There was a delightful irony in the conflicting testimonies. They had arisen between people all professionally concerned with theories of epistemology (the grounds of knowledge), understanding, and truth. Yet they concerned a sequence of events where those who disagreed were eyewitnesses on crucial questions of fact. Regarding to that, I have question for you: is a delightful irony should we take more serious inter of Educational Research or of understanding of Research Education. Pleas could you tell me what you thing. Thank you and have a great night.

- Afnan

- Sep-14-2005, 01:10


pathetic, oj.

- psmith

- Oct-07-2003, 04:24


I thought that's what I said: does not his sado-masochistic homosexuality call into question whether he has anything important to say to us?

- oj

- Oct-06-2003, 12:09


no, OJ - that is not why you mentioned his alleged homosexuality. you're not fooling anyone with that tack.

if you were writing a thesis about elements of wittgenstein's life that might influence his philosophy and could come up with a justifiable reason why being gay might lead him to write the Philosophical Investigations, then yes, that would be valid, if very difficult...though you might just as well cite the fact that he was born in Austria, or had rich parents etc as influences upon his philosophy.

No: the reason you mention an alleged homosexuality is because you think he is wrong and you are homophobic - and you think that by calling him gay you will discredit him as a philosopher.

- psmith

- Oct-06-2003, 12:03


Faced as he has been with a discussion on what happened in H3 would it not have been more glorious for Popper to say something "Ah well, you're probably right" rather than maintaining such an unverifiable, albeit clarly falsifiable account of what happened in H3. Is that not the most interesting "human" revelation of the incident?

- benSpinoza

- Sep-22-2003, 16:59



That's the point exactly. Would my reviews be the same if I liked sado-masochistic sodomy? It seems unlikely. How then can this not be important to our understanding of a philosopher?

- OJ

- Sep-11-2003, 12:06


not nearly as much bearing as your prejudices have on your 'reviews'.

- psmith

- Sep-11-2003, 11:39


Do I understand you to be asserting that his proclivities reveal nothing about him?

- oj

- Sep-09-2003, 12:07


how strange you are, Orrin.

You write clearly and fluently, and often apparently intelligently.

You have an agenda of course, which is your right, but you often seem to grasp issues pretty firmly.

But then you go and spoil everything with comments as dumb-dicky yank, contrived and crass as this:

"the subject of Wittgenstein's homosexuality, including an apparent attraction (shared with the communist traitor Anthony Blunt) to "rough trade", is dispensed with as if it had no bearing on his life. "

(Beautiful introduction of the phrase "communist traitor", by the way).

Oh, and Wittgenstein isn't about 'denying reality'. He's about knowledge and language.

- psmith

- Sep-09-2003, 12:00