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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clash of Titans, 3 Oct. 2001
This review is from: Wittgenstein's Poker (Hardcover)
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. To me, a long-time admirer of Popper, he does comes across with the more attractive human side - he had many close friends who loved him dearly. Wittgenstein seemed to only have disciples, and one feels that the wild exterior somehow went all the way to the core of the man. What you saw was what you got.
One can see that one of the things Popper reacted to was Wittgenstein's prophetic aura and oracular utterances - Popper despised intellectual 'authorities' (except perhaps himself) and deliberately tried to 'down' his opponent. One remark which was not quoted was Rudolf Carnap: "I have learned that the distance funtion is not symmetrical. The distance from me to Popper is much less than the distance from Popper to me.'
The authors have produced a tour-de-force which I highly recommend to anyone who is even vaguely interested in philosophy or the history of ideas. My one quibble is: was this as critical to the state of philosophy as the authors make out? Certainly it was not as critical to history or science generally as the BA 1860 debate. Popper may have thought so, but the authors show that the explosive meeting had little effect on the reputations of either man.
Those who enjoyed this book may like 'The Cambridge Quintet' by John L. Casti, a fictitous recreation of a dinner attended by Wittgenstein, Erwin Schrodinger and Alan Turing in which they explore their major ideas on philosophy and science.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 23 Jan 2010 16:40:35 GMT
I should point out that the bishop and the ape story concerning Huxley is questionable. There is no contemporary record of it and it didn't appear to come to public notice until some thirty years after the event. It may be an urban myth.

Posted on 5 Jun 2010 00:54:24 BDT
Peter Nowlan says:
Wonderful review, thank you, I am compelled to buy the book. I love the implied idea of philosophers from different ages meeting for some great epistemological congress and arguing until dawn. I wonder how much listening there would be? Who would listen, who would rant, who would be open to changing their mind? If there were such a meeting, who should be invited? Let's say you can invite ten phliosophers to dinner ... who are your ten? Here are mine, in no particular order ...
Wittgenstein, Parmenides, Socrates, Locke, Schopenhauer, Kant, Russell, Aristotle, Plato and Heidegger (for a laugh). Wow. What would we talk about? What would I cook?
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