The Magazine

Fighting for Philosophy

When Ludwig met Karl.

Apr 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 30 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Wittgenstein's Poker
The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers
by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Ecco, 352 pp., $24

LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN and Karl Popper met only once--just after World War II, when Popper addressed the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club. Popper challenged Wittgenstein head on: Philosophy, he said, addresses genuine problems and not, as Wittgenstein would have it, "puzzles" that disappear when proper mental hygiene clears up our conceptual muddles.

In response Wittgenstein became agitated, fiddling with the fireplace poker as he argued, and eventually stormed out. Versions of this story include claims that he did so in exasperation at Popper's obtuseness, or after Bertrand Russell snapped at him ("Wittgenstein, put down that poker at once!"), or after Popper skewered him with a witty retort. Popper's autobiography declares a winner. When Wittgenstein, shaking the poker for emphasis, challenged him for an example of a genuine moral principle, Popper rose to the occasion: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers." Twenty years after Popper's autobiography, and half a century after the quarrel, a friend of Wittgenstein (and a witness) still cared enough to call Popper, in print, a liar.

In "Wittgenstein's Poker," David Edmonds and John Eidinow use the incident as a hook from which to suspend accounts of the protagonists' intimidating personalities, of the brilliant fin de siecle Viennese society into which (in very different social spheres) they were born, and of their radically opposed philosophical views.

Wittgenstein--routinely called magnetic, intense, passionate, pure, incandescent--was born into fabulous wealth. Sent to Manchester as an engineering student, he sought out and dazzled Bertrand Russell in Cambridge, but cut short his studies with Russell to enlist in the Great War. He pulled strings to get a posting to the front and wrote a classic of analytic philosophy, the "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus," in the trenches. After the war he renounced his inheritance and disappeared into the life of a rural grade-school teacher--using, he said, the pain of teaching to overcome the pain of philosophy. He eventually regained interest in philosophy and was coaxed back to Cambridge. "God has arrived," said John Maynard Keynes. "I met him on the 5:15 train." Wittgenstein could not be unoriginal: Among other things, he patented a design for an aircraft engine, helped design a modernist house, and published a dictionary for schoolchildren.

Karl Popper came from the cultivated middle class. Forced to leave college when hyperinflation ruined his father, he got a degree through the back door by enrolling in a teacher's training course. If Wittgenstein was a cult figure, then Popper was (in his own view) a perennial outsider. The famed Vienna Circle of philosophers and mathematicians doted on Wittgenstein, even when he refused to attend their meetings, but they didn't invite Popper to join. Popper fled the Germans not to Oxford or Cambridge but to New Zealand and then to the slightly less remote London School of Economics. He published prolifically, becoming the world's most eminent philosopher of science and (again, in his own view) the leading scourge of fashionable intellectual nonsense: logical positivism, Marxism, Freudianism--and Wittgenstein.

A clash between Wittgenstein and Popper should be high drama, but played out as low comedy: Famous Philosophers Duel with Red-Hot Pokers! The book's one flaw is to run with this gimmick and pretend that some mystery needs solving. No suspense is spoiled by disclosing that Popper's story is found implausible, though not a calculated lie. And nine-tenths of the book--vivid biographies and cultural history, clear and defensible broad-brush summaries of philosophical ideas--are irrelevant to this resolution.

The silly spat threatens to distract readers from an impassioned conflict of ideas. Popper's views are clear. His most celebrated teaching identified the distinguishing mark of scientific knowledge as its "falsifiability." A genuinely scientific theory has definite consequences (predictions) that can be challenged by public procedures. Scientific knowledge is what we provisionally accept because it has, so far, passed all the tests. The permanent threat of refutation makes that knowledge more reliable than the humanly fallible and prejudiced scientists who discover it. A natural correlate is Popper's spirited defense of the "open" society--with its liberal politics of piecemeal trial-and-error reform--against "closed" utopian and totalitarian regimes that derive their authority from pseudo-scientific claims to know, and know how to shape, the human future.

Compared with all this, Wittgenstein, in stark contrast, is enigmatic. The "Tractatus" claims to solve some of the deepest problems of philosophy by precisely delimiting what can be meaningfully said--and therefore, in Wittgenstein's view, what can be thought. The meaning of a proposition is revealed by analyzing it into an ultimate logical form that provides a picture--notoriously elusive word--of a possible state of the world. Wittgenstein offers no concrete examples of such logical analyses, but argues that they must nonetheless exist. His brief "logical poem" ends mystically: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." Some important things, such as morality, cannot be meaningfully talked about, though they can be shown--for example, by moral behavior. The "Tractatus," straining the limits of language, finally declares itself to be largely nonsense: It is a ladder that, once climbed, can be discarded.

The "Tractatus" was striking, original, and eventually famous. Yet Wittgenstein, when he returned to philosophy, devoted himself to an equally original and even more influential project that undermined it. His "Philosophical Investigations" rejects the central proposal of the "Tractatus," a universal logical analysis of language. Language, as various as life, does more than make assertions. We joke, request, command, pray, etc. The sense of particular utterances depends on the part they play in some practice such as joking or praying--but it is a fundamental error to suppose that these practices have any common essence, logical or otherwise. They share nothing but a "family resemblance." What we call a philosophical problem is only a symptom of a muddled search for such illusory essences. The philosopher's task is to make philosophical problems disappear: "to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle." The "Investigations" offers not a doctrine but practice at climbing out of the bottle.

So what was at stake in Wittgenstein and Popper's long-ago quarrel? Bragging rights, of course, and temperamental and professional antipathies. But also the fundamental nature of philosophy. Can it address our deepest perplexities? Can it, as Popper believed, contribute to human progress? Or is it only a tragic compulsion? The word "philosophy" is not currently in tip-top shape: People can speak without irony of "philosophies" of web-page design; bookstores don't always feel a need to distinguish philosophy from self-help or the occult. "Wittgenstein's Poker" deserves a large audience and, with luck, may awaken some general readers to the excitement of the real thing, of large questions pursued with reason and passion.

David Guaspari is a mathematician and computer scientist in Ithaca, New York.