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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A relatively insignificant incident revealing so much more, 3 Mar. 2002
This review is from: Wittgenstein's Poker (Hardcover)
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! But here not by one of the students: by one of the professors!
Having some knowledge of both Popper and Wittgenstein, but none of the incident from which the book derives its title, I was intrigued by the thought of two great intellectuals of twentieth century philosophy doing battle is such a non-intellectual manner. However, a creditable feature of the work is that it assumes little prior knowledge, if any, of philosophy as an academic discipline. Rather, it shapes a ten minute incident in a small, drab seminar room in post-war Cambridge into something more akin to a detective story, explaining why it happened, blended with it an historical period piece.
Not that "philosophical issues" are ignored. They couldn't be. With some skill, the author's introduce us to some of the central issues then informing philosophical debate, such as questions about how we can be said to know anything. All this in a very accessible way and in a very readable style. Popper's philosophising (although not the man) is seen as being part of a continuation of what could be regarded as a fairly traditional western approach to the subject. Indeed, we learn that he believed he had largely solved some of the most of intractable of philosophical issues - such as the "problem" of knowledge. Contrasted to this stands Wittgenstein, and the evolution of his ideas from identifying a link between the world and the way that world is represented by language, to his later position where this link is severed in favour of concepts of meaning dependant on the way language is used, not necessarily what it represents. These concepts are introduced and summarized in a concise manner and explained clearly. Not a small task - the authors also make them interesting! This is helped by the way they combine valuable and relevant historical sketches into the narrative, such as that of pre-war Vienna (both men's place of birth). We see the obvious difficulties facing the Jewish and assimilated communities - both men were of Jewish decent and would invariable have faced the same fate as so many of their kin had they not, by different means, escaped to safety.
But back to the poker. We soon realise that in these men we are dealing with something special: truly great thinkers. But also something volatile. Both different, both made human. The setting of the incident is the hot house atmosphere of Cambridge University where, perhaps unlike today, big issues such as the meaning of a just society had real resonance. 1946 is the year of the incident, where one totalitarian system had been defeated but with another emerging from a war-destroyed Europe. Popper, of course, would have seen the contribution that philosophical investigation could make to these "problems". Wittgenstein, on the other hand, would have challenged whether philosophising properly so-called could make any contribution whatsoever to these issues of the day: rather that perhaps at best these are questions for the social scientist, for whom the philosopher can help only by focussing on his or her use of language.
So what's wrong with the book? My only reservation is that few readers will be prepared to "take the chance" to read it, and be put of by what they may think is either inaccessible or abstruse, or just too plain dry! Neither view would be correct. It would be a pity if the majority of readers were just those with an academic philosophical background. However, I am sure that the book will whet the appetite of a hopefully not too small number to take the chance and maybe create a philosophical background for themselves. That's why Wittgenstein would hate this book!
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