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Book: Wittgenstein's Poker

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This book was really a fun read. From the tagline of the book, "The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers," the first question you might ask is, "How is the world do you write an entire book about a ten-minute argument?" The answer is, "you don't." Instead, this book serves as a consise dual biography of Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein that uses the format to juxtapose the lives, viewpoints, and backgrounds of the two. The comparison is fun, especially as there are parts set in Vienna alongside Godel, Berg, Schoenberg, Freud, Einstein, and Bohr. I never knew that the Viennese culture had been so prolific, and although none of these greats has any real role in the book, it is fun to read about the culture that produced them. The book also lands itself in Cambridge culture with Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore.

If you read the reviews on Amazon you'll see either those who loved the book, or philosophy majors who complain that it isn't detailed enough. I personally found the complaining reviews overly pedantic, and it's unfortunate that they missed the fun portions of the book (IMHO). Granted, my background in philosophy is fairly light (I only had a Philosophy 101 course in college).

Outline below.

Notes on Wittgenstein's Poker

Ludwig Wittgenstein
- extremely direct
- intense: could frighten people with approach; on more than one occasion wielded poker
- demanding friend
- constantly questioning and requestioning everything. e.g. "What do you mean?" Always looking for clarification, preciseness
- exactness: had ceiling raised 3cm, invented his own paint for walls, radiator he designed had to be cast abroad due to demanding specs
- need to be the dominant personality in a room; difficult for others to get a word in; often overwhelming for more reserved British manner of discourse
- students often imitated his mannerisms; held a strong influence and power over his followers
- enjoyed solitude; frequenty would go into self-imposed exile to work
- fan of detective novels, e.g. Norbert Davis' Max Latin
- mysticism

Academia
- Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus his only publication
- G.E. Moore: "It is my personal opinion that Mr. Wittgenstein's thesis is a work of genius; but be that as it may, it is certainly well up to the standard required for the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Philosophy."
- Even though many at Cambridge disagreed with him, they still recognized his brilliance.
- Not well known beyond the boundaries of philosophy.

Family
- father difficult to please and tyrannical
- three of his brothers committed suicide
- Wittgenstein also suicidal

Karl Popper
- aggressive in argument
- tendency to exaggerate, e.g. exaggerated his relationship with Russell, exaggerated his role in helping fellow Vienna scholar get a position in England
- strong desire to thwart Wittgenstein, supercede him
- 15 references in 'The Open Society and Its Enemies' criticizing Wittenstein

Philosophy
- the best theories (most robust) were those that offered themselves up to, and survived, the strongest tests
- Offered critiques of Plato, Hegel and Marx
- attacked notions of utopian state

Political views
- promoted free society, open exchange of ideas
- frequently expressed his views, but was not a politician
- believed government should act to bring about social justice
- concern for the worst-off
- appeal to individualism
- rejected notions of utopianism
- believed in incremental change
- criticized communism and fascism

Students and followers
- George Soros: Named the Open Society in Popper's honor. Soros made a fortune applying Popper's scientific theories. Invested in a company that survived recession (robutness test)
- Margaret Thatcher called him her favorite philosopher


Popper vs. Wittgenstein Contrasts

1) Insider vs. Outsider
- Wittgenstein well-supported in academia
- Popper always the outsider trying to break in
- Popper the outsider in the Vienna circle as well
- Popper intentionally cast himself as the outsider
- Popper never popular because of his attacks

2) Publications
- Wittgenstein only had one publication to his name (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)
- Popper very prolific

3) Rise
- Wittgenstein's rise fast, immediate
- Popper's rise delayed, arrived later in England and translation of his works into English delayed

4) Influence
- Wittgenstein: philosophy and artists
- Popper: business, politis, science

5) Problems vs. Puzzles
- Popper believed the study of problems worthwhile, puzzles trivial
- Wittgenstein believed that all problems were merely puzzles

6) Approach
- Popper approached one problem at a time
- Popper didn't attract much of a 'school'
- Wittgenstein tried to formulate universal theory
- Wittgenstein had a good following

7) Interesting vs. boring
- Popper espoused intellectual common sense
- Wittgenstein more challenging, thought-provoking

8) Recognition
- Wittgenstein not known outside of philosophy
- Popper received many prizes, at home and abroad
- Popper said to be Thatcher's favorite philosopher
- Popper visited by Dalai Lama, Japanese emperor, etc...

The Argument

Vienna Culture
- Godel
- Alban Berg
- Arnold Schoenberg
- Freud

Vienna Circle
- Albert Einstein
- Niels Bohr
- Rudolph Carnap

Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein
- Russell felt eclipsed by Wittgenstein
- Close relationship did not survive the years


Bertrand Russell and Popper
- Popper probably exaggerated his interactions with Russell
- Russell did not mention Popper in his biographies
- Popper sought Russell's attention, admired Russell

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on December 16, 2002 11:06 PM.

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