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A Moment of Destiny
by Colin Amery
"This alone is certain, namely that
Of one thing, for the purposes of this article, we can be certain. On 26 October l946 Popper met Wittgenstein at the Cambridge Moral Science Club in King's College. It was a Friday evening and Popper had travelled down on the steam train from London to Cambridge where he was met on the station platform by Bertrand Russell who was then the doyen of British philosophers. His protege and former student, Wittgenstein, who would one day eclipse him as the century's most important philosopher, waited in the wings to challenge Popper, like himself, a native of Vienna. The two men had never met. Wittgenstein was on his home ground to mount his challenge. He had a following of students at Trinity who came to his seminars and took his words as gospel. The professor with the piercing eyes normally chaired the Moral Science club meetings and tended to take over as chairman. The poky little room in which they took place was cold this particular winter's night and needed a fire to brighten the occasion.
Thus it was that Wittgenstein came to be brandishing the poker, whereupon Popper made his now famous response to Chairman Russell's request for an example of moral rule under the heading of ethics: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers". It is then suggested, though accounts of the incident vary according to the viewpoint of the perceiver, that an angry Wittgenstein who up to this moment had brandished the offending weapon (nobody seems to remember in which hand) threw it to the ground and charged out of the room, slamming the door loudly behind him. Russell, who was up on the speaker's platform smoking his pipe, had chided the enfant terrible for his behaviour saying: "The trouble with you, Wittgenstein, is that you always get things wrong". The man who walked out so unceremoniously might have responded to his mentor, "I know that queer things happen in this world. It's one of the few things I've really learned in my life."
Room H3 in King's College was thus the scene of high drama. The two Viennese men had diametrically opposed views about philosophy and came from very different backgrounds. Wittgenstein was of a rich aristocratic lineage and was trained as an engineer. His family had made a fortune in munitions but he gave his inheritance away after the First World War and took up teaching first in Austria and later in Norway. Popper had a harder track to hoe. He was from a bourgeois background with a legal family business. As a Jew he fled his own country after the anschluss and got a job teaching philosophy in New Zealand. There he made his particular war effort producing a seminal work The Open Society and its Enemies which Russell greatly admired. After the war he took up a teaching post at the London School of Economics which is justly renowned as one of Britain's pre-eminent institutions of higher learning. Indeed, he was still a teacher there in l958 when Mick Jagger glided along its corridors, shaping pop tunes in his mind, whilst I was attending lectures from Michael Oakeshott on political philosophy. Twelve years earlier, Popper had caught the steam train from Liverpool Street station to Cambridge, unaware of the storm about to break. The two men were almost class enemies and, philosophically, poles apart.
Popper came from the problem-solving school of philosophers whereas Wittgenstein saw language as the key to dissolving all philosophical problems. "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language", he once stated. Popper was not impressed by such pronouncements describing the Tractatus as "smelling of the coffee house". He had contempt for such places since for him they represented a hang out for the affluent, He went on to suggest that his enemy could not tell the difference between a coffee house and a trench. Popper got this badly wrong, for the First World War saw Wittgenstein spending his time as an officer in the trenches on the German side where he actually wrote most of Tractatus. It seems that the most intense and enjoyable years of the Austrian army officer were those spent in close contact with daily doses of danger at the front. It is also noteworthy that Hitler and Wittgenstein had been to the same school in Linz, before serving in the same war, one as a corporal and the other as an officer. Popper's father even contributed to the fund that kept struggling artists like Adolf Hitler going, as did Jewish shopkeepers who bought his paintings.
