The time was 8:30 in the evening of Friday, October 25, 1946. The place was a set of rooms in the Gibbs Building of Cambridge University. The occasion was the weekly meeting of the Cambridge Moral Science Club, gathered to hear a paper by Dr. Karl Popper on the topic, “Are There Philosophical Problems?” A program that would ordinarily, on most campuses and with most participants, provide a sedate evening of academic chatter exploded in a verbal firefight between two extraordinarily sharp thinkers, Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The questions that remain today are what, exactly, was Wittgenstein’s intent when he waved a poker taken from the fireplace, and what did Popper say to him and when did he say it.
The most prominent member of the audience was Bertrand Russell, who had supported Wittgenstein’s early work but by the time of the meeting had lost faith in him. Wittgenstein found Russell “glib” and quick, but superficial. Russell lauded Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) for its attack on Plato’s political philosophy, but never quite reciprocated Popper’s intense admiration for him. As much as Popper wanted to demolish Wittgenstein in debate, he surely wanted to impress Russell at the same time. Indeed, it has been suggested that Russell instigated Popper’s attack, but the evidence is slight.
Besides Russell, the thirty members present that night included Sir John Vinelott, one-time English High Court judge; Stephen Toulmin, who became a distinguished philosopher himself; Wasfi Hijab, the club secretary and one of Wittgenstein’s most devoted disciples; Richard Braithwaite, who occupied H3, the meeting rooms at apartment 3, staircase H; Peter Munz, formerly a student of both Popper and Wittgenstein; Michael Wolff, who was to become a Victorian specialist; and Peter Geach, a postgraduate student married to a Wittgenstein follower, Elizabeth Anscombe. Reconciling their accounts is difficult.
Geach recalls Wittgenstein demanding of Popper, “Consider this poker,” which he held up but soon dropped on the fireplace tiles. Braithwaite then spirited the poker away and Wittgenstein left with no ceremony. Wolff’s memory is of Wittgenstein holding the poker absentmindedly before exchanging sharp words with Russell, who told him, “You’re mixing things up, Wittgenstein. You always mix things up.” Munz remembers Wittgenstein waving the poker—red-hot—in Popper’s face and Russell barking, “Wittgenstein, put that poker down at once,” at which point Wittgenstein obeyed Russell and stalked out slamming the door. Toulmin recollects only that Wittgenstein picked up the poker to illustrate a point about causation and later left quietly. But as Popper has told the story, Wittgenstein was waving the poker and demanding an example of a moral principle, prompting Popper to reply, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers,” at which retort Wittgenstein hurled the poker into the fireplace and slammed the door on his way out. Others say that Popper uttered this statement of principle only after Wittgenstein’s departure. Vinelott suggests that Popper was merely joking and that Wittgenstein left—with no slamming of doors—out of contempt for Popper’s facetiousness. There are other differences in details, but on the key question of which came first, Popper’s remark or Wittgenstein’s departure, Geach insists that Popper just plain lied and that Wittgenstein left the meeting before Popper’s quip.
Understanding this bizarre incident requires some knowledge of what brought these two intense Vienna-born assimilated Jewish intellectuals together at Cambridge University, and of the philosophical currents that bore them to prominence.
Wittgenstein was born April 26, 1889, the eighth and last child of the Austrian millionaire industrialist Karl Wittgenstein and his wife Leopoldine, née Kalmus. After completing his early schooling at Linz in 1906, Wittgenstein studied engineering for two years in Berlin before moving to Manchester University, where he read Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica (3 vols., 1910-1913). In 1911, Wittgenstein introduced himself to Russell, astonishing the philosopher with his brash genius, and in 1912 entered Trinity College, Cambridge. In August, 1914, Wittgenstein joined the Austro-Hungarian army and, after recovering from a wound in an artillery workshop, volunteered for front-line duty in Galicia, Bukovina, and Italy, where he was awarded the Distinguished Military Service Medal with Swords before becoming a prisoner of war in 1918. During these hectic years, Wittgenstein finished his first work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, finally published in 1922, by which time Wittgenstein had given his inherited fortune to his sisters, begun teaching in rural schools, and undertaken a 5,700-word dictionary for schoolchildren.
Wittgenstein renewed his...
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