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Wittgenstein's Poker [Paperback]

David Edmonds , John Eidinow
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Feb 2005
On 25 October 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The encounter lasted only ten minutes, and did not go well. Almost immediately, rumours started to spread around the world that the two philosophers had come to blows, armed with red-hot pokers . . .

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (3 Feb 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 057122735X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571227358
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 42,329 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Wittgenstein's Poker is a mini biography of the lives of Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein leading up to their one and only meeting at the Cambridge moral science club in October 1946 where their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of legend. What happened? Why did the two great philosophers behave as they did? What did Popper have against Wittgenstein? At stake was the meaning and direction of the analytic revolution--which had been led by Bertrand Russell --and, ultimately, the purpose of philosophy itself.

Edmonds and Eidinow's treatment is a very clever and interesting way to introduce the history of philosophy in the first third of the 20th century. The 10 minute argument provides an effective and fascinating organising focus for the whole book--not only because one is curious to find out who said what and why--but because to understand what really happened involves finding out what kind of men these great philosophers were, and how they stood to the philosophic tradition. Popper's opposition to Wittgenstein however, was more than just a difference in philosophic views; on a deeper level Wittgenstein represented the Vienna that had been out of reach even to the son of a respected and socially responsible lawyer: "In Wittgenstein he saw the imperial city where riches and status commanded respect and opened doors, the separate territory where inflation-wrought poverty had no place and the Nazis could be bought off."

It is the social and political background of the story, the class differences, as well as the philosophic differences between the two great philosophers which makes this book so unusual and interesting. Part biography, part social history, part history of philosophy Wittgenstein's Poker is informative, entertaining and accessible. --Larry Brown --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


'Those 10 minutes shook the world of Western philosophy literally to its foundations... Edmonds and Eidinow have a very good story to tell, and they tell it wonderfully well.' John Banville, Irish Times 'A brilliant idea. The authors seem to me to have an extremely good grasp of the philosophical ideas, and a tremendous ability to explain them.' Michael Frayn --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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First Sentence
ON THE EVENING OF FRIDAY, 25 October 1946 the Cam Moral Science Club-a weekly discussion group for the university's philosophers and philosophy students-held one of its regular meetings. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clash of Titans 3 Oct 2001
Compare it to the famous debate on evolution at the British Association meeting in Oxford in 1860 between Darwinists and their opponents like the palaeontologist Robert Owen and Bishop 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce. There, T.H.Huxley ('Darwin's Bulldog') baldly stated that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a Bishop who made specious and rediculous arguments. This literally brought the house down, and established Huxley as the hero who had vanquished the foe and established the hegemony of Darwinism, agnosticism and science over intellectual life. Except that more recent investigation has found the truth to be a little different. Huxley's speech, besides the 'ape/ Bishop' riposte, was not particularly convincing, and at least one Darwinist was heard to say afterwards 'The Bishop got the best of it'. The really forceful speaker who established the Evolution argument at Oxford was Darwin's friend, the botanist Thomas Hooker.
What does this tell us about the subject of this book? That myth is established in memory of what we wish had happened. Because of Huxley's smart retort, then he had to be the hero, and Hooker was forgotten. According to Edmonds and Eidenow, Popper in his memoirs cast himself in the Huxley role, witty riposte and all. But for the memory of one man (Peter Geach, who wrote to the TLS on the matter), we might still live with this particular myth.
The intellectual road to Room H3 is well explored in this book, managing to take in the key philosophical threads of the early part of the century - mainly the shift from epistemology to logic, and the focus on language established by Wittgenstein. Both men are well portrayed as forceful, agressive and (it has to be said) unpleasant debaters.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly fascinating--but why? 4 May 2006
By Dennis Littrell TOP 500 REVIEWER
I picked this up more or less by accident. The text quickly engaged me and I read the book rather quickly. But why? I had almost no knowledge about Ludwig Wittgenstein the logical positivist philosopher, and only a little more about Karl Popper one of the leading philosophers of science. Philosophy since Hume has mostly left me uninterested. While some people think (famously) that all philosophy consists merely of footnotes to Plato, I've always believed that the great empiricists, especially David Hume put to rest most of the important questions.

The focus is a meeting of the Moral Science Club at Cambridge on October 25, 1946 in which it is alleged that Ludwig Wittgenstein in exasperation at his inability to shut Karl Popper up (or perhaps because of his inability to successfully counter Popper's arguments) picked up a red hot poker from the fireplace and waved it menacingly at Popper, and then departed the room.

