Cory Ruda To Pose the Question From Wittgenstein’s Poker October 25th, 1946: A battle of epic proportions would

take place that night. The battlefield chosen was room H3 in King’s college, Cambridge. The weapon of choice would not be guns, or swords, or even a fireplace poker, though one would be brandished. The weapons instead would be words. The question at stake is no less than this: Is philosophy nothing more than a series of confounding words, or are there real philosophical problems that could be solved to benefit mankind? Two esteemed philosophers would take stance at either side, their fiery personalities and unwavering determinations clashing. The story presented within the covers of “Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers” is that of the true nature of philosophy. One combatant behind it is the Austrian eccentric Ludwig Wittgenstein, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His opponent that night would be Karl Popper, another Austrian who taught at the London School of Economics. They would be meeting in room H3 in King’s college, Cambridge, the room of esteemed philosopher Richard Braithwaite, so that Popper could present his paper, “Are There Philosophical Problems?” during a meeting of Cambridge’s Moral Science Club. Wittgenstein was long known for his stance that philosophical problems are caused only by the misuse, misunderstanding, and distortion of the vernacular by those presenting these philosophical problems, or “Ordinary Language Philosophy.” Popper took the opposing stance. He believed, over anything else, that philosophical problems mattered just as much as the sciences in which he worked.

Wittgenstein matured intellectually with a deep concern for logic. His mind worked in a very mathematical way, with a large interest in the engineering. By the age of twenty he had already designed full plans for planes, and had designed early, fullyfunctional jet engines which influenced greatly the future and development of modern jet planes. It is then no surprise that he stepped into the logics of language. He viewed all philosophical problems as mere puzzles or games, supposing that they exist only due to the nature of communication. Wittgenstein’s real concern in philosophy was logic, and its attempt to work communication into its basics, so that abstractions and vague explanations could be fully removed from communication. Popper, on the other hand, was much more interested in finding how philosophy could relate better to man’s work in the sciences. He worked to prove that philosophy is a necessary part of scientific growth, and that, to do so, society must work to forget about its seeming obsessive trust in empiricism, and to move closer to proof of scientific theory indirectly. He argued that abstract concepts, such as the scientific method and many philosophical problems, could easily step out of their empirical boundaries and could advance and evolve through indirect proofs. In addition to this radical approach to philosophical proofs, he also worked to redefine what is and what is not scientific. Popper tried to do this by setting up that falsifiability need be a requisite for what is scientific; That is, if a theory is scientific, and if it is false, then it could be proven false by experimentation and observation. The two combined that fateful night in room H3, and the results were both explosive, and mysterious. Unfortunately, the actual events of their meeting are very little more than vague. What is agreed is that Popper opened up his paper with very little

introduction. He presented the question, “Are there philosophical problems?” then read his paper. Wittgenstein posed the question at some point of, “ What is a moral rule?” while emphasizing his points with a fireplace poker, and, at some point, the response of, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with a fireplace poker,” was given by Popper. Also, it is true that at some point, Wittgenstein loudly left the room. This could be interpreted either in saying that Wittgenstein was upset, or that he simply was being himself, by all accounts given, in that he never left a room quietly. He would also frequently leave the meetings early, in that he would have complaints against him that he would often speak so much that no one else in these meetings would have the chance to address any issues. Popper took this, however, as Wittgenstein being “defeated,” conceding his side of the argument. That is, at least, what he said in his future recollection of the night. Perhaps, however, Popper only saw what he wished to see. He admits previous knowledge of Wittgenstein’s theories and ideas, having read his Tractatus Logico. Clearly, Popper knew that Wittgenstein would find much to object with in Popper’s paper and arguments. He also, undoubtedly, had heard of Wittgenstein’s fiery, passionate disposition. Was Popper, perhaps, waiting for a pivotal confrontation with the fellow Austrian thinker? It isn’t very hard to believe, especially with his most esteemed hero Bertrand Russell, a long well-known and influential British philosopher in the room with them. Popper had long hoped to gain the admiration of Russell, often asking him for critical reviews of his work, as well as general advice on different topics. He even dedicated a book to Russell, and Russell was mentioned multiple times in his biography. Russell, though, never seemed to notice the young man. He had, however, noticed

