Book Review: Wittgenstein’s Poker

Wittgenstein’s Poker:  The Story Of A Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers, by David Edmonds & John Eidinow

Calling Wittgenstein a great philosopher would appear to be a highly charitable view given his terrible sense and fondness for oracular statements.  It demonstrates the rather low bar that autocratic and possibly mentally unwell personalities have to meet in order to make a mark in the world of philosophy.  Indeed, one of the more puzzling aspects of this book is how it is possible that nearly 300 pages of material could be written (even on smallish pages) over an interaction that lasted ten minutes long in a meeting room in Cambridge where two philosophers who traveled in similar circles as exiled and irreligious Viennese Jews met each other for the first and only time and things did not go particularly well.  The story is compelling enough, but making an entire book out of the incident might strike many people as being somewhat excessive in terms of what needs to be worked up to make the incident that serious and that worthwhile.  As someone who is used to seeing historically important people have books written of small and obscure incidents, though, this book is by no means the most insignificant moment that I have read a book about, so at least it has that going for it.

This particular book is divided into 23 chapters.  The author begins with a discussion of the noted poker itself (1) and then looks at the subject of memory and its deceptiveness (2).  There is a discussion about the way that both Popper and Wittgenstein bewitched others through charm (3), and the disciples that each of them had collected, especially Wittgenstein (4).  There is a look at the third man, Bertrand Russell, who brought Popper to the discussion in order to tweak Wittgenstein (5).  There is a discussion of the faculty of Cambridge (6) and its politics as well as a look at the Jewish context of the lives of both men, which takes several chapters (7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12), including a chapter about the death of the head of the Vienna Circle, a man deeply hostile to Popper (13), and Popper’s ambivalent relationship with that circle (14, 15, 16).  The author also examines Popper’s rising success (17) and the question about puzzles and problems that divided the two (18, 19).  Finally, the author seeks to moderate the opinions of the incident by presenting an approach of seeking to harmonize accounts and give all of the people involved the benefit of the doubt, which leads to a detailed discussion of the accounts the authors received from eyewitnesses of the contretemps, included in an appendix.

What is fascinating about this book is the way that it blends so many aspects together of philosophy and culture.  No one reading this book with a remotely fair mind (if such a thing can be said about me as a reader) can leave without realizing that famous philosophers are as much human beings as the rest of us.  And that is not always a good thing.  We remember things wrong, remember ourselves as the heroes of our encounters even if we remember what we could have and should have said instead of what we did actually say, and get involved in decades-long drama over petty incidents with other people.  It just so happens that these people were noted figures in a very small world of 20th century philosophers.  As a reader I found myself being ultimately a fan of neither of the philosophers or their approaches, although I found more to like and appreciate about Popper than about Wittgenstein, but that is something would be fairly obvious given my own ideological perspectives and my own worldview.  This book is mainly for philosophically inclined readers, as many casual readers will not know what the fuss is about.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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