a common reader

Popper… and Wittgenstein

· 31 January 2014 |  by Maarten
· Published in: biografie · English texts · FILOSOFIE · FOCUS
· Tagged with: · ·

“DavidDavid Edmonds & John Eidinow
Wittgenstein’s Poker

I recently read Wittgenstein’s Poker, a brief enough account of a unique meeting of minds: Karl Popper versus Ludwig Wittgenstein.

As time is limited, in life as in everything, I like to read popularized, digestible presentations of philosophical or scientific ideas. Most likely I will never get round to read either of Popper’s major works, The Open Society and Its Enemies or The Logic of Scientific Discovery, nor Wittgenstein’s only lifetime publication, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: they are all likely to cost me weeks and weeks of labored reading.

Thus I was enthusiastic when I encountered this book: people praised its readability, and the first page promised it to be “an engaging mixture of philosophy, history, biography and detection.”

While it actually was all that, I feel strangely let down anyway.

Firstly, by Wittgenstein himself. More or less all I knew of him before reading this book, was that he is the 20th century philosopher anyone interested in the world of ideas has to know; that his Tractatus is quite intractable; and that his philosophy was related to language. After reading the book, I barely know more—of relevance, anyway. Of course, I know much more about the behaviour of the man himself, and about the effect he had on others, and even what he had to say about language and its influence on philosophy. But I know of no ideas, opinions or contributions of his that would justify—in my humble opinion—his elevated status in the must-know-philosophers list. Until some other good text as yet convinces me this status is deserved in a better way than by self-perpetuation, I remain disappointed in the promise resounding in the name “Wittgenstein”.

Secondly, I feel let down by the editors of the book, and by the authors for going along with them. While the book is as much about Popper as about Wittgenstein—and correctly so—the title, back cover, and other parts of the publication where commercial considerations play, scream the name “Wittgenstein” and whisper the name “Popper”. Why? Are they even after writing and editing this book not better informed than to feed this self-perpetuation of Wittgenstein’s status? It’s a shame, because Popper deserves to be better understood. His ideas actually are better understood by most contemporary scientists—such was the strength of his contribution—even though many may not know they are originally his.

Lastly, I may have let down myself by buying precisely this “digestible presentation of philosophical ideas”. The reason for buying a book that says:

The encounter lasted only ten minutes, and did not go well. Almost immediately, rumours started to spread around the world that the two philosophers had come to blows, armed with red-hot pokers…

is precisely the same as the reason for clicking any of the “most popular” articles (“Below the Bikini Line,” “Meetings With a Murderer?”) on a news website: cheap thrill. Though it makes for entertaining reading, well worked out in this case, in the end I’m not sure what I’ve learned.


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