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Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

history of philosophy, Ecco (HarperCollins) (hardback), 2001, 340 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

After World War II, Ludwig Wittgenstein was primum inter pares among fellow philosophers, an emigre from Vienna who had become a Canbridge legend, attracting numerous disciples despite having published only one book.  The younger Karl Popper was, like Wittgenstein, an emigre Jew from Vienna, but the comparison stopped there.  Popper was alone and adrift in postwar London without a heavyweight reputation or an permanent academic appointment.  The emerging philosophies of these two men couldn't have been more different: Wittgenstein obsessed with the beclouding of precise meaning by imprecise language, and, so, a poser of linguistic puzzles and conundrums; Popper deeply committed to the positive, life-enhancing, moral uses of philosophy.

In October 0f 1946, the Cambridge Moral Science Club invited Popper to address the group on the seemingly-harmless question: Are There Philosophical Problems?  The grand old man of British philosophy, Bertrand Russell, was present, as was Wittgenstein, other dons, and a large contingent of graduate students.  Wittgenstein was known as a vigorous interrogator of would-be philosophers, and he lit into Popper, challenging the speaker to give an example of a moral rule, as he (Wittgenstein)
nervously gesticulated, brandishing a poker he had picked up from the room's fireplace.  Popper claims his reply, his example of a moral rule, was "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers."  At least this is the version of this famous encounter as Popper relates it in his autobiography.  Popper's glory days were yet to come, but by the Fifties, he had risen in prominence, mostly based on his philosophy of science and his critical notion of falsifiability.

By using this Cambridge encounter as a focal point, the authors not only tell a compelling tale of two strong-willed, even stubborn, men, but also demonstrates Wittgenstein's and Popper's fundamental philosophical differences in shorthand, and present intriguing depictions of  both Vienna between the wars, and of Cambridge in the 1940s.  The mere showing by this
book that something as august and self-important as deep philosophy runs in fads and cycles over generations is worth the price of admission itself.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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