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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly fascinating--but why?, 4 May 2006
This review is from: Wittgenstein's Poker (Paperback)
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.

Wittgenstein believed that the questions of philosophy were linguistic "puzzles," a belief that offended Popper who believed that there were genuine "problems" yet to be solved in philosophy; and furthermore, to relegate the problems of philosophy to mere "puzzles" was to demean philosophy itself and its practitioners.

I have no idea who is right. In fact, even after reading this book, I am still in a fog about the difference between a "puzzle" and a "problem" except to note that puzzles should be relatively trivial compared to problems. My inclination is to lean toward Popper, author of the famous and highly influential books, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959) and other works. Wittgenstein's published works are not as celebrated, but according to Edmonds and Eidinow he is regarded among professional philosophers as one of the greatest of all time, to rank ahead of Hume and Descartes, behind Aristotle, Plato, Kant and Nietzsche. (p. 292)

Consequently in addition to providing the reader with a most interesting tale of intellectual warfare, this book has inspired me to read more about the philosophy of Wittgenstein and Popper. In particular I want to compare Popper's ideas about the philosophy of science with those of Thomas Kuhn.

Bottom line: this is the only book I know of about the lives and works of philosophers that is in any way a threat to become a Hollywood movie.
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