Wittgenstein’s poker

As a philosophy major at Dartmouth, I came under the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein. If I recall correctly, John was even more heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, perhaps because he understood him better.

Almost a decade after leaving college, I read Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. By then, I was finally moving decisively away from the left-wing ideologies that had addled my brain. Popper’s great book hastened the movement. In short, I count Wittgenstein and Popper among my intellectual heroes.

Popper, however, was a fierce enemy of Wittgenstein. On October 25, 1946, that enmity produced a legendary confrontation at the Cambridge Moral Science Club. In their brilliant and immensely entertaining book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, David Edmonds and John Eidinow attempt to figure out what actually happened that evening in England, and why.

The “why” turns out to be the easy part. Wittgenstein and Popper both came from Vienna and both belonged to families that once had been Jewish. The similarity ends there. Wittgenstein was the scion of one of the wealthiest families in the Empire, a family comparable perhaps to the Mellons. Popper’s father was a fairly prosperous lawyer who was ruined by the post World War I inflation. Wittgenstein was an intellectual sensation and the idol of the influential Vienna Circle (Wittgenstein was already at Cambridge when the Circle formed). Popper was unable to gain admission to the Vienna Circle and became the arch-enemy of its teachings. Popper also did not secure a place in England after he left Austria in the dark days before World War II. He spent the war teaching in New Zealand. There he wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies.

The book propelled Popper to the intellectual forefront, and was part of the reason why the Cambridge Moral Science Club wanted to hear from him in 1946 (though he had appeared before that body once prior to the war). Popper wanted to use the occasion to take on Wittgenstein. In this, he seems to have been assisted by Bertrand Russell with whom he met (and perhaps “conspired”) earlier in the day. Once, Russell had been Wittgenstein’s sponsor and good friend, but by the 1940s the two were barely on speaking terms. For one thing, Wittgenstein had largely repudiated the breakthrough thinking, set forth in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), that had commended him to Russell.

Popper saw Wittgenstein’s views as anathema. However, it seems unclear whether (or to what extent) he was familiar with the views Wittgenstein actually held in 1946 and thus, whether (or to what extent) his antipathy had much to do with true philosophical disagreement. Wittgenstein hadn’t published any works of philosophy since the Tractatus which, as just noted, he no longer stood by. It is certain that Popper was aware that Wittgenstein now viewed the traditional problems of philosophy as essentially word puzzles rather than matters of serious concern. Popper took vehement exception to this view. However, as I’ll argue below, it’s questionable whether the two disagreed in any profound sense.

As to what happened in Cambridge on October 25, 1946, the disagreement is profound. There seems to be little doubt that Popper challenged Wittgenstein with a series of questions he had formulated in advance. They were intended to force the concession that a given matter (e.g., causation, induction) raises a genuine philosophical problem. Not surprisingly, no such concession was forthcoming. However, Wittgenstein did seem to become somewhat agitated, and nervously handled a fireplace poker.

In Popper’s account, Wittgenstein more than just handled the poker; he brandished it in a manner that could be considered threatening. At the crucial moment, Wittgenstein challenged Popper to provide him with an example of a moral rule. Popper responded, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.” According to Popper, Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him. His humiliation was complete.

Others remember the incident quite differently, though. In fact, all of the accounts obtained by the authors are at variance with one another in at least some respects. Those at the opposite end of the spectrum from Popper’s recall that it was Russell, not Popper, who provoked whatever agitation Wittgenstein experienced. In these accounts Wittgenstein left after an exchange with Russell. Moreover, Wittgenstein did not handle the poker in a threatening manner, did not “storm out” of the room, and did not slam the door. Wittgenstein almost never stayed for the entire meeting of the Moral Science Club. Usually, he said his piece, dominated the discussion, and then left. This time he might have left earlier than normal (he wasn’t dominating the discussion to the usual extent). However, some contend that his withdrawal wasn’t particularly remarkable.

What about the key matter — Popper’s “moral rule of pokers” rejoinder? Those who dispute Popper’s account most sharply insist that he made this comment in response to a question posed by a student (one of Wittgenstein’s admiring disciples) after Wittgenstein had already left. In this account, Popper’s remark could not have been a triumphant put-down of his rival.

The authors of Wittgenstein’s Poker conclude that, in all likelihood, Wittgenstein had left the room by the time Popper made his famous remark. They stop short of saying that Popper lied, suggesting that Popper honestly believed his own account. Here, they are less than fully persuasive. On the other hand, their conclusion that Popper was “all too human” and Wittgenstein (who comes as even stranger than I expected) “not quite fully human” seems close to the mark.

As to their philosophical differences, I think the authors overrate them. Though both are considered philosophers, the two men were engaged in very different enterprises. Popper was addressing practical questions such as: is an open society preferable to a closed society, which philosophical systems are inimical to an open society, and which approach to science produces the most scientific advances. Wittgenstein would not likely have denied the legitimacy of these questions; he just would have called them something other than what people have meant by the term “philosophy.” (Some accounts of the October 1946 confrontation indicate that this is what Wittgenstein was getting at). Wittgenstein’s major enterprise consisted of showing that the problems traditionally associated with philosophy are word puzzles, not genuine problems. Popper himself seems to have had little interest in most of these problems.

After Wittgenstein’s death, his second major philosophical work, Philosophical Investigations, was published. Popper had this to say about the book:

If you force me at gunpoint to say what it is I disagree with in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, I should have to say, “oh — nothing.” Indeed, I only disagree with the enterprise. I do not disagree with anything which he says, because there is nothing with which one can disagree. But I confess I am bored by it — bored to tears.

Popper and Wittgenstein were in the same field in roughly the same sense that a trial lawyer and a professor of jurisprudence are. The trial lawyer may think that the professor of jurisprudence is wasting his time, but he’s not likely to view the professor with profound contempt, much less hatred. But then, trial lawyers are more gentle, tranquil souls than academic philosophers.

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