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Saturday, September 03, 2005

Wittgenstein's Poker....

Just completed (after many months of consuming it in bits and pieces) Wittgenstein's Poker, which is, as its subtitle indicates "The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers." Verdict: interesting, but in the end a missed opportunity -- and therefore somewhat of a waste of time.

At best the specific subject matter (the poker incident in room H3) was worthy of a magazine article, but the two authors, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, took the "opportunity" to delve into the background and lives of the two main characters as well as the opinions and lives of others present, especially Betrand Russell. These biographical elaborations were interesting and worth the read, but rarely were they untethered from the ultimately trivial issue of what took place in H3 and whether Popper "lied" in his autobiographical rendition of the confrontation. The same can be said of the authors all too brief explanation of the issues at the center of the Wittgenstein-Popper "debate". Eventually both the biographical and philosophical aspects of the story faded as the focus shifted back to dealing with the petty questions of whether Popper "lied", whether Wittgenstein stormed out before or after Popper's poker comment (a key question in the supposed lie), the role of Russell in all this, and what ever became of the poke itself....

Adding to my negative assessment of the book is the final judgment made on the influence of both philosophers, for they use as their standard the contemporary reputation of the two among philosophers -- and here Wittgenstein emerges the victor while Popper comes off as a rather second level figure. Not only is this a silly measure, but it has proven to be a fleeting judgment at best. Events of recent years have suddenly made Popper's critiques of closed societies and advocacy of the falsificaiton standard in science (vis-a-vis the reemergence of the debate over evolution) quite relevant, and belies the view of him as a philosopher of fading importance among scholars. (Ironically, this book has helped draw attention to him....)

As someone who espouses explicitly Popperian views in my field while relying on Wittgensteinian logics to do so, I see complementarity where the authors of Wittgenstein's Poker saw division. At the level of the question "What is the nature and role of philosophy?" -- does it deal with real problems or merely engage in solving linguistic puzzles -- there probably was (and remains) a major debate among those who care about such. But in facing the challenges of doing our work as scholars and educators, the contributions of both Popper and Wittgenstein are relevant and necessary.

(This seems to be the theme in a more recent work, Beyond Wittgenstein's Poker, authored by Peter Munz who was not only present at H3, but was the only known student of both men. I look forward to reading it....)

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