Wittgenstein very early in his life, and looked at him, for many years as a prodigy, as well as a successor in the field of logic. This relationship had long been ruined, however, when Wittgenstein had decided that Russell was no longer capable of thinking and producing the works that he should be able to do, and once did quite well. Wittgenstein and Russell now viewed each other as a wasted mass of possibility and promise. So was it possible that Popper was simply attempting to “have it out” and gain the upper hand on Wittgenstein, who possibly was a symbolization of everything Popper disagreed with? Did he care more about earning the affection and admiration of Russell? Quite possibly. Did Wittgenstein carry the same motives heading to the meeting of the MSC? Most likely not. Wittgenstein would be hard-pressed to miss a meeting at any time, unless, of course, he were out of country or not allowed to attend the meeting. There were quite a few that he were more-or-less banned from for his tendency to speak so much that others would not be able to participate, as previously mentioned. Also, as to his heated response to Popper’s ideas, it wasn’t unlike him. He was known well for his passion when it came to debate. Popper, to Wittgenstein, seems more likely as just another visiting lecturer. To Popper, though, it seems like that Wittgenstein could have been seen as a threat, an enemy beyond that of your average debate partner. What of the fiery debate, though? What was its significance, its outcome? The debate was never finished. Wittgenstein left, and the argument wasn’t truly taken up again by any of the other viewers. The two never saw each other again. Popper, up until the day he died, believed that he had one. Is that so? Did he defeat Wittgenstein, as he

thought, and cause him to leave the room is shame and loss? This can be speculated by anyone, but it seems unlikely. Wittgenstein was not the type of man to concede to anyone, including himself. He would quite often leave himself awake at night, and, when younger, pace up and down Russell’s room pondering on logic and other puzzles that he could not solve. Besides, a man who is quoted as saying, “A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring,” doesn’t seem to be one to storm out, beaten. Perhaps this debate will just have to go through history as a draw. It seems silly to think, however, that Wittgenstein could be right in his thinking, at least in the debate he took up with Popper. To regard itself as merely the discussion and thought on puzzle, philosophy would be demoting itself from its esteemed position of thought and logic to merely a way of figuring out complex games. Philosophy can and has many times in the past be proven to be more than just musings of word puzzles and twisting of language. For even one to discover the self through philosophical musings such as the Eastern philosophy-religions of Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism, or even Christianity or Islam can be considered important enough to define itself as more than just games and puzzles. Ethics and morality have long been questions posed to philosophy, and any advancement, large or small, to promote good nature and will through the world is a problem solved that is much more than simply a game or thoughtpuzzle. However, it is understandable that one could think that philosophical problems are merely puzzles. Technically, there is no avoiding this thought. What is any problem but a puzzle to solve? To deny at all that puzzles do not exist in philosophy is to be blind

to the very nature of the field! Under this definition, however, is must also be granted that anything involving engineering, finance, or medicine is also a field defined by puzzle, so that everyone in the world would become a vision of Dr. House! Really, though, what is the real point behind arguing such things? It isn’t as if defining philosophy one way or the other would make or break the discipline. People will always continue to study the course, be it the way of puzzles, or the study of real life issues. Arguing semantics is definitely not as important as arguing most other things could be, whether Wittgenstein thinks it is or not. These two, near-opposite individual, Popper and Wittgenstein, existed together in a relatively close area, yet they only ever met on that one powerful night which will ever go forth in mystery. We know, at least, what they argued over, and who they are. We can assume why they argued, and what their impact on society from that argument is. Is it really necessary to understand the very details of it? After all, it’s over fifty years later and we’re still arguing over what happened there.

Works Cited E d m o n d s , D a v i d . W i t t g e n s t e i n ' s P o k e r : T h e S t o r y o f a Te n M i n u t e A r g u m e n t B e t w e e n Tw o G r e a t P h i l o s o p h e r s . 2 n d . N e w Yo r k : HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2002. Print.

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