In general outline at least the historical record is not in dispute. 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. Whether his scepticism was as well defined as many think is open to question. An alternative reading of Wittgenstein might be that he was developing a metaphilosophical perspective from which standard philosophical problems were drained of their force. Thus in the Blue and Brown Books he remarks that “philosophy really is purely descriptive”. Presumably, also, Popper thought that Wittgenstein, a former pupil of Russell and Moore, and by this time a Cambridge Don, had never come across a philosopher who took seriously the existence of philosophical problems. None of this is important of course. What is most notable about the “Poker incident” is its delicious status as an originator of that most wonderful thing: the philosophical feud.
The incident itself was too fleeting to count as a feud-in-itself (a noumenal feud as it were). But there were many, many spin offs. Defenders of Wittgenstein have claimed that it is unfair to infer from the brandishing of the poker a genuine threat. On this view Wittgenstein was just playing with the poker in a particular way. The Popperians have countered that this defence requires the existence of an inner mental object that exists in addition to the poker-behaviour and that in deploying such a “beetle in a box” the Wittgensteinians are guilty of hypocrisy. The moral philosophers have feuded differently, the deontologists suggesting that Popper’s example needs to be reformulated thus: “Do not threaten visiting lecturers”; the normativists denying that any such reformulation be necessary. Direct realists have accused idealists of denying the existence of the poker in the first place. One Contrarian Literalist has argued for years that Popper has successfully reduced all philosophical problems to the single axiom Do Not Threaten Visiting Lecturers With Pokers – though he, like the People’s Front of Judea, is pretty much on his own. Careers have been tarnished. Fists have flown. Obviously I’m making some of this up.
Most philosophical feuds lack the vibrancy of the Poker Incident (hereafter PI). I remember as an undergraduate reading Iris Murdoch’s wonderful Sovereignty of Good and coming across the sentence “McTaggart denies that Time exists and Moore replies that he’s just had his breakfast”. This, I thought, sounds like good feud potential! But with the onset of age I’m coing to think that she might have, you know, been making a point about the nature of time. More recent exchanges between Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn had potential, but kind of petered out.
What makes for a decent feud? For one thing it seems to me that personal animus is neither necessary nor sufficient. Smith and Jones can like and respect each other and yet feud effectively, and even movingly. And the Honderich/McGinn example shows that intense mutual dislike can sabotage the feud. Whatever animus that exists must not be between the parties but must somehow be internal to the feud itself (this point is crucial, it is tragic when a decent feud founders on the rock of mutual loathing). Need the feud be about anything significant? Again I would suggest not. Some of the greatest feuds can take as their cause the most trivial, basement, disagreement (see again Honderich/McGinn), although it is often a good idea to disguise this in the cloak of High Principle (McGinn/Honderich ibid).
The logic of feuds is interesting. Consider the relation “A is feuding with B” (AfB). Then clearly it is commutative since AfB implies that BfA. If I’m feuding with you then you must be feuding with me. If not then what we have is not a feud but a sort of extended hissy fit on my part. On the other hand there is no transitivity since AfB and BfC does not imply AfC. I could be feuding with you and you could be feuding with my brother but that does not imply that I am feuding with my brother (as it happens I am but that is not implied by the system). What happens if A is identical to B? Is it possible to feud with yourself? On the face of it perhaps not. It would be like playing chess with yourself. But on the other hand when I was drinking I sort of pulled it off (there are issues of personal identity/continuity that are raised by this, I suspect).
It is interesting that feuding has been brought into focus by the new technologies. As it happens I visit the US quite a bit. Not in person but via various internet (political) discussion boards. On one of these I have been engaged in sustained feuding with several posters over a long period of time. One of these feuds goes back, unbroken, to the Kerry nomination of 2004. Neither of us knows the identity of the other. The feud is rancorous, unrelenting and conducted (I am proud to say) in a tone of high condescension on the part of each of us. On the other hand we exchange perfectly friendly Private Messages. The animus principle as adumbrated above is therefore impeccably observed. On the other hand were we to meet we might hate each other, in which case it would be put under some pressure. This is another example, I submit, of how the internet is reshaping serious philosophical work.
(The sharp-eyed will have noted that following discussion of the Poker Incident I made the parenthetical direction “hereafter PI” and then did not refer to it again. I’m happy to defend that omission in the comments section below but only with posters willing to give up three years of their life at least to give any such potential feud an appropriate momentum)