More Than Just Words

More Than Just Words

Stuart Schoffman

Wittgensteins Poker By David Edmonds & John Eidinow – Ecco 340 pages; $24 More Than Just Words The debate between Wittgenstein and Popper on language and ethics still resonates today Stuart Schoffman TOWARD THE CONCLUSION of an introductory college course called Hum (Humanities) 5, a survey of Western thought from antiquity to modern times, I approached the professor and declared that I wanted to be a philosophy major. “Why?” he demanded. This struck me as a silly question from a brilliant man – had we not spent a year feasting on Plato and Thomas Aquinas, Kant and Nietzsche? What yeshivah boy would not be enchanted by such fare? “Because I’m interested in ideas,” I ventured. “Ideas,” he sniffed. “Go major in history. Philosophy is about language.”

That was 36 years ago, when philosophy departments throughout the English-speaking world were in thrall to Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889- 1951), patron saint of logical positivism. Originating in post-World War I Vienna, logical positivism held “that the point of philosophy,” as authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow put it, “was just to clarify the meaning of propositions.” In the ensuing decades, Wittgenstein and like-minded thinkers “were to overturn centuries- old philosophical assumptions. In particular, they banished ethics and metaphysics from the discipline.”

Ethics and metaphysics – justice and morality, good and evil, God and the Meaning of Life, in other words, the stuff that matters – isn’t this what philosophy is supposed to be all about? Little did I know, as I naively spoke with my professor at the end of my freshman year, that I had inadvertently invoked a legendary episode that took place at Cambridge University on October 25, 1946, now the centerpiece of Edmonds’ and Eidinow’s edifying and entertaining book “Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers.”

The scene was the weekly meeting of the Moral Sciences Club at King’s College, where the university’s star philosophy professors, including Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, along with their students had come to hear a presentation on the topic “Are There Philosophical Problems?” by Karl Popper of the London School of Economics. Popper, like Wittgenstein, had been born in Vienna to a family no longer Jewish; he was then 44 and a philosophical parvenu in England, having lately landed from New Zealand, where he had spent the war years.

As the authors, both BBC journalists, skillfully relate, accounts of what happened that evening differ – did Wittgenstein actually threaten Popper with a fireplace poker, or did he brandish it to make his points? But what is clear is that Popper, a philosopher of science who had written a fierce critique of totalitarianism called “The Open Society and its Enemies,” had infuriated Wittgenstein by arguing that the latter’s fixation on language and dismissal of moral philosophy was all wrong. “Popper,” as the authors summarize his longstanding position, “compared the interest in language to the practice of cleaning spectacles. Language philosophers might think this is worthwhile in itself. Serious philosophers realize that the only point of the cleaning is to enable the wearer to see the world more clearly.” In short, they write, “Popper saw Wittgenstein as philosophy’s ultimate enemy.”

BUT “WITTGENSTEIN’S POKER” is much more than a popular exposition of philosophical debates; it is a beautifully woven exploration of culture and personality. Edmonds and Eidinow draw red-blooded portraits of Wittgenstein and Popper on a rich historical canvas that includes the damp, sherry-warmed otherworldliness of Cambridge and the tense, anti-Semitic ambience of pre-Hitler Vienna. Wittgenstein was famously imbalanced – two of his brothers committed suicide and he was long on the verge himself – and Popper, if less famously, disagreeable and endlessly contentious. The writers heighten the drama by emphasizing the class conflict between the two men. Wittgenstein, baptized a Roman Catholic at birth, was a scion of one of the wealthiest families in Austria; his father was a steel magnate and arts patron at whose home Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet had its premiere. Popper’s parents were Jewish haute bourgeois who became Protestants before he was born. His father, Simon, was a lawyer and scholar who owned 10,000 books, but lost all his savings in the inflation that followed World War I.

THE AUTHORS DEVOTE several rather fascinating chapters to the Jewishness of the two philosophers. Neither had much good to say about their lineage. “I abhor any form of racialism or nationalism,” Popper wrote in 1969, “and I never belonged to the Jewish faith.” And 15 years later, condemning Israeli policies toward Arabs, he remarked, “It makes me ashamed in my origin.” Wittgenstein referred to European Jews as “a sort of disease and anomaly, and no one wants to put a disease on the same level as normal life.” In 1939 he traveled from England to meet with officials in Berlin and Vienna, as part of his family’s successful effort to pay off the Nazis – to the tune of 1.7 tons of gold – and reclassify themselves as Aryan enough to be spared persecution. Popper, by contrast, lost 16 of his mother’s relatives in the Holocaust.

Popper died in 1994, following an influential and illustrious career. Billionaire George Soros, a former student, named his Open Society Foundation in Popper’s honor; and Sir Peter Medawar, a Nobel laureate in medicine, pronounced him “incomparably the greatest philosopher of science that has ever been.” In the end, however, Edmonds and Eidinow seem inclined toward Wittgenstein, whose enigmatic charisma has long put him on a privileged plane, a symbol of pure genius, though he published little in his lifetime. “The gleam in the eye that was evident in his friends and followers,” they write, “has been passed down to subsequent generations; they pore over his texts like Talmudic scholars divining wisdom from the Torah.” One wonders what mad Ludwig would have made of that analogy, or of this one: “In Jewish terms, he could be seen as a traditional wilderness-wandering tzaddik, a holy man.”

It would appear – in terms of the Jewish dilemmas du jour – that Popper has more to say to us. Surely, in these existentially parlous times, more is at stake than language. In a recent monograph on Popper, the British writer Frederic Raphael – who studied philosophy at Cambridge, and is best known for his brilliant TV series, “The Glittering Prizes” – focuses on Popper’s antipathy to historicism, in Raphael’s words, “the view that history had an inevitable direction and an immutable final destination, which was, so to say, written in the stars.” Such thinking led straight to fascism and communism, of course – but it is also a fair description of the messianism that too often colors politics in our superheated Holy Land.

Yet listen also to Wittgenstein: “You always hear people say that philosophy makes no progress and that the same philosophical problems which were already preoccupying the Greeks are still troubling us today. But people who say that do not understand the reason why it has to be so. The reason is that our language has remained the same and always introduces us to the same questions. As long as there is a verb ‘to be’ which seems to work like ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’; as long as there are adjectives like ‘identical,’ ‘true,’ ‘false,’ ‘possible’; as long as people speak of the passage of time and the extent of space, and so on; as long as all this happens people will always run up against the same teasing difficulties and will stare at something which no explanation seems able to remove.”

I pick up my Hum 5 notebook, lovingly saved all these years, and turn to the last lecture, dated May 10, 1966. The subject was Samuel Beckett’s play “Endgame,” a favorite of my Wittgensteinian professor. “Beckett’s language is intended to make the words mean only what they say,” say my notes. Frankly, I don’t remember Beckett’s text at all. But if we can finally get past words like “legitimate” and “victim” and move, much more modestly, to “here” and “there,” maybe Ludwig Wittgenstein will have poked us in a productive direction.

Copyright c 2002. The Jerusalem Report

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