simply wasn’t in the mood



Wittengenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidnow is a forensic analysis of a truncated but still legendary seminar in 1946 at Cambridge University between two great philosophical minds in which Ludwig Wittgenstein seemed to threaten visiting speaker Karl Popper with a red hot poker when the latter had the audacity to challenge the former’s ideas.

Evidently Karl saw Wittengenstein as his nemesis and the meeting as the defining moment of his career, whereas for Ludwig this was just one of dozens of similar evenings and simply wasn’t in the mood for the upstart visitor, who continued to see himself as the winner of the encounter even though Ludwig was known for his temper, known for waving things about and for leaving sessions noisily and unannounced in the middle.

At first it’s difficult to understand why two grown men would argue over something like the meaning of a sentence, but then as Edmonds and Eidnow begin to explore their Jewish heritages and the experience of their families in Vienna during the annexation by Germany, we're reminded that people have gone to war for much less and at least Ludwig threw the poker back into the fire before he did any real damage other than bruising a few egos.

Writing in a quasi-academic, generally accessible style, the authors are at their best when attempting to filter the truth of the ten minute incident from contemporary accounts including Popper’s own unreliable autobiography. If the book isn’t as lucid when describing the philosophical underpinnings, it’s because the work being carried out in that period has drifted into the realm of self-evident truth, underscoring the importance of the encounter within the intellectual history of the country.

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