Pokers Wild What happens when geniuses attack

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If Jacques Derrida had been born a Kennedy, he might have come close to matching Ludwig Wittgenstein's curious combination of affluence and intellect. Wittgenstein was both a philosopher of towering importance and the scion of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Europe. He was also a scarily intense guy. On Oct. 25, 1946, he attended a Cambridge University discussion group at which Karl Popper, another major thinker, was the guest speaker. The evening ended in bedlam when Wittgenstein threatened Popper with a poker.

Or did he? In Wittgenstein's Poker: The story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers (Faber & Faber; 267 pages), British journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow exhaustively investigate the circumstances surrounding the alleged incident. Popper says Wittgenstein lost his cool; others disagree. But it's not just another senior-common-room spat. For Edmonds and Eidinow, the altercation is a jumping-off point: they write around it in widening concentric circles, sketching in its complex social and intellectual context.

Wittgenstein and Popper were both from the intellectual hothouse of Vienna, and were pit bulls when it came to public debate. Both were Jewish, and both had their lives knocked off center by World War II. (Wittgenstein's life teems with odd coincidences: he went to high school with Hitler.) Despite their similarities, the two came from opposite ends of the philosophical universe, and the authors use the encounter to dramatize a clash of ideas about the nature and purpose of philosophy. They make the meeting of Popper and Wittgenstein seem as fateful as that between the iceberg and the Titanic.

Fortunately, Edmonds and Eidinow aren't philosophers, and their account of Wittgenstein's difficult ideas is admirably clear. Defending his doctoral thesis, Wittgenstein told his examiners, "Don't worry. I know you'll never understand it." By the end of Wittgenstein's Poker, you'll almost believe you could.