Wittgenstein’s Poker: A brief review

There’s something deeply ironic about a history book that contains a discussion about the fallibility of historical investigations, particularly when it frequently fails to rise above them itself.  I acquired this book in Lyons from a shop owner who seems to possess a keen eye for controversy.  In attempting to make a joke about this to him I failed spectacularly in the delivery, but never mind.  I cannot say that my expectations were not met, because I did not have any.  I constructed them as the book wore on.

Almost from the outset, the text descends into psychologizing.  It presents the uncertain details of a confrontation at the Moral Science Club of Cambridge, involving as they did a fire poker.  There are a great many disagreements between the witnesses of this confrontation, as there are bound to be, and a question is put to the reader.  What really happened?  Then the book says that in order to understand the answer to this, we first have to conduct an examination of the social backgrounds and personalities of these men.  This investigation isn’t just the standard academic history.  It literally presents itself as if it is supposed to be illuminating.

There comes a curious point in Wittgenstein’s Poker when, after already giving the subject a brief treatment, one of the author’s writes “As neither Wittgenstein’s nor Popper’s sexual orientation is directly relevant to our story, the matter can be left there”.  That it was presented at all then seems wholly unjustified.  What’s more, this statement indirectly reinforces the notion that the authors engaged in all other instances of psychologizing under the pretense of legitimacy.  A good portion of the book is devoted to examining the Jewishness of the men under discussion.  I cannot find fault in this investigation, except to note that presenting it as a response to the question posed at the beginning of the book is innappropriate.  Occasional glib remarks about “Austrian Loudness” and the like present another problem, are distasteful, and suggest the authors are concerned about questions of What It Means To Be an Austrian Jew, an interest which is rendered all the more perverse in the context of quotes given by Popper himself.  “I do not believe in race; I abhor any form of racialism or nationalism”, Popper says.  This individualist attitude is of course no use to the historian, so his plea to be treated as an individual is dumped in favor of easy and misleading abstraction.

All of this is very curious.  In chapter 18 the authors demonstrate that they possess a decent grasp of philosophy, so why until now have we been treated to a handling of subjects which were not the concern of any individual present at the Moral Science Club that day?  At least there is not sufficient reason to assume these concerns functioned as motivation, save for a dangerous and unstated premise underlining the whole of the text.  And here lies the main problem.  It is not that the book fails to present conclusions, but that it does not explain how it arrives at them.  An attempt to present the two men as belonging to either side of a class divide encounters a problem in that both, initially at least, belonged to well-to-do families.  Overstatements are made, then backpedaling is employed.  The authors make bold accusations of ignorance on the part of Popper and then go on to tell us that there is evidence of foreknowledge in his actions.  Wittgenstein is the more succesful of the two, and then Popper is, and then back and forth it goes with no intention to come to rest.

This book falls predominently under the banner of gossip.  That it is gossip about dead men underlines the lack of conviction of the authors.  It is this lack of conviction which hurts the book the most.  History is a very curious field, and professional historians have a tendency to not be qualified for their own investigations.  As a general shortcut,if you want to know about a phenomenon you consult an expert on the phenomenon.  If the subject is weather, you consult a meteorologist.  If the subject is economics, you consult an economist.  But history is not a phenomenon, so much as a collection of other phenomenon past.  Hence a historian does not have to simply be a historian, but also an economist, or a philosopher, or a physicist in order to provide a sound interpretation.  This should not make history an unworthy undertaking, even for the mere historian, but in every case the faults of his analysis can only be made clear if he explains the premises he adopted in his interpretation of the details.

Wittgenstein’s Poker is a solid example of a history that fails to do this.  In comparison, I fear I must applaud Zinn for his transparency.  It is at least clear what presumptions he has about political economy, and thus it is simple enough to pick out the contradictions and fallacies in his work.  It is ignorant but it is committed.  Conversely, with the exception of chapter 18 and a few scattered other examples, Wittgenstein’s Poker qualifies only as entertainment.  In it’s defense, it can be quite entertaining, such as when we are presented with this account:

Lydia remarked to Wittgenstein, no doubt brightly, ‘What a beautiful tree’.  Wittgenstein glared at her: ‘What do you mean?’ Lydia burst into tears.”

Which is perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious story I have ever heard.  But entertainment is not what this book aimed for.  It attempted to derive the behaviour of Popper and Wittgenstein at the Moral Science Club as a consequence of their character, which it in turn attempted to derive from from various unstated premises.  Yet at the conclusion of the book, the full exchange is still completely unknown.

Therefore I offer this to the reader as a better approach to the subject of “What really happened”.  Acquiant yourself with the philosophy of both men, and write down some of their philosophical principles.  Then, place these principles in a hat.  Withdraw them one at a time, assigning each a chronological order.  Treat this as the sequence of dialogue which occured during the confrontation in question.  Not only will this approach be more substantive, it will also be significantly less cowardly.

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~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on November 8, 2009.

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