October 21, 2004

A Beery Swine?

There is a saying that there are only 50 actors in England. One could say equally well that there are only 50 intellectuals of any particular variety, including philosophers. One difference between a continental nation such as ours and one that shares a middling island with two others is that any profession becomes a very small community.

In 1946, two philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, both Austrian Jewish émigrés, had a legendary encounter during a meeting at Cambridge University. During this encounter, Wittgenstein either gestured with or threatened Popper, the speaker, with a fireplace poker, and stormed out of the room.

This incident is the unlikely subject of a book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, which I recently read.

Wittgenstein, born super-rich and turned ascetic, was a forceful personality and either an enfant terrible or a self-absorbed boor. In any event, he acquired a reputation as an iconoclastic genius and the promoter of linguistic philosophy, which posited that many of the traditional philosophical problems are meaningless, and reduced philosophy to so many linguistic puzzles.

Popper, on the other hand, was a bourgeois type who made contributions on more traditional philosophical issues. He was the author of The Open Society and Its Enemies, an anti-totalitarian work, and developed the concept of falsifiability, which holds that meaningful scientific propositions are those capable of being shown to be wrong by empirical observation or experiment.

David Edmonds and John Eidinow, the authors, have created a well-crafted and engaging book out of a series of riffs on the poker incident, Wittgenstein, Popper, their backgrounds, the world of Cambridge. It might seem that the subject would be like the famous book that told the schoolboy more than he wanted to know about penguins, but much of the book fascinates as much as any account of a human milieu in some ways like our own and in others quite different.

Today’s world of grants, junkets, and the academic system of field marshals and grunts is recognizably related to the world in which Wittgenstein and Popper lived, but it has changed. This book includes biography, history – notably of pre-World-War-II Vienna, and a portrait of an era. If you are of a certain perhaps uncommon bent, this book is a good read. And the clever cover of the paperback edition alone makes the book worth picking of the shelf at a bookstore.

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