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WITTGENSTEIN’S POKER

THE STORY OF A TEN-MINUTE ARGUMENT BETWEEN TWO GREAT PHILOSOPHERS

An intellectual rhubarb that provides good academic gossip, but never reveals satisfying depths.

An amusing anecdote about a clash between philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper gets stretched into a book that delivers biographical detail but little philosophical meat.

In 1946, Popper gave a lecture at the Cambridge Moral Science Club titled “Are There Philosophical Problems?” Popper argued that there were, outraging audience member Wittgenstein, who believed there were not; instead, Wittgenstein argued, philosophy concerned itself only with linguistic puzzles, not substantive problems. For ten minutes the luminaries jousted verbally, while Wittgenstein grabbed a poker and waved it. In Popper’s account, the drama ended when Wittgenstein asked him for an example of a moral rule and Popper replied, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers”—whereupon Wittgenstein dropped the poker and stormed out. It’s a good story, but over by page two, after which Edmonds and Eidinow, both journalists, pursue its tiniest nook and cranny (think Woodward and Bernstein crossed with Jerry Seinfeld). The journalistic justification is to investigate the charge (raised in a recent letter-exchange in the Times Literary Supplement) that Popper lied by distorting the events to make himself come out the victor. The authors interview surviving eyewitnesses, such as philosophers Peter Geach and Stephen Toulmin, and pick through the writings of deceased ones, such as Bertrand Russell. They trace similarities and differences between the antagonists (both Viennese and of Jewish descent; Popper middle-class, Wittgenstein aristocratic), and show why Popper had cause for professional jealousy: Wittgenstein was a “charismatic genius” who dominated Cambridge and is ranked with Plato and Kant, while Popper was exiled to New Zealand and never got much recognition. Still, a great deal of the material feels like filler, and the attempted resolution to the mystery is unsurprising. As for the philosophical issues Popper and Wittgenstein debated, they receive only superficial treatment.

An intellectual rhubarb that provides good academic gossip, but never reveals satisfying depths.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2001

ISBN: 0-06-621244-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2001

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THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS

AND OTHER ESSAYS

This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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