A strange fate seemed to interweave the two men who finally clashed swords in Room H3 at King's College. The connectedness of their two lives led them almost inexorably to that moment. Wittgenstein's Poker (Faber ISDN 057120547X) is described on its dust jacket as "The story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers". The authors are David Edmonds and John Eidinow who both work at the BBC. It is their first book and makes rewarding reading. They trace the history of each of the protagonists up to the moment of their one and only encounter. A list of those present reads like a who's who in philosophy. Russell chaired the meeting and ended up as referee for the final fight. Peter Munz was there - a New Zealander whom Popper had taught in his home country - later describing this incident as: " a watershed in twentieth century philosophy." Stephen Toulmin who was also present later co-wrote Wittgenstein's Vienna which chronicles the city's fin de siecle gaiety and corrosive melancholy. The man who was a product of these times and waved a poker in the air on the night the titans met was a quirky individual whose homosexual leanings came to the fore in his undergraduate years. Never one to take a back seat in any situation, Wittgenstein had a series of close relationships with some of his students whom he liked to dominate and even persuade to leave academia and take up jobs in factories. Colin Wilson suggests in The Misfits - a work on sexuality and outsiders - that Wittgenstein picked up rough young men in Volksprater Park, the site of the famous Ferris wheel featured in The Third Man, an ideal setting for that classic Graham Greene film.
Freud never met either of the two men squaring off in room H3. If he had seen either of them on his shawl-draped couch in Vienna's Ringstrasse (where the consulting rooms are now a museum) he might have recorded some rich material for posterity. Popper poured scorn on Freud's theories as "pseudo-science", whereas Wittgenstein, who regarded Freud as no fool, wrote an article on the value of psycho-analysis. His sister had been on the famous couch in the mid-1930s and helped Freud escape from the Nazis in 1938. Wittgenstein later compared his own work to psychotherapy. There are four footnotes to Freud in the index and interestingly ten to Hitler. Wittgenstein's Poker is a fascinating text to burrow into and find much buried treasure. For me, living on the edge of the world, as I do in New Zealand, I liked Popper's reference to my country as "nearest to the moon". Having recently written about Colin Wilson's Outsider for the Pathways newsletter, I found it interesting that both men are described as outsiders in this book. The man holding the poker is called "the ultimate modernist outsider" and his opponent with the ready quip is described by a fellow music student in Vienna as "an outsider in the best sense of the world".
In the end the book is a fascinating study of how different lives run on parallel tracks and then finally intersect. It is rather like a detective story, leading up to the raised poker, when the murderer might have been exposed. But philosophers are far more gentlemanly than this. We have accusations about a possible Third Man connection against Wittgenstein in a book by Kimberley Cornish who was a former PhD scholar at Auckland University. His way-out theory suggests that the KGB's man at Cambridge who persuaded Philby, Blunt, Burgess and McLean all to spy for the Russians was Wittgenstein. Popper might have used this theory as ammunition for further attacks on an enemy of his "open society". Wittgenstein was keen to visit the Soviet Union but it was most unlikely he ever spied for the Russians.
Both men were Jews, one rich, the other poor. Wittgenstein gave away his wealth and took off to the snow-clad hills of Norway where he built his own house. Both had to leave their native Vienna, driven out by the machinations of a dictator with whom Wittgenstein had gone to school. Popper built his reputation on a book dealing with the likes of Herr Hitler. Both men became teachers in academia and tended to put their students on their mettle. Neither suffered fools gladly. The lawyer's son was happily married but mean to visiting guests. Wittgenstein was an unhappy and difficult individual who never fitted into society, except perhaps when he was in the army. These two asteroids in the firmament of philosophy were bound to collide holding such diametrically opposed views. The clash of the titans when it finally came was as inevitable as night following the day. The gloves were off at the meeting on 25 October l946 when the very purposes of philosophy were at stake in the analytic revolution that had just begun. Popper deserves the last word because his opponent exited from the ring after round one: "The future is not reached on steel tracks laid down from the past."
His words echo eerily down the years. Our present path to the future is forged on tracks of steely uncertainty which Pliny might have done lip service to. Both philosophers have died but their works live on. The infamous poker from Room H3 has never been traced. Its story has now been finally told and all who follow the history of philosophy with loving interest, as I do, should get this modestly priced book about a ten-minute argument in the tracks of time.
© Colin Amery 2001
Web site: http://www.amerylaw.co.nz