Book Matters

Book Matters
“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

by David Edmonds & John Eidinow

Like many American kids, I’d always wanted to grow up to be a cowboy, or at least (being a girl) a cowboy’s sweetheart. Till one day, riding herd in Montana as an inept, vacationing adult cowgirl, I realized that my job back home in New York, where I was a philosophy professor, was actually more dramatic to me than sweating it out here in Big Sky country.

Wittgenstein’s Poker deals with one such dramatic encounter between philosophers who held opposing views. It took place in the U.K., at Cambridge University, on October 25, 1946. One of the two (Ludwig Wittgenstein) was swinging a poker as he articulated his views; the other (Karl Popper, the invited lecturer) suggested that his opponent was acting in a threatening manner with that poker. At some point, Wittgenstein either stormed out of the lecture room or else (depending on which bystander’s account you believed) merely left the room as he typically did.

For philosophers, 

the incident became legendary – 

like the shootout at the OK Corral.

This book was published in 2001, which was when I first read it. It made no special impression on me at that time. But rereading it recently, I found it full of drama.

Both Wittgenstein and Popper were Viennese Jews, assimilated participants in the densely cultivated Vienna of the time between the world wars. Neither considered themselves Jews, except – as de Maupassant wrote in a different context – “by an error of fortune.” Wittgenstein was heir to an immense fortune – being at one time perhaps the wealthiest man in Austria. He was accustomed to homes (the family had a number of them) where leading lights of the time met to converse and display their talents. 

Though he renounced his wealth, lived ascetically, and displayed manly heroism on the side of the Austro-Hungarian coalition in the first World War – and selfless service on England’s side in World War II – the family fortune enabled him and his brother Paul to buy safety for his partly-Jewish sisters with a sum “big enough to interest the Nazi government at the highest levels.” By 1939, Wittgenstein had drawn the respectful interest of leading British philosophers, secured a British passport and accepted a professorship in philosophy at Cambridge. 

Popper inherited no such advantages. Due to the Austrian inflation after the first world war, his lawyer father lost whatever financial protection his middle-class family had enjoyed up till then. Unable to dodge the category of “alien” in Britain during the second world war, Popper could only get a philosophical post in New Zealand, at Canterbury University College. Not until 1946, after the war, was he able to secure British citizenship as well as a Readership at the London School of Economics. By then he had written The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies, both works that drew acclaim and interest in influential circles. 

Aside from what they had in common as serious Viennese thinkers, assimilated Jews and refugees – and aside from their class differences – what was the philosophic showdown about?

Philosophically, Wittgenstein had moved from a view he held in Vienna, as the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which “offers a picture theory of meaning” – where “facts and propositions, such as ‘the fireplace is in the center of the room,’ somehow present a picture of the way the world is” – to the entirely different view for which he is better known today, which was set forth in his Philosophical Investigations, posthumously published in 1953.

The question that divided the two men was whether philosophy dealt with genuine problems that only philosophy could resolve (Popper’s view), or else dealt with mere puzzles arising from habitual misunderstandings fostered by misuses of language. In the latter case, as Wittgenstein saw it, the real problem would be philosophy itself and the cure would allow us to see through philosophy’s pseudo-problems in order to get back to the way real people experience their lives and actually talk about their experiences.

In their life work, Popper came up with a criterion (falsifiability) that helped thinkers see through spurious claims to scientific status (like those in Marx or Freud), while Wittgenstein helped philosophers to see that certain problems (such as radical skepticism about other minds) were merely puzzles due to the misleading way they had been framed.

So each was wrong in hoping to banish his opponent from the field. But each was right in his certainty that – by following his own track without swerving – illuminating insights could be uncovered. 

Or, to simplify the story with the poker –

 we can just say – 

they were both right.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Book Matters

  1. Tom Eggebeen says:

    Delightful read … and see you tonight.

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