Tuesday, July 06, 2004


Just finished reading "Wittgenstein's Poker" and want to say a few words about it. Over the past many evenings, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee, it has been an inspiring, informative and entertaining journey for me. Two towering intellects engaged in a battle of wits at Cambridge on October 1946. On one side was Ludwig Wittgenstein (who I shall call Witt in order to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome), widely regarded as the greatest Philosopher of the century. On the other was Karl Popper, a profound mind that had published classic works on the Philosophy of Science and Politics. Probably his most important work was "The Open Society", the definitive book destroying all forms of totalitarianism, striking at the heart of Plato's doctrine of a select clique becoming the ruling class. However, it was their views on language and logic which really are at the heart of the book. I can hardly elucidate their respective theories, partly because its difficult for me to do so in words, essentially a fact which Witt was profoundly concerned with. The book deals mainly with Popper and Witt's radically different personalities, approaches to Philosophy and indeed to life in general. But in doing so, it cuts a memorable swathe through early twentieth century Vienna, which was a glorious seat of culture and science. It documents the growing anti-Semitism there making it the birthplace of one of the most destructive and horrible events in human history. Hitler spent a few miserable years here; he was struck by the pathetic lethargy in people, brought on by the war, and the absolute absence of belligerent patriotism which he thought had brought on his people's defeat. Parallel to this, it was in Vienna that the rabid roots of anti-Semitism took roots in his mind and heart. And it was in this place that both Popper and Wittgenstein both grew up, but in radically different environments. Witt was the son of a steel magnate, probably one of the richest men in Europe whereas Popper was the son of a well to do, but not opulent lawyer. Both grew up in tumultuous times. Wittgenstein was as otherworldly as a man can get. After distinguished service in World War 1, when he also astonishingly wrote the most important work of his life, he continued his work on the interpretation of language. After the war, he gave away most of his estate and inheritance to his brother and sisters, and to needy artists, and donned an ascetic robe of living. According to him, Philosophy is essentially about puzzles. When you say something like, "This apple is red”, you are essentially establishing a correlation between the qualities of redness and the actual existence of the colour red in the world. This may sound trivial, but it is best exemplified in the paradox posed by Bertrand Russell namely “The king of France is bald”. This seems to be a perfectly reasonable statement until we realize that France has NO king. The problem becomes even thornier with phrases such as “The golden mountain”. What does this phrase exactly mean? If we accept the wisdom of the 18th century philosophers, then it is supposed to represent an object. But there is no such thing as a ‘golden mountain’. An even stranger statement is “The golden mountain does not exist”. Here, you are talking about a purported object, only to then deny its existence! It was precisely such kinds of statements that Witt sought to clarify. I would not want to bore you with the details of how he managed to do that (and also because at least at the moment, I find it hard to put it in words), but would rather talk more about what’s written in the book. By all accounts, Witt was an exceptionally otherworldly person. People record having a conversation with him as ‘terrifying’ because of the ferocity with which he was frank about your opinions and about his own arguments. His finest work was called ‘Tractatus Logico Philosophicus’ and when he wanted to get it published, he sent a strange note to the publisher. The note said that the book consisted of two parts, one written and the other unwritten. He was sending the written part to the publisher, but the unwritten part was much more important. No wonder any publisher in his right mind refused to publish his book. Witt’s book tries to document the problems with language, and its very limitations to speak about itself. For example, if one wants to make propositions about English grammar, can one use English grammar itself to make them? This ‘self referential’ property makes analyzing some situations impossible. To get around this, Witt evolved his own theme in which propositions are of two kinds; those which can be talked about and those which can only be ‘pictured’. He called it the ‘picture theory of language’. The last statement of Witt’s work has become part of philosophical folklore; “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”...
Popper, on the other hand, was very much a worldly person. Unlike Witt who had been born in a family of great affluence and influence, he had had to struggle for making a living and a mark on the world. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1938 after the annexation of Austria by Germany. During the war, he published “The Open Society and its Enemies”, which he called his “contribution to the war effort”. Popper was against Witt’s dogmas. He also resented the almost godlike worship with which Witt’s students regarded him. According to Popper, the world consisted of problems, not puzzles. He had been a champion against the Verificationist School of the famed Vienna Circle of Philosophers, which held the view that the only way to account for the existence of an object was a process for its verification. Thus the meaning of the word “yellow” is tantamount to a process for measuring, say, a particular wavelength of light. Popper argued against this by invoking the “Problem of Induction” which very simply states that one can never make a statement about a property or object, even with verification unless one’s sample space is infinite. For example, we simply cannot say that the sun rises in the east, only because it has done so always. Popper’s greatest contribution to philosophy was his way of getting around this problem; the method of falsification. According to him, no amount of positive observation is sufficient to verify a theory, but a single negative observation is enough to conclude that it’s false. Hence, the real bedrock of existence for a theory is falsification. Of course, Popper’s premise is also not infallible because it does not hold for say, the theory of probability. In spite of this, it’s a powerful tool for analysis of scientific laws.
Anyway, so the book talks about the backgrounds of the two men, about the audience that day in Cambridge and about the ‘third man’, Bertrand Russell. It depicts lucidly how the two men brought their unique intellects and personality to the debate. The questions debated that day concerned a question greater than even philosophy itself; “Are there Philosophical problems?” Popper thought that there are. Witt thought that all the ‘problems’ that Popper was talking about, were merely puzzles created by man’s common existence and by personal and social conventions. The meeting lasted long and bitter and at the end, Witt reputedly pointed a red-hot poker from the fireplace at Popper (hence “Wittgenstein’s Poker”). The meeting ended with Witt storming out after a particularly provoking statement by Popper. Witt died in 1952, Popper lived much longer. Over the years, he never could forget his animosity against Witt and never failed to criticize him in print. He thought he had won, although others are less sure. In scores of interviews with many surviving witnesses of the debate, the authors construct a vastly entertaining and comprehensive document, detailing early twentieth century Europe, the problems of philosophy and the state of language. They demonstrate once again that even a subject seemingly as unworldly as Philosophy is very much a human endeavor, subject to the same prejudices and tempers that befell all of us, whether common men, or great intellects. I strongly recommend the book.


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