Wittgenstein, Popper and the Art Of Feud.

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)

Leave a comment ?


  1. The book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, which you undoubtedly are familiar with, makes a good case that behind the poker incident are personal and sociological factors, which go back to their different backgrounds in Vienna, Wittgenstein wealthy and Popper middle class.

    Perhaps in many philosophical feuds there are extra-philosophical factors at work.

  2. Hi Amos

    Yes I’ve read it. I’m sure there may have been those factors in play. In addition, Popper was notoriously tetchy and Wittgenstein was Wittgenstein. I suspect though that were one to have been present the incident might have seemed far less remarkable.

    Incidentally I do think that Wittgenstein is somewhat misunderstood on the “no problems” issue.

  3. What is the John Kerry feud about, if one may ask?

    There are politicians (for example, Sarkozy or Blair or Bush or Obama), who incite fierce loyalties and rejection and I can understand why (just as I can understand why Wittgenstein is an object of reverence and of irreverence), but John Kerry always has seemed to me to be someone whose mark on most of us is no mark.

  4. @Amos

    That was my view as well :-)

  5. Benjamin S Nelson

    I have been having my own private feud with Andy over the number of our blog posts we’ve made at TPM. I was poised to overtake him until he posted this one. Curse you, Mr. Walsh!

  6. Two awkward b*****s together. W. and P. I mean.

  7. This entirely baseless derogation of direct realism must stop. It is pointless moreover because no philosopher has ever held it as a final destination but only as the departure point for an elaborate ontology.

    No one wants to fight over this. You’ve read the book now shake the poker. Exeunt omnes.

  8. @Michael: I can think of a couple; my PhD supervisor for one. I’m interested in it myself as a possible explanation of certain types of memory-specific content. I’m surprised it doesn’t have a wider following: if you are a realist about perceptual content it’s sort of the least epistemically promiscuous option in a way.

    @Benjamin: Darn! I was thinking you hadn’t noticed!!

  9. Mygawd! you miss the whole situation. The year was 1946. Popper and Wittgenstein were Jew and near-Jew. They both knew many Austrian and German intellectuals who died in the Holocaust. Popper was so enraged at the wussy academics that he took to brutalizing Plato.

  10. It was “The Popular Front” that had only a single member.

    Philosophical mistakes are excusable. Incorrect recitations of Monty Python are, however, completely intolerable.


  11. Das…I’d actually realised that yesterday but thought it would be really sad to do an edit.

    You are however quite correct. I shall write it out 100 times before the morning.

  12. Wittgenstein, Popper and the Art Of Feud at thehumanities.com - pingback on February 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm
  13. All controversy (feud) in philosophy stems from the false assumption that philosophy, like science, deals with objective truth. Philosophy deals with meaning. The simplest meaning that a philosopher tries to convey in words is inexhaustible and in a true sense ineffable. Any verbal formulation necessarily falsifies the original meaning. The feuding party presents an equally ‘true’ and equally ‘false’ view of the issue. …

  14. if philosophers feuded would something actually get done then?

  15. I have to vehemently disagree, Khashaba. Preposterous! If philosophy was only about “meaning” and not about “objective truth”, then what would be the point of philosophizing? It would just be pure entertainment, a glass bead game the intelligentsia plays with itself in cloistered parlors to break the ennui. By saying it deals with “meaning” and not “objective truth” you seem to want to reduce philosophy to language with a clever Derridaesque gesture. We rest on thin air, plummeting into the deconstructed void of contradictory meaningless utterances! Have another Pastis! Enjoy, fellow fools!

    Philosophy is about truth in the most intimate of ways. As Husserl understood, truth begins here and extends to the horizon, and not the other way around as physicalism likes to pretend. In this sense, science is sub-ordinate to philosophy. Certainly, they are NOT two entirely distinct disciplines dealing with two distinct domains, one internal meaning and the other objective truth.

  16. I wonder if Ludwig would have poked his FB friends.

    Or not:

    > Oh I have lots of advice. But I am apparently incapable of LEARNING from my life. I suffer still JUST as always. (1942, aged 53)


    Your post made me laugh,


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