‘Ludwig, put that poker down’

‘Ludwig, put that poker down’

It was October 25, 1924, on a cold Cambridge night. Room H3 in King's College was packed as some 30 philosophy students and dons had gathered for the weekly meeting of the university's Moral Sciences Club. Invited speaker Karl Popper had traveled up from London and was anxious to read out what he knew would be a provocative paper.

For Ludwig Wittgenstein, founder of the discussion group, that was to be a night like any other – setting up a cordon around the club to keep it free of undesirable influences, without letting the session drag for too long. Popper, on the other hand, was braced for a showdown. He would settle for no less than thrashing his intellectual foe, and better, on enemy turf. Wittgenstein was elevated to iconic status after publishing his ambitious “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicous” in which he laid claim to having achieved no less than solving all philosophical problems. He was a cult figure to his many devoted students who imitated his dress and mannerisms (such as designating approval by shouting “Ja!” and clapping his hand on his forehead).

The fame of Popper, by all measures a less eccentric figure, had only just begun to take off with the publication in England of “The Open Society and its Enemies,” a critique of totalitarianism and historicism based on an unconventional attack on Marx, Hegel, and, yes, Plato. In the audience sat the arbiter of the meeting, the mentor-outclassed-by-his-disciple Bertrand Russell – then in his later years but still extremely respected. Popper's paper was titled “Are There Philosophical Problems?” – a casus belli to his host. It was not long before a fuming Wittgenstein grabbed a poker from the fireplace and begun waving it in front of Popper's face shouting “Popper, you are wrong. Wrong!”

Wittgenstein's outburst prompted Russell's intervention who urged him to put the poker down. After a brief verbal skirmish between Russell and his former protege, the latter stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. (For those who knew Wittgenstein, there was nothing untypical about his reaction.)

But did things really happen that way? In an extremely engaging and readable book that has recently been translated into Greek, award-winning BBC journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow try to untangle the events of that night by questioning the nine surviving eyewitnesses at the meeting – now the stuff of legend. Some of the participants cast doubts on Russell ever chiding Wittgenstein. Even more controversial appears Popper's account in his autobiography “Unended Quest” – published too late for Wittgenstein to challenge – in which he claims that when challenged by Wittgenstein to offer one clear moral rule, he replied: “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers” – a comment that allegedly caused a humbled Wittgenstein leave the room. For Popper, this was “a struggle between giants… that he had won.”

Few would agree, it seems. Many of the witnesses have accused Popper of lying in his autobiography. By most accounts, the above question did not even come from Wittgenstein's lips, but was raised by one of his students after he had left the room. In the end, the only certainty seems to be that the two actually met that night. In fact, they met for the first time, which is all the more surprising, given that both grew up in the same city. The two Viennese philosophers shared little else save their Jewish origins (both denied their Jewish identity) and, most characteristically, “their sheer awfulness to others in discussion and debate.” (Wittgenstein was notoriously rude, while Popper's dogmatism once prompted one to say that his classic work should be called “The Open Society by One of its Enemies.”) Wittgenstein was a patrician, the offspring of one of Austria's wealthiest families (he gave part of his wealth to the Nazis to protect his sisters after the 1938 Anschluss). Popper belonged to the bourgeois class.

As usually happens, the class division was reflected in geography. Unlike Wittgenstein, Popper lived outside the Ringstrasse, the great circular boulevard that denotes all things upper-class in the Austrian capital. Although he had denied his riches and taken up an ascetic lifestyle, Wittgenstein remained a snob. To him Popper must have looked so unbearably “Ringstrasse.”

Given their different backgrounds, it was no coincidence that after the Anschluss, Wittgenstein found refuge in England while Popper was forced to flee to New Zealand before moving to London and the London School of Economics after the war.

The two came from different philosophical solar systems. Wittgenstein, then in his late period, deemed that the aim of philosophy was to soothe the confusion caused by our misuse of language – or as he put it “to show the fly the way out of the bottle.” Popper despised the idea and believed in the existence of genuine philosophical problems – not mere linguistic puzzles. That night, he was determined to tilt philosophy onto the right track. The authors display little modesty in declaring what was at stake that evening – indeed much more than the prestige of the two philosophers, we are told. “At stake was the most fundamental issue in philosophy: its very purpose.”

But the question remains: Who won? In a 1988 survey, Wittgenstein was ranked fifth among the most influential philosophers of all time, seeing only the backs of Aristotle, Plato, Kant and Nietzsche. Edmonds and Eidinow are a bit unfair toward Popper's legacy (the pet philosopher of Margaret Thatcher and George Soros). However, they point out (keep in mind the book was first published in 2001) that “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 books would have to be reopened and their arguments re-learned.”

Three years after 9/11, their prophecy seems fulfilled. For most, if not for Wittgenstein, the aim of philosophy is to uncover the truth about the world. Similarly the book, prompted by a heated debate in the letters section of the Times Literary Supplement six years ago, seeks to establish the truth, save for an isolated incident. Not surprisingly, one of Wittgenstein's students swears the poker incident never really took place at all.

“Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers” By David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Patakis.

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