Dueling philosophers

The implications of this 10-minute clash still reverberate

On October 25th, 1946, the Moral Science Club, a weekly discussion group of philosophy dons and students, met at King's College, Cambridge. The speaker, Karl Popper, had come down from London to deliver a paper entitled, "Are There Philosophical Problems?"

Among his audience were two of the most renowned philosophers of the time: Bertrand Russell, whose voluminous writings, ranging from logic and mathematics to analytical philosophy to major social and political issues, had established a name for himself both within and without the discipline; and Ludwig Wittgenstein who, despite having published only one book - "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus," composed in the trenches of the Great War - had attained iconic status within the world of philosophy. Not only was it the first time these three great philosophers had been in the same room together, but surprisingly, given their origins and careers, it was the only time Wittgenstein and Popper ever came face to face.

The encounter did not go well. Almost immediately the two entered into a noisy and combative argument, lasting all of 10 minutes, which has since become part of philosophical legend.

According to initial rumors that spread rapidly around the world, the two great men had "come to blows, both armed with pokers," a story later repudiated in one important respect by Popper in his autobiography, published in 1974, 23 years after Wittgenstein's death.

Popper said it was Wittgenstein alone who had been "nervously playing" with a poker held in his hand much "like a conductor's baton which he used to emphasize his assertions." Challenged by Wittgenstein to give an example of a moral rule, Popper claimed to have responded, "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers," at which Wittgenstein "in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him."

Popper's account of what happened has gained popular acceptance. Yet among those who observed the encounter many regard this as an untrue account of the events of that evening.

In revisiting the row, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, two BBC journalists, compare the conflicting recollections of eyewitnesses. While not denying that Wittgenstein was indeed gesticulating with the poker during the heated confrontation, did leave early, and did close the door noisily behind him, they conclude that the chronology offered by Popper is spurious.

The ostensible reason for their fiery argument was the stark contrast between their philosophies. Popper, a philosopher in the grand tradition, believed in tackling big, well-defined problems with the aim of advancing theses that could then be confirmed or denied according to the evidence amassed for or against their truth.

Wittgenstein, on the other hand, believed the so-called problems of philosophy were in fact puzzles rooted in conceptual confusion, the result of misuse of language. For him the attempt to solve such "problems" by burrowing deep beneath the language in which they were couched in order to come up with explanations was not just misguided but confounded the confusion. Better to dissolve the puzzles by clarifying the relevant concepts through careful, detailed study of the many and varied uses of language to expose the "knots" in our thinking. To Popper, this was not just a travesty of philosophy, it was a threat to all he held dear.

So far, so contentious. But there was a subtext to the argument that added fuel to the flames, and it is by way of exploring this that the authors take up their central question: "To whom did Popper utter what words in that room full of witnesses, and why?"

Their answer is couched in terms of the differing personal histories of the two protagonists. Both of them grew up in the astonishingly fertile milieu of fin-de-siècle Vienna, embracing religious assimilation; both had to endure the impact of defeat in the Great War; both were, ultimately, cut off from their native country and their families as a result of the Nazi Anschluss: Wittgenstein finding refuge in Britain, Popper in New Zealand.

Yet they remained in more ways than one a world apart. Wittgenstein seemed to enjoy the advantages of birth, connections, and academic regard. He gained easy access to the citadels of philosophy in Vienna and Cambridge. Popper, on the other hand, seemed fated to live and work at the periphery. Whereas Wittgenstein from time to time fled from what he took to be the insufferable consequences of his mounting fame, Popper endured a tragicomic series of perceived slights and neglect that fed a growing resentment that he had never gained the recognition he deserved.

He believed his accomplishments exceeded those of Wittgenstein's and indeed provided a bulwark against what he considered to be the latter's baneful influence. Eventually, he came to Britain - not to Oxbridge as he had hoped, but to London - determined to establish his supremacy over the man he considered his rival and a threat to the very practice of philosophy.

Wittgenstein, on the other hand, immersed as always in his own concerns and unaware of Popper's work except as yet another (unread) instance of the sort of philosophizing that he deplored, saw his antagonist simply as someone to be refuted, the quicker the better before the Moral Science Club meeting went on too long.

While we will never know exactly what happened that evening in King's College, the evidence does not support the notion that Wittgenstein departed the room in a fury at having been bested by his opponent. The authors, through dint of extensive research, cast serious doubt on the account given by Popper. More important, the biographical context they offer provides plausible reasons why it was so important for him to have laid claim to victory in this brief encounter.

From a fragment of philosophical history, Edmonds and Eidinow have produced a fascinating account of an intellectual schism and the passions that sustained it.

• N.L. Malcolm taught philosophy at Cambridge University. 'Wittgenstein and Popper had a profound influence on the way we address the fundamental issues of civilization, science, and culture. Each man believed that he had freed philosophy from the mistakes of its past, and that he carried responsibility for the future.'

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