Wittgenstein’s Poker

Last night I finished reading Wittgenstein’s Poker: the story of a ten minute argument between two great philosophers. It’s actually one of a number of books I occasionally buy originally for my mother which we then both read and then talk about, fairly informally and on an ad-hoc basis This particular book I would recommend for the intelligent non-specialist, as to someone with a degree in Philosophy (like myself) it’s a bit shallow in places…

What I do like about this particular work, however, is the way the story unfolds. This is probably due to the fact that one of the writers of the book, David Edmonds, specialises in documentaries. The way in which a brief confrontation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper in a small room at Cambridge Unversity in 1946 is used as a lens to understand wider events is fairly successful. The most enjoyable and interesting parts of the book are the lead-up to the incident, where the authors inform us of the philosophers’ shared cultural heritage, their struggles and the differences in their philosophical bases. As I mentioned above, in places the analysis of their philosophy can seem a little lightweight, but then I’m used to reading philosophical texts!

Where the argument itself is discussed, however, the book falls a bit flat. Given that this is the finale of the book one is left feeling somewhat underwhelmed. The accounts given by those present seem to disagree and it all feels like something of an anti-climax. What is put across well, however, is the state of mind both men were likely to have been in at the time of the meeting. Although there is an attempt to give a cinematic quality to the ending by reconstructing the events in almost real-time, this is perhaps a work which would have made a better documentary than book.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it: I did. It’s just that, like many co-authored books, the flow of the story was a bit patchy and the conclusion was somewhat of a let-down. What it has done for me, nevertheless, has given me an insight into the life of both Wittgenstein and Popper’s backgrounds. As, for me, people are a product of their circumstances and upbringing, the extent to which this informs their philosophy is enlightening.