Books : reviews

David Edmonds, John Eidinow.
Wittgenstein's Poker.
Faber and Faber. 2001

On 25 October 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting did not go well.

Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. Almost immediately, rumours spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red-hot pokers. But precisely what happened in those ten minutes remains the subject of intense disagreement.

Twenty years on, when Popper wrote up his account of the incident, he portrayed himself the victor. But everyone present seems to have remembered events differently. What really went on in that room? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, and the difference between problems and puzzles?

Wittgenstein’s Poker is an engaging mixture of philosophy, history, biography and detection. It ranges from the place of assimilated Jews in fin-de-siècle Vienna, to what happens to memory under stress, to a vivid portrait of Cambridge and its eccentric set of philosophy dons, including Bertrand Russell (who acted as umpire). At the centre of the story stand the two philosophers themselves, proud, irascible, larger-than-life – and spoiling for a fight.