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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

     

Wittgenstein's Poker

by
David Edmonds
and
John Eidinow


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the authors

To purchase Wittgenstein's Poker (US edition) To purchase Wittgenstein's Poker (UK edition)



Title: Wittgenstein's Poker
Author: David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 312 pages
Availability: Wittgenstein's Poker - US
Wittgenstein's Poker - UK
Wittgenstein's Poker - Canada
Wittgenstein's Poker - India
Wie Ludwig Wittgenstein (...) drohte - Deutschland
La lite di Cambridge - Italia
  • The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers
  • Includes a Chronology and an Appendix of correspondence from the Times Literary Supplement
  • The cover of the British edition (Faber & Faber) features the famous David Levine caricature of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The American edition (Ecco/HarperCollins) features a cover (designed by someone with the very impressive sounding name of Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich) of two shadowy hands clutching pokers. (See above.) Readers are free to infer anything they wish from this.
  • Catch the catchy German title: Wie Ludwig Wittgenstein Karl Popper mit dem Feuerhaken drohte. We're surprised they could fit it on the cover.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : quite well-done (if very roundabout) book about a famous incident and the people behind it

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A 17/1/2002 N.L.Malcolm
Financial Times . 21/4/2001 Sunil Khilnani
The Guardian A 12/5/2001 Stuart Jeffries
The Independent . 10/4/2001 Andy Martin
The LA Times . 3/2/2002 John Romano
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 15/5/2001 Matthias Kross
News & Observer . 30/12/2001 Mitchell Goodman
New Scientist . 31/3/2001 R.S. Percival
New Statesman . 9/4/2001 Will Self
The NY Rev. of Books . 21/11/2002 Colin McGinn
The NY Times A 8/11/2001 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/12/2001 Jim Holt
The Observer . 15/4/2001 Philip Hensher
San Francisco Chronicle A+ 30/12/2001 Heller McAlpin
The Spectator A+ 28/4/2001 Anthony Gottlieb
Sunday Telegraph C 22/4/2001 Edward Skidelsky
Time . 19/11/2001 .
TLS . 23/11/2001 John Hyman
The Washington Post . 20/1/2002 Mark Edmundson


  Review Consensus:

  No real consensus. Generally favourable, but most have some reservations, and quite a few think the incident isn't significant enough to justify writing so much about it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The authors, through dint of extensive research, cast serious doubt on the account given by Popper. More important, the biographical context they offer provides plausible reasons why it was so important for him to have laid claim to victory in this brief encounter." - N.L.Malcolm, Christian Science Monitor

  • "David Edmonds and John Edinow's book, something of a philosophical shaggy dog, detours via these routes, as it leads us towards the bizarre encounter itself. It is an excellent piece of philosophical journalism, which uses this incident to great effect, taking us easily and pleasurably through Viennese history and culture, Cambridge philosophy, and the personal quirks of its protagonists." - Sunil Khilnani, Financial Times

  • "The authors -- two BBC journalists -- reconstruct the 10-minute row as though it was the Kennedy assassination. (...) It's to the authors' credit that the poker incident is only a springboard to considering some of the most interesting aspects of the lives and works of the pair. (...) Edmonds and Eidinow are particularly interesting on the intellectual life of inter-war Vienna. (...) This is a fascinating book." - Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

  • "This book forensically reconstructs a spirited intellectual battle between two heavyweights, divided by their common Viennese Jewish background. (...) People judge a book by its cover. I imagine publishers think there is something hip and sexy about titles such as Wittgenstein's Poker. They are about as hip and sexy as a halibut on a fishmonger's slab." - Andy Martin, The Independent

  • "(T)his engrossing book should do something to restore a wider awareness of Popper." - John Romano, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Die Autoren verstehen es blendend, biographische Darstellungen (...) mit kompetenten (aber nicht komplizierten) Referaten über die tagesaktuellen intellektuellen Kontroversen etwa im Wiener Kreis und jenem gossip zu verbinden, wie er auf den philosophischen Hintertreppen in den Colleges und in den Intellektuellenzirkeln von Cambridge äusserst subtil gepflegt wurde." - Matthias Kross, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The puerility of the behavior contrasts sharply with the seriousness of the dispute. The authors are aware of this and other ironies, such as the fact that so many distinguished philosophers could disagree about what actually happened that evening in Cambridge." - Mitchell Goodman, News & Observer

  • "(A) gripping account of the fiercely intellectual personalities and troubled histories of these profoundly influential men. But they touch only briefly on the philosophy the intellectual fight." - Roy Scott Percival, New Scientist

  • "(T)he authors have used this bite-sized brouhaha as an opportunity to chew the cud. (...) Wittgenstein's Poker is an engaging, tolerably written book, and I do not want to be disrespectful of the energy and dedication its authors have lavished on it. But, as with the rest of this sub-genre, the pretext for the book is so much slighter than the subject matter itself (...) that you cannot help feeling that it is very much an attempt at profundity by association." - Will Self, New Statesman

  • "(A) lively, well-written work of philosophical biography." - Colin McGinn, The New York Review of Books

  • "No matter how furious the flap, a 10-minute episode could not ordinarily be stretched to book-length proportions. But the authors' ingenuity is way beyond ordinary." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "The face-off makes for a great anecdote, but can it sustain a whole book ? I wou;dn't have thought so before reading Wittgenstein's Poker." - Jim Holt, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Not much is known about the details of the meeting, but it forms an intriguing centre to this entertaining and thoughtful book. There are enough very funny stories about Wittgenstein to make the story interesting even to a resolute non-philosopher like me" - Philip Hensher, The Observer

