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The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

by David Edmonds & John Eidinow

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 2001
ISBN: 0-06-621244-8
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

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.