What actually happened is a matter of some curious and lengthy debate according to the various accounts from those present. Edmonds and Eidinow go to some length to establish the various points of view and to explain why what happened happened. They take a thorough look at the background and personalities of Wittgenstein and Popper. This is the strength of the book: the fascinating detail about the lives and ideas of the two protagonists set against the horrific history of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Both Wittgenstein and Popper came from Vienna to England, both were Jewish and both had disciples and followers who considered them giants in philosophy. Significantly, Wittgenstein was born into a very wealthy family while Popper's roots are more middle class.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two big men in a big,bad world. 8 Jan 2002
This book begins in one small, dark room with two opposing theories about knowledge. It then takes the reader on an epic journey through the political, social, and academic landscape of the twentieth century, before returning back to the dark room with the two personalities behind the theories - which is always going to be more fun.
It's sweep is misleadingly vast. Popper and Wittgenstein are at the same time seen as heavy-weights in a self-conscious world, and pawns in the greater game going on around them. That so much history, biography and philosophical theory can be contained within so few pages is incredible. The lives of Popper and Wittgenstein could not fail to produce an epic tale, but so much credit must go to the authors for understanding that no piece of information is too small in a detective story, and that it doesn't matter from which quarter the information comes, be it philosophic tomes, old letters, reconstructed memories, or even forgotten memos passed between low-ranking Nazi officers.
The book defies categorisation. It is far and away the most original premise of the year. Informative, vast and brilliant.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and amusing 28 Mar 2005
By Rgh1066
This book pretends to be the story of a ten minute argument that took place at Cambridge University in 1946 between two giants of twentieth century philosophy: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. Of course, at 300+ pages the book has to be more than that, and Edmonds and Eidenow brilliantly flesh out the early careers of these two philosophers, dealing with what united them (chiefly their backgrounds in late Habsburg Vienna) as well as their very different experiences of the Nazi anti-Jewish programme.
I had never heard of Karl Popper before I read this book, and what I knew about Wittgenstein I could have scratched on the back of an aspirin, so this was an informative read and an engaging introduction to the two men's thinking.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Philosophy Comes Alive!
A very readable, very well written and often engrossing account of two great philosophers battle of wits. Read more
Published 9 months ago by anti-thesis
2.0 out of 5 stars Unreliable
The authors tell us that "the symbolic end, if not the actual end, of Isaiah's [Berlin] active philosophical career" came in 1940, when he was contemptuously dismissed by... Read more
Published 23 months ago by P. S. Braterman
5.0 out of 5 stars Wittgenstein and Popper, Vienna and Cambridge.
This is a famous episode in the Story of Philosophy. In the general philosophy of the XXth Century the Vienna Circle with the logical positivism played a great role in the... Read more
Published on 28 May 2012 by Mr. Francois Marcognet
5.0 out of 5 stars "Great men can make great mistakes"(Popper)
Wittgenstein's Poker is a clever,amusing,anecdotalist account of Western philosophy in the early part of the 20th century and the divergence of it's two main practitioners. Read more
Published on 29 Nov 2011 by technoguy
I studied philosophy of science at the LSE so I'm interested in Popper, Professor John Watkins, the LSE .... and Wittgenstein because of his reputation and "charisma". Read more
Published on 16 Dec 2009 by King Brosby
5.0 out of 5 stars three philosphers in a room.
A glorious book, if you are interested in history, encompassing Vienna under the Austrian-Hungarian empire, Hitler's Jewish pogrom, Cambridge University, Bertrand Russell,Karl... Read more
Published on 22 Jun 2009 by ohara koson
2.0 out of 5 stars Deeply disappointing
I bought this book with some eagerness, as both a Wittgenstein aficionado and an erstwhile employee of a Soros institution. Read more
Published on 22 Oct 2002 by Mr. P. V. Smith
4.0 out of 5 stars More Than a Casual Interest in Philosophy Required
David Edmonds and John Eidinow have written an interesting book on widely varying views of two men that reached some type of conflict one evening in 1946. Read more
Published on 19 Oct 2002 by taking a rest
3.0 out of 5 stars Light reading of Heavy Philosophers
This book goes through the lives of the two giants of philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, putting their thinking in the context of their life history. Read more
Published on 21 Mar 2002
4.0 out of 5 stars A relatively insignificant incident revealing so much more
The incident at the centre of the book concerns the disruption of a university seminar by the waving of around a blunt object. Maybe not uncommon at some universities! Read more
Published on 3 Mar 2002 by Mr. P. Blackaby
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