Mind games

In the world of 20th-century philosophy—not an arena known for its trash-talking and belligerence—this was a big moment, the equivalent of the Tyson-Holyfield pay-per-view. Did Ludwig Wittgenstein, or did he not, physically threaten his fellow Austrian Karl Popper with a fireplace poker at a meeting of the Cambridge Moral Science Club in October 1946? Did Popper respond with a brilliant riposte? And, regardless of whether Wittgenstein lost his cool, how much can one say anyway about a 10-minute encounter at a philosophy meeting?

Plenty, apparently, if one is David Edmonds or John Eidinow, whose recent book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, checks in at just under 330 pages. These two have taken Blake’s famous grain of sand and, indeed, seen a whole world there.

And it is a fascinating world, a world where ideas and intellect were considered paramount, where to question another’s logical ability, another’s intellectual integrity, was an insult of grave proportion. Karl Popper, despite his theories about the verification of philosophical concepts through scientific methodology, did not much appreciate his own ideas being tested (or questioned) too rigorously. Hypocritical? Perhaps. What’s more likely in this case, though, is that Popper was struggling with an inferiority complex, like most people who ran up against Wittgenstein. The messianic Wittgenstein, who seemed effortlessly to collect esteem, disciples and fame, was also adept at making enemies. And Popper, though he doesn’t exactly admit it, was Wittgenstein’s enemy long before that strange encounter in Cambridge.

Therein lies the worth of this book. It is not really about the event referred to in the title; that is merely the launching pad, the embarkation point that delivers us into a lost realm—Vienna between the Great Wars. The Austrian capital was at this time an extraordinary place. It was the cultural, artistic, intellectual center of a diverse European community. The arts and sciences were flourishing in a way that has not been seen since. A few names on the scene, very incomplete, suggest nothing less than a revolution in thought: Mahler, Freud, Klimt, Gödel, Schoenberg and, of course, the two antagonists of our story. In this respect, Wittgenstein’s Poker is essentially a history book. It is social history, intellectual history, even political history because, in addition to the influential and justly respected names above, there was another Austrian, Adolf Hitler, waiting at the gates, preparing to destroy it all.

Edmonds and Eidinow do a tremendous job dissecting and diagramming the complex and disturbing anti-Semitism at work on the continent in those days. The philosophy emerging from these brilliant thinkers was, for better and for worse, tempered in the fires of hatred. Popper and Wittgenstein were both assimilated Jews. Wittgenstein, as well, enjoyed a buffer that Popper had resented from the very beginning—the Wittgenstein name was like royalty in Vienna. His family was, by most estimates, one of the wealthiest in Austria and wielded enormous political and economic power. Popper, on the other hand, was from a poor family, much closer to his Jewish roots, and consequently we see in his philosophy a much more politically committed stance. But both men, and countless other European Jews, were chased from their ancestral homes.

Which brings us to that fateful day in Cambridge. What exactly did happen? Eidinow and Edmonds do a thorough job of producing firsthand accounts. A few of the original observers are still alive; the authors found them. Of those passed on, nearly all left written records in which they discussed that meeting. It won’t be giving away too much to say that there is disagreement—a lot of disagreement. What does it mean that a bunch of philosophers in a room cannot decide what they all witnessed? Wittgenstein, for whom philosophy was gamesmanship and puzzles, is smiling somewhere. The irascible Popper? Perhaps not.