Hello everybody.* It’s been a long time since my last post. I’m back now, full of ideas, ready for almost anything apart from writing them down in a coherent manner. Yes, it is the “Confused Blues”, a lengthy and rather jangly kind of tune with a guitar break after every verse that is really, really boring. The words aren’t much either.
But here is something to be going on with while I try to hone my wits to explore the new territory revealed to me while I’ve been away.
This week I read a book about an allegedly famous confrontation between two of my favourite thinkers, Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein’s poker.** This took place at a philosophy club meeting in 1946 in Cambridge, England and lasted ten minutes, yet somehow the authors teased more than 200 pages out of their PCs, not counting source notes, index and photos.
Popper didn’t like Wittgenstein or his ideas, even a little bit. You might think that the two, both from Vienna and its feisty Jewish intellectual climate, would have bonded once out in the wider world with its hostile, indeed menacing attitudes, but no. Popper spent WWII in Christchurch, New Zealand writing his second masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and it was scarcely off the presses at the war’s end when he had the chance to throw darts in person at Wittgenstein and his ideas as set out in a 1921 work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Popper really trashes the Tractatus in Open Society, and in my opinion he was right to do so. As it happens, that was Ludwig’s opinion too – at least Wittgenstein had renounced the Tractatus. By 1946 his thinking had gone well past what is in that slim revolutionary er tract. It is unclear how much Popper knew this at the time, and Poker doesn’t really clear this up.
What Popper didn’t like was that Wittgenstein seemed to say that philosophy was just confused thinking about grammar and that once people thought about grammar in the right way, about the way problems were posed, they would discover that the problems would disappear. This might have been true of the Tractatus, but if so Wittgenstein’s later thinking was far more sophisticated and subtle, and Popper didn’t seem to get this, ever.
What Poker does best is set out the grounds for their disagreement and suggest without saying so that they were talking past each other, in particular Popper. It also seems to suggest that both are no longer important, or so important, as they once were. We seem to be in post-Popperian and post-Wittgensteinian times now. I’m not so sure, but read it for yourself if you wish.
There is something else the book shows without coming right out and saying it: both of these great minds were concealed inside a cocoon of unpleasantness. Despite having a coterie of admirers that is at times jaw-dropping – Wittgenstein’s clique at Cambridge dressed as he did – each could be quite nasty, arrogantly nasty.
Does this diminish their stature? Well, not to me. It is a shame that Popper felt the need to engage with Wittgenstein in the way he did at the time he did. To me, he was wrong about what Wittgenstein was on about, and probably knew it, which drove him to attack instead of retract. But Open Society (and his earlier masterpiece, the Logic of Scientific Discovery) are landmarks to me, today. We need more than ever to hoist the standards of tolerance and freedom espoused in Open Society and to see off the looming perversities of their opposites. They are looming, and they are perverse.
Wittgenstein by contrast did not feel the need to combat Popper. He was so up himself, or if you like, so certain of his rightness, Popper’s broadside(s) scarcely registered. His dismissal of Popper was hardly atypical – he frequently left the philosophy club meetings after a short time – and he wrote in his diary about other things. His was an intolerance that did him no favours, and that he probably could not have cared less doesn’t change anything.
*American poet Hart Crane’s last words as he jumped off a ship in 1932 were “Goodbye, everybody”.
**Wittgenstein’s poker by David Edmonds and John Eidenow is published by Faber & Faber. The poker in question is a fire-tending device and not a card game. Wittgenstein, who was chairman of the philosophy club, used to shake it for emphasis and on this occasion in a seemingly threatening manner.