Dueling Philosophers ; the Implications of This 10-Minute Clash Still Reverberate

By N. L. Malcolm - from 'Wittgenstein's Poker' | The Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Dueling Philosophers ; the Implications of This 10-Minute Clash Still Reverberate


N. L. Malcolm - from 'Wittgenstein's Poker', The Christian Science Monitor


On October 25th, 1946, the Moral Science Club, a weekly discussion group of philosophy dons and students, met at King's College, Cambridge. The speaker, Karl Popper, had come down from London to deliver a paper entitled, "Are There Philosophical Problems?"

Among his audience were two of the most renowned philosophers of the time: Bertrand Russell, whose voluminous writings, ranging from logic and mathematics to analytical philosophy to major social and political issues, had established a name for himself both within and without the discipline; and Ludwig Wittgenstein who, despite having published only one book - "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus," composed in the trenches of the Great War - had attained iconic status within the world of philosophy. Not only was it the first time these three great philosophers had been in the same room together, but surprisingly, given their origins and careers, it was the only time Wittgenstein and Popper ever came face to face.

The encounter did not go well. Almost immediately the two entered into a noisy and combative argument, lasting all of 10 minutes, which has since become part of philosophical legend.

According to initial rumors that spread rapidly around the world, the two great men had "come to blows, both armed with pokers," a story later repudiated in one important respect by Popper in his autobiography, published in 1974, 23 years after Wittgenstein's death.

Popper said it was Wittgenstein alone who had been "nervously playing" with a poker held in his hand much "like a conductor's baton which he used to emphasize his assertions." Challenged by Wittgenstein to give an example of a moral rule, Popper claimed to have responded, "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers," at which Wittgenstein "in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him."

Popper's account of what happened has gained popular acceptance. Yet among those who observed the encounter many regard this as an untrue account of the events of that evening.

In revisiting the row, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, two BBC journalists, compare the conflicting recollections of eyewitnesses. While not denying that Wittgenstein was indeed gesticulating with the poker during the heated confrontation, did leave early, and did close the door noisily behind him, they conclude that the chronology offered by Popper is spurious.

The ostensible reason for their fiery argument was the stark contrast between their philosophies. Popper, a philosopher in the grand tradition, believed in tackling big, well-defined problems with the aim of advancing theses that could then be confirmed or denied according to the evidence amassed for or against their truth.

Wittgenstein, on the other hand, believed the so-called problems of philosophy were in fact puzzles rooted in conceptual confusion, the result of misuse of language. For him the attempt to solve such "problems" by burrowing deep beneath the language in which they were couched in order to come up with explanations was not just misguided but confounded the confusion. Better to dissolve the puzzles by clarifying the relevant concepts through careful, detailed study of the many and varied uses of language to expose the "knots" in our thinking. …

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