The Poker Incidence

Some accounts of the famous Wittgenstein vs Popper poker incidence:

"In 1946 Karl Popper addressed the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club on the subject Are There Philosophical Problems?. The subsequent discussion, chaired by Russell, is known to have been lively. At one point Wittgenstein, brandishing a poker, is said to have demanded of Popper that he offer an example of a moral rule: “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers”, Popper is said to have replied. At which point Wittgenstein, perhaps deciding it was a case of “thereof one must be silent”, stormed out.

It has been suggested that the title and content of Popper’s paper were intended to provoke Wittgenstein who by this time is thought to have become sceptical of the existence of philosophical problems, and to believe that such “problems” were instead reducible to the misuse of language." [Andy Walsh, Wittgenstein, Popper and the Art Of Feud.]

"Popper's account can be found in his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest, published in 1974. According to this version of events, Popper put forward a series of what he insisted were real philosophical problems. Wittgenstein summarily dismissed them all. Popper recalled that Wittgenstein 'had been nervously playing with the poker', which he used 'like a conductor's baton to emphasize his assertions', and when a question came up about the status of ethics, Wittgenstein challenged him to give an example of a moral rule. 'I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers." Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.'"

"It is only to be expected that each of those present in that crowded room has a slightly different recollection of the night's events. Some had a restricted view. One thing happened on top of another, making the precise sequence uncertain. The flow of debate was so fast that it was difficult to follow. But most share one memory: the poker itself."

"Michael Wolff sees that Wittgenstein has the poker idly in his hand and, as he stares at the fire, is fidgeting with it. Someone says something that visibly annoys Wittgenstein. By this time Russell has become involved. Wittgenstein and Russell are both standing. Wittgenstein says, 'You misunderstand me, Russell. You always misunderstand me.' He emphasizes 'mis', and 'Russell' comes out as 'Hrussell'. Russell says, 'You're mixing things up, Wittgenstein. You always mix things up.' Russell's voice sounds a bit shrill, quite unlike when lecturing."

"Peter Munz watches Wittgenstein suddenly take the poker - red hot - out of the fire and gesticulate with it angrily in front of Popper's face. Then Russell - who so far has not spoken a word - takes the pipe out of his mouth and says firmly, 'Wittgenstein, put down that poker at once!' His voice is high-pitched and somewhat scratchy. Wittgenstein complies, then, after a short wait, gets up and walks out, slamming the door." [Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Also describes other varying eye-witness accounts of the incident.]


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