WITTGENSTEIN’S POKER: THE STORY OF A TEN-MINUTE ARGUMENT BETWEEN TWO GREAT PHILOSOPHERS by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

Shortly after this book was published in 2001, I recall a philosophically inclined friend gently mocking the title.  The suggestion was that there seemed to be a number of books then appearing that used the Somebody famous’ Unlikely Object/Possession formula in an effort to attract readers.  My friend made no judgement on the books themselves.  He just found the titles somewhat hokey.  I heartily agreed.  In fact, I still agree.  The title of Wittgenstein’s Poker is hokey.  The book, however, is anything but.

In crystal-clear prose, journalists Edmonds and Eidinow attempt to tell the story of a legendary (in philosophical circles at least) verbal altercation between the major philosophers Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  As with most legends, the authors discover much is in dispute.  We do know for sure that Popper was a guest that evening of the Moral Science Club at Cambridge University.  We know that Popper had long been furiously opposed to the controversial ideas of Wittgenstein, who taught at Cambridge and was chair of the MSC.  For the most part, we know who else was present at the meeting, including the philosophical giant Bertrand Russell.  We know that the meeting got unpleasant rather quickly due to the subjects being discussed.  Finally, we know that Wittgenstein (who left the meeting early) was holding a poker from the fireplace and that, at some point, Popper made a VERY witty comment about said poker.  Beyond these facts, accounts differ.  Cleverly, Edmonds and Eidinow don’t spend much of the book overly concerned with the details of exactly what happened at what time.  They are primarily interested in the why.  The poker story is mostly (but not entirely) a way to examine and explain these two brilliant men and their respective philosophies.

A large section of the book paints a vivid picture of pre_World War I Vienna, capital of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Since both Popper and Wittgenstein were born and raised in this diverse and fraught society, an understanding of the Empire’s cultural conflicts is central to understanding both men.  Edmonds and Eidinow do a wonderful job describing the cauldron of remarkable people and ideas that was Vienna.  Their analysis of the Empire’s calculated and conditional racial and religious cosmopolitanism is particularly keen, especially in relation to the conflicting attitudes towards Jews.  Popper and Wittgenstein were both from assimilated Jewish families.  Neither ever believed in or practiced Judaism but they both had the bewildering experience of being seen as something they never really felt they were.  Of course, while Popper’s family was well off, Wittgenstein’s was one of the richest in Vienna.  When Nazi Germany took over Austria, the Wittgensteins were able to bribe their way to safety.  Popper, his family’s wealth depleted by the Great Depression, had a much more frightening experience before he finally made his way out of the Third Reich’s clutches.

This is just one of the many ways in which Popper and Wittgenstein were both startlingly close and dramatically different, in background, experience, and even personality.  Edmonds and Eidinow frequently start the two out in a similar place only to show them wrenching apart before long.  Nowhere is their similar yet not situation sharper than in their relationships with the person Edmonds and Eidinow dub “the third man” in this debate, Bertrand Russell.  Russell had been Wittgenstein’s mentor and close friend.  However, they had become ideological enemies by the time of the poker debate.  Popper revered Russell, almost to the point of idolatry, and Russell had come to admire Popper and view him as a valuable ally.  Yet Russell remained personally entangled with Wittgenstein in a way he never was with Popper.  Wittgenstein, despite the bitter feud with his old teacher, reserved for Russell a degree of respect he showed almost no one else.  He was barely aware of Popper.  One of the most poignant aspects of this book is its description of the curious triangle that existed between these three great thinkers.  Russell and Wittgenstein stand before us, miserably but resignedly locked arm in arm.  Popper flits around Russell, liked and respected by his hero but always on the outside looking in, never as important to Russell as Wittgenstein.  This triangle makes it all the more intriguing that Popper and Wittgenstein met only once, the night of the poker incident.

While Popper, Wittgenstein, and Russell are the three primary figures in the book, the authors provide us with several other insightful sketches of individuals connected to the big three.  The philosophy dons of Cambridge each get a charming, occasionally hilarious, write-up.  We also get brief but telling looks at various friends, family members, students, colleagues, and rivals.  There are numerous riveting tidbits, above all the goosebump-raising coincidental links Popper and Wittgenstein both had to Adolf Hitler.

