Wittgenstein’s Poker and the Purpose of Philosophy

images-1I just finished reading an excellent book, Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. It is a fascinating story about a ten-minute (yes, a ten-minute!!) argument between two of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers: Ludwig Wittengstein and Karl Popper. The book is part journalistic investigation (as the authors try and piece together what really happened and the sequence of events that took place at the Cambridge Moral Science Club on the evening of Friday, 25 October 1946), part history of 20th century philosophy (as we are treated to biographical information and stories about G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, Peter Geach, Elizabeth Anscombe, Wittgenstien, Popper, and many lesser known but still important philosophers from Cambridge University and the Vienna Circle), and part world history (as we read of the rise and influence of Nazi Germany and the impact of anti-Semitism on both Wittgenstein and Popper).

What was the nature of the philosophical dispute that took place between Wittgenstein and Popper on October 25, 1946? It had to do with the purpose of philosophy. According to Wittgenstein, the purpose of philosophy was to solve various puzzles about Language. Philosophical questions are not problems, but puzzles and “in unraveling them, we are not uncovering the hidden logic . . . but merely reminding ourselves what already exists, how language is actually employed.”[1] The aim of philosophy is to disentangle ourselves from our self-enveloped confusion—“to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.”[2]

Not so for Popper. The aim of philosophy was to solve real philosophical problems (and not merely to solve puzzles about language use). For Popper there are real problems about the world that philosophers should engage in—such as the structure of society, the nature of science, the problem of induction, probability, infinity, and causation (to name a few). Thus, “Wittgenstein . . . did not show the fly the way out of the bottle. Rather, I see in the fly unable to escape the bottle, a striking self-portrait of Wittgenstein.”[3] Popper was keen to dispatch the “rubbishy notion that playing with words was philosophy.”[4]

So, the issue of the very nature of philosophy was the topic of the argument of October 25, 1946 at the MSC in Cambridge. Popper barely had begun his paper on this topic, “Are There Philosophical Problems” when Wittgenstein rudely, impatiently, (as was his usual manner) began to berate, belittle, and argue with Popper. Usually, his antics would silence his opponents, but Popper came to the meeting looking for a fight. And so the discussion escalated. Eventually Wittgenstein picked up the fire poker and began to wave it in the face of Popper. Someone—(accounts vary) either Russell or Richard Braithwaite told Wittgenstein to put the Poker down—which Wittgenstein did as he stormed out of the meeting. This was Poppers only meeting with Wittgenstein.

The book is entertaining, informative, and its underlying question on the aim of philosophy hit a nerve for me.

So, what is the aim of philosophy?

On this question, I am decidedly with Popper. Philosophy is not merely about language use. It is about solving real problems. Simply put, the aim of philosophy is to discover the truth. This quest for truth—about God, the world, and ourselves—can be carried out on at least two different levels, what I shall call “thin” and “thick” philosophy:

“Thin philosophy:” Philosophy is about solving problems—the problem of induction, the problem of evil, the problem of universals, the problem of reality/appearance, etc. These problems are typically thought to be the domain of professional philosophers; the “thin philosopher” might or might not connect such problems to his/her everyday concerns. Answers to the questions these problems surface are a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a life well lived.

“Thick philosophy:” Philosophy is about living life well. In this more robust conception of philosophy, the integration of the head, heart, and hands is the goal. The viable life is the fully integrated life. Our theorizing must (at some point) be integrated into our actions. All of us, whether we have a PhD in philosophy can be “thick philosophers.”  As C.S. Lewis stated (somewhere), we don’t have a choice on whether we will be a philosopher (or theologian). We are one and all making judgments on God, self, and the world. The only choice we have is whether we will be a good or bad philosopher.

So, grab a fire poker and wave it back in Wittgenstein’s face. After all, we have a life to live, and real problems to solve.












[1] David Edmonds & John Eidinow, Wittgenstein’s Poker (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 232.

[2] Ibid., 230.

[3] Ibid., 235.

[4] Ibid., 267.

One Response to Wittgenstein’s Poker and the Purpose of Philosophy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *