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Monday, December 13, 2010

From Cosmopolis to Karl Popper

- Baldassare Castiglione [or Karl Popper?] by Raphael

I was trying to remember the name of a book today - Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity - and then curious, I looked up the writer, Stephen Toulmin, and then followed a link to the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club, which mentioned a famous ten minute argument between philosophers Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein I know a bit about - I tried and succeeded in avoiding all philosophy classes in college that dealt with him :) but I know less about Popper: just that he was interested in the philosophy of science and in how to assess truth. Here's a video about Popper ...

But back to the argument between Wittgenstein and Popper .....

His [Wittgenstein's] dominance of the Moral Sciences Club reached its height in October 1946 during a meeting that is now legendary among philosophers. It was on 25 October in Richard Braithwaite's rooms in the Gibbs building at King's (room three on the first floor of staircase H). A confrontation arose between Wittgenstein, who was chairing the meeting, and the evening's guest speaker, Karl Popper, Reader in Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. The meeting had been organized by Wasfi Hijab, the club secretary, and was attended by 30 philosophers—dons and students—including Peter Geach, Peter Gray-Lucas, Georg Kreisel, Peter Munz, Stephen Plaister, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Toulmin, John Vinelott, and Michael Wolff. It was reportedly the only time Popper, Russell, and Wittgenstein—three of the world's most eminent philosophers—were ever together.

Popper was reading "Are there philosophical problems?" and an argument broke out about the nature of philosophy: whether philosophical problems were real, which was Popper's position, or just linguistic puzzles, which was Wittgenstein's. The pair almost came to blows, with Wittgenstein pointing Braithwaite's reportedly red-hot poker at Popper, demanding that he give an example of a moral rule. Popper offered one: "Not to threaten visiting speakers with pokers," at which point Wittgenstein stormed out in a huff. The minutes make no mention of the poker incident, recording only that, "The meeting was charged to an unusual degree with a spirit of controversy" ...

From here I followed a link to a page on a 2001 book written about the argument, Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers by BBC journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow. And from there I went to a review of the book, in The New Yorker by someone who'd known Popper - The Porcupine: A pilgrimage to Popper by Adam Gopnik. The article is interesting but long, so here's just the beginning of it .....


The Porcupine: A pilgrimage to Popper
by Adam Gopnik
April 1, 2002

Many years ago, when I was young and still in search of wisdom, I went on a pilgrimage to meet the man I thought was the wisest in the world. I came away wiser, though what I learned was what most pilgrims learn, which is that if you want to become wise you should not go on pilgrimages. I hadn’t thought much about the pilgrimage, or the wise man, until the past few months, when a friend sent me a new book that brought it, and him, back to mind.

The book is “Wittgenstein’s Poker” (Ecco; $24), by the British journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow, and it has become an improbable best-seller. It’s a terrific book, a fuguelike account of everything we know and don’t know about a ten-minute squabble between two great and ornery Austrian-Anglo-Jewish philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper—the wise man I went to see. The squabble took place in 1946 in a Cambridge tutorial room, where Wittgenstein either did or did not threaten Popper with a poker and Popper either did or did not, when asked by Wittgenstein to give an instance of a moral rule, say, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.” The authors conclude that the poker incident happened but that the line was strictly a wishful afterthought. They also suggest that a real pivot of the fight was both men’s need for the attention of a third philosopher in the room, Bertrand Russell, who was Wittgenstein’s intellectual father.

Though Wittgenstein is the star of “Wittgenstein’s Poker,” Popper is, I think, meant to be its hero: while Wittgenstein’s puzzles made for the bigger reputation, Popper’s problems presented the bigger ambition. Yet Popper suffered from the shortest half-life, and wore the smallest halo, of any great thinker who has ever lived. He reconfigured the image of the natural sciences in a way that altered everything from art history to Marxist philosophy, whose pretensions to scientific force he ended. In 1945, Russell could write, as an unexceptionable fact, that science dealt with the realm of the definite, philosophy with the unprovable. A half century later, no philosopher (including Russell) would have written that. Everyone accepts that science centers on the hypothetical and the conjectural, the imaginative leap and the subsequent search for a significant test, and the questions turn on just what tests, and just what guesses, count.

Popper was almost single-handedly responsible for this revolution and never got enough credit for it, as he would have been the first to tell you. In fact, since his death, in 1994, he seems to have receded right into history. Though a very good biography of him came out in 2000, Malachi Haim Hacohen’s “Karl Popper: The Formative Years” (Cambridge), and though he has had fierce admirers (George Soros’s Open Society Institute was inspired by him), his reputation is closer today to Ayn Rand’s, say, than to Russell’s, sectarian rather than secure.

Among the many themes of “Wittgenstein’s Poker,” the most human involves not so much the space between character and achievement (“Nasty Men Make Nice Things; Unpleasant People Think Important Thoughts” is, after all, the headline on almost every chapter in cultural history) as the more ticklish, almost taboo subject of intellectual glamour. Why is it that some people—and no one is a better instance of this than Wittgenstein—are able to impose their personality so forcefully on a time that they seem unencompassably large, while others, however large their thoughts, remain in some way little? This mystery, which, fully inflated, takes in everything from the different receptions of John the Baptist and Jesus to those of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, is one of the great, unacknowledged motives of human affairs—and one whose mystery I experienced when I went on my pilgrimage to visit Popper, at his home in the English countryside. No hero, I learned, ever made it harder on his worshippers, and no thinker gave better evidence in his person of just how much it is temperament that can fix a thinker’s place in the history of thought, changing and transposing and often untuning the song he sings.

It was the winter of 1975; I was staying with my sister in Oxford, and had spent Christmas in Paris with my cousin, with whom I went to movies. I also went to the Louvre every day. I haunted Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, the famous courtier and humanist. In Castiglione’s gentle gaze and half smile, civilization dancing at the serene corners of the eyes, I was sure that I was already seeing the face of the philosopher I was on my way to visit ........



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