All of this would make for an engaging work of biography and history, and this book is that.  Yet it is to the authors’ credit that it is much more as well.  After leading us on with important but fairly straightforward information, Edmonds and Eidinow start giving us a sense of the philosophical issues Popper and Wittgenstein (and Russell) fought over.  First, they just introduce bits and pieces and we read along.  Eventually however, we are confronted with a full-blown discussion of some very difficult concepts.  For once, I felt like I was able to follow these ideas on my own.  This is a testament to the authors’ narrative clarity and skill.  I learned a great deal from this book.  I had long been aware of Russell’s significance and, thanks to a wonderful college seminar, I even understood some of his ideas.  However, this book makes clearer to me the sea change in philosophy he helped cause, namely the move away from Hegelian idealism towards a more analytical and scientific approach.  Likewise, I knew Wittgenstein was seen as a radical thinker concerned with language.  Now I have a much better grasp of his belief that there are no philosophical problems, only linguistic puzzles.  Russell and Popper believed this idea was unscientific trickery that threatened the very foundations of philosophical inquiry.  These are big issues.  They continue to be of the utmost importance, in philosophy and other academic fields as well as in the way we approach the world and its crises.  I understand them better now and I’m quite grateful to Edmonds and Eidinow for that.

So is the poker just a book-selling gimmick?  Does it really have anything to do with this book’s deeply serious goals?  Mostly, I think it’s a smart, entertaining gimmick.  Still, the image of Wittgenstein jerking the poker around, trying to forbid discussion and Popper’s use of (gasp!) humor could be seen as decent metaphors for what they believed in and the conflict between them.  Edmonds and Eidinow wisely avoid taking sides.  Indeed, their last chapter is titled “All Shall Have Prizes.”  I admit that I find Popper, concerned with the here and now, physically unremarkable, willing to be less famous if he could get closer to rational truths, tremendously appealing.  His ideas about debate and freedom are not sexy.  At first glance, they seem obvious.  They are however, I think, more vital and threatened than most of us are usually willing to realize.  Popper was never going to become the center of a cult focusing on what he insisted were the correct things to focus on.  By contrast, Wittgenstein held his followers enraptured and his name is as famous as any modern philosopher’s is likely to be.  Despite his problematic (to understate it dramatically) character, I found him not unappealing.  He was a remarkable man but I think it is quite telling that, as Edmonds and Eidinow explain, he turns up in films and literature while many of his radical ideas have been quietly abandoned by a great number of philosophers.

There are some flaws in the book.  While none of them are major, they are surprising and troubling.  First off, there are two strange inaccuracies.  At one point, Edmonds and Eidinow state that Hitler was born in Linz, Austria.  While he grew up there and considered it his home town, he was actually born in Braunau am Inn, Austria.  In a reference to the younger Hitler, the authors describe him as having “waved the red, black, and gold flag of the Reich.”  The German Reich of Hitler’s youth used a red, white, and black tricolor.  The flag Edmonds and Eidinow refer to had liberal associations and would much later become the flag of Germany during the democratic Weimar Republic.  It is also the flag of modern Germany.  A young German nationalist like Hitler, wanting to express solidarity with the imperial Germany of the Kaisers, would have had nothing to do with the red, black, and gold flag.  These are small points but they suggest a sloppiness that is hard to swallow considering how well-researched Wittgenstein’s Poker is otherwise.

Other flaws are more confusing than troubling.  In one of the later chapters, Edmonds and Eidinow drop their straightforward approach and try to put us inside our protagonists’ heads shortly before the debate.  The chapter, “Poker Plus,” is beautifully written.  However, a reference to Wittgenstein doing something “in memory of Francis” had me scrambling around, worried that I’d forgotten a key player.  I had to turn to Google to find out it was Francis Skinner, Wittgenstein’s close friend and possible lover.  Skinner is mentioned elsewhere in the book but not in such a way that would make him identifiable in that odd reference.  Elsewhere in that chapter, Edmonds and Eidinow quote Popper disdainfully linking Russell’s former collaborator Alfred North Whitehead to Wittgenstein and his acolyte John Wisdom.  The connection is not explained.  I cannot think of any good reasons for leaving readers in the dark on these matters.  Luckily, these flaws are swept away by the many virtues.  Writing clearly and well about such weighty topics is far from easy and books like this are invaluable.

While they are mostly neutral throughout the book, in the final chapter, Edmonds and Eidinow make two interesting assertions that demand serious consideration.  One relates to the reputation of Popper and his ideas in solidly democratic nations.  The authors write: “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.”  This is obviously said in earnest and there are elements of truth in it.  However, I think Edmonds and Eidinow underestimate the value of Popper’s insights.  Today, as we deal with forms of intolerance and closed-mindedness that are different from the ones Popper knew but just as destructive and insidious, Popper’s quest for an open society might need to be recalibrated, but it is still urgently relevant.  The other assertion is about why a clash like the poker incident is unlikely to happen again anytime soon: “Perhaps…there is currently so much specialization, and so many movements and fissures within higher education, that the important questions have been lost.”  To that, I can only say a sad “Amen!”

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