By David Edmounds and John Eidinow
NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001
316 pages
ISBN # 0-06-093664-9

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2003

The fundamental platform for this book is a short exchange between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge University in 1946. While both Wittgenstein and Popper were from Vienna and both professors of philosophy living in close proximity (Wittgenstein at Cambridge and Popper in London) they had never met. Popper, an invited guest was reading a paper defending the notion that there were genuine philosophical problems. Wittgenstein scored this idea, believing there were only some philosophical-linguistic-logical puzzles at best.

A heated exchange occurred between them and Wittgenstein left the meeting. The details of what happened are the foreground questions of this book. The larger picture concerns using this particular exchange as a way to get at fundamental philosophical divides in the English speaking philosophical world of the first half of the twentieth century.

The authors present a great deal of biographical and historical information which situates and supposedly eliminates, the “poker” incident as the flap between the two is often called.

The authors, Edmounds and Eidinow, begin that first section with the few details which virtually all eye-witnesses and commentators agree upon:

On the authors’ view the above facts are generally accepted by all. However they wonder for nearly 300 pages about two issues mainly:

Did Wittgenstein make threatening gestures toward Popper with the poker? And did Popper utter the “poker principle” before or after Wittgenstein left the meeting?

What is the significance of this “poker incident” in the history of 20th century philosophy and the conflict in Anglo-American philosophical world between Wittgensteinians and anti-Wittgensteinians?

While the authors never arrive at solid evidence on the specific events of the meeting, they do seem to lean heavily to the position that:

The larger story attempts to clarify the details of this event in relation to the philosophically significant issue between Popper and Wittgenstein: What is philosophy?

The authors set this lecture in the setting of the personal lives of Popper and Wittgenstein, and the battle with in various philosophical circles in the first half of the 20th century. However, they are unable to solve the problem of the exact details of what happened at that meeting in Cambridge on Oct. 25, 1946. In focusing on Popper and Wittgenstein they do provide as fascinating a way of looking at the history of philosophy in the early 20th century in the Anglo-American world and the Vienna Circle.

In relation to what seems the key larger issue – the history of the first half of the 20th century in Anglo-American philosophy and the Vienna Circle, there are clearer books with broader sources than this limited focus on Wittgenstein/Popper, and to a lesser extent, Bertrand Russell. It’s hard for me to see most modern readers, including philosophers and historians, getting very riled up about this brief 1946 encounter and the particular issues of that meeting. While marvelously entertaining, I come away astounded by how little philosophical content is contained in these 316 pages.

Nonetheless, I was especially reward with marvelous material on OTHER interests of mine – the city of Vienna, turn of the century coffee house culture. There are long and interesting chapters on the lives of these two Viennese philosophers, the difficulties experienced by them personally, as well as their families, in the Hitler years. Both Wittgenstein and Popper were (assimilated) Jews.

I was even more intrigued with their significant and extensive information in an area of my own special interest in coffee house culture of fin de siecle Vienna.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu