Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review of Wittgenstein's Poker

A beginner-friendly and amusing introduction to 20th century philosophy, the study of which can often be so abstruse, and eventually so specialized, that pursuing this subject often only interests the most diehard of academics. However, the setting for this book’s approachable overview of that era’s central philosophical perspectives is the legendary clash between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. When these two intellectual behemoths tangled, the concussion was enough to stun, enrage, and embitter those in attendance at was supposed to be an ordinary night of lecture and debate at the Moral Science Club at Cambridge. It is amazing to read the near-thespian pettiness of the fallout in the form of letters written years later by witnesses that attempt to vindicate the reputation of one rival or the other, and the first-hand accounts that were later censured for their own colorful version of the episode keep it sweet, scandalous, and still-around to be circulated for another hilarious century or two.

Wittgenstein, the rival that attracts most people to the debate, as the title suggests, is probably the most-renowned name in all of modern philosophy and has been placed by many in the pantheon of the most powerful wizards of all time. Oops, I mean ‘philosophers’. His ideas are often hard to comprehend by the uninitiated. He was often harshly criticized by his colleagues and philosophical “equals” (my quotations added to expose their mommas’ assurances that Wittgenstein “was just jealous”) as esoteric, so if they had a hard time understanding him, one can understand why, for the rest of us, trying to learn his philosophy is daunting at first. This book, however, was a cordial welcome to understand the man behind the ideas, and it offered a chewed up (and digested I’m sure) version of his contributions to philosophy that a layman can appreciate. Concepts positing language as a labyrinthine fly bottle, a linguistic puzzle that must be solved to get at a basic understanding of life, become quickly interesting when employed as veritable hoots and hollers fomenting a schoolyard brawl between two champions while readers like myself circle around and prevent any escape.

Karl Popper was the challenger. Popper is almost a no-name in philosophy today, especially when sized next to Wittgenstein’s titanic presence as probably the greatest revolutionary since Immanuel Kant. Popper's primary achievements were countering the methods of logical positivism which were much in vogue at the time, though his philosophy may look to some as the same. He contended that philosophical problems do indeed exist, as opposed to Wittgensteinian language ‘puzzles’ that he felt keeps one from committing to some sense of reality. Wittgenstein would say, rather, that he was “turning latent nonsense into patent nonsense’.

In my estimation, it seemed like both of the philosophers were jerks, as corroborated by the testimony of those closest to them! My final verdict, though, is that Popper appeared more resentful and angry than Wittgenstein (as limned by the authors), while Wittgenstein’s egoism seems to have been provoked by the insouciant philosophy and aloof, self-righteous inaction of higher academics. It may not have been detrimental in all cases that Wittgenstein viewed himself as a hero succoring philosophy from the hands of crooked and careless masters, validating the common man who needs practical understanding, hope, and some amount of genuine trust in himself to make better choices.

Fascinating story, and immensely helpful in broaching big ideas.


  1. I loved this review:


    Now I must read Popper...& Heidegger. Oh dear. Popper seems to be better than a no-name; he is still in print. "The Open Society and its Enemies" is still in print, and it's not alone.

    1. Glad you liked the review. I sort-of agree about Popper. For anyone relatively familiar with philosophy, Popper's 'falsification' will surface at some point, sooner than his other ideas. But Wittgenstein is more well known outside of philosophy proper. You'll find Heiddegger to be more creative-esoteric, and Popper more technical-systematic.