  • "A meaty, exceedingly well-researched and engaging book about 20th century philosophy that takes this incident as its kernel. In its dramatic readability Wittgenstein's Poker brings to mind Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman; in the depth and breadth of its scholarship, it evokes Carl Schorske's Fin-de-Siecle Vienna." - Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This splendid book on the incident artfully hides its verdict until the end. The authors’ research and admirably sensitive reasoning will surely resolve the controversy once and for all. (...) What makes this book an unexpected gem is that it turns out not to matter in the slightest whether or not Wittgenstein’s poker is as fictional as Diogenes’ chicken. The authors have fashioned a tale around the event that is also a compelling, illuminating and pleasurable portrait of 20th-century philosophy and its background." - Anthony Gottlieb, The Spectator

  • "This is a marketing concept in search of a subject. The poker episode would be interesting only if it represented the culmination of a great personal and intellectual struggle between Wittgenstein and Popper. No such struggle took place." - Edward Skidelsky, Sunday Telegraph

  • "(R)eading Wittgenstein's Poker confirms the suspicion many readers will approach it with, that it makes a flimsy basis for a book about either Popper or Wittgenstein. (...) The writing throughout is fluent and the anecdotes nicely chosen. But readers who are curious about one of these subjects will, I would guess, turn quickly to the bibliography." - John Hyman, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Expertly, Edmonds and Eidinow set the scene. (...) (T)he authors do a fine job of questioning the surviving observers" - Mark Edmundson, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Wittgenstein's Poker focusses on a fairly well-known incident that occurred when Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper met on 25 October 1946 at the Cambridge Moral Science Club. Cambridge professor Wittgenstein was chairman of the club, and Popper (recently appointed to the London School of Economics) had been invited to deliver a paper. At some point that evening Wittgenstein picked up the poker by the fireplace, using it -- so Popper in his autobiography, Unended Quest -- "like a conductor's baton to emphasize his assertions." At some point Wittgenstein stormed out. And at some point Popper was asked to give an example of a moral rule, which he did, suggesting: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers."
       It is a famous episode, often recounted. As Edmonds and Eidinow show, many of the facts are in dispute. In Unended Quest, for example, Popper claims Wittgenstein asked the question, and that Wittgenstein then stormed out after Popper gave his cheeky response. Other witnesses claim that Wittgenstein had stormed out earlier and that someone else asked the question.
       Edmonds and Eidinow consider all the versions (and include in an appendix a series of letters written to the Times Literary Supplement in which several of the witnesses address the dispute). But Wittgenstein's Poker also offers a great deal more, focussing on the two larger than life personalities, Popper and Wittgenstein, and describing their backgrounds and lives. Much of this also helps explain their actions on that fateful day: Wittgenstein, for example, generally stormed out of these discussions before they were over. Popper, still largely unknown (having spent the war years in New Zealand), nevertheless had a long history regarding both Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, and felt he had a great deal to prove and presumably came to Cambridge with a specific agenda.
       Edmonds and Eidinow also nicely introduce many of the other figures present that day -- including Bertrand Russell And they raise some interesting questions -- including what Russell's role might have been in the whole incident, and whether Popper's account (which the evidence strongly suggests is inaccurate) was merely a case of bad memory, or whether it was a willful lie.

       Wittgenstein's Poker is presented in a very roundabout way, circling back to the incident while examining all that needs to be taken into account in fully understanding what transpired.
       The authors offer a fairly detailed biography of both men (and a useful chronology as well). Wittgenstein and Popper were both Viennese, and both came from families of assimilated Jews. Neither had a conventional academic career, but both wound up as highly respected professors -- though Popper's career was just beginning to take off in 1946 while Wittgenstein had already attained his practically legendary status. Both had difficult personalities, but both were also widely (if differently) admired. Surprisingly, they only met that one time.
       Wittgenstein and Popper had philosophical differences, which Edmonds and Eidinow discuss at length. They weren't even on the same page, generally, and so the clash of personalities --- and ideas and ideals -- could not have been unexpected. Edmonds and Eidinow do a fair job of presenting the issues that separated the two. (Essentially their understandings of what philosophy was and was for and could do were completely different.) The philosophy is presented quite nicely, with lots of illustrative anecdotes and quotes.
       There could be more detail, and a more serious examination of the philosophical issues at issue, but Wittgenstein's Poker at least offers a fairly good, broad introduction to them, considering everything from the Vienna Circle and Russell (and the relationship of the two main actors to them) to how Wittgenstein's and Popper's philosophical legacy lives on. Wittgenstein's Poker is a small, entertaining, and never daunting intellectual history of fin-de-siècle Vienna and 20th century philosophy. There are many nice touches, including details about the minor players around the two figures, as well as the authors' delight in minutiae about everything from the fate of the actual poker to the room where the confrontation did (or didn't) take place. Lots of -- perhaps too many -- questions remain open, but Wittgenstein's Poker is certainly an entertaining read. One hopes it will also spur readers to delve deeper into the work of these significant thinkers (and perhaps also consider works such as Malachi Haim Hacohen's excellent biography, Karl Popper: The Formative Years 1902-1945 (see our Karl Popper: The Formative Years 1902-1945)).


       Note: Wittgenstein's Poker is well-researched and nicely presented. However, the authors quote extensively from other sources, and no attribution is provided for most of these quotes. The extensive bibliography provides some guidance, but not enough. For example: the authors quote Iris Murdoch, but no work by Iris Murdoch is listed in the bibliography -- so readers have no way of knowing where her words are taken from. Disappointing.

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Links:

Wittgenstein's Poker: Reviews: Ludwig Wittgenstein: Karl Popper: Other books about Ludwig Wittgenstein under review: Books by Karl Popper under review: Other books about Karl Popper under review: Other books by David Edmonds and John Eidinow under review: Other books by David Edmonds under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       David Edmonds and John Eidinow are journalists for the BBC.

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© 2001-2012 the complete review

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