wittgenstein’s poker & patience (after sebald)

wittgenstein’s poker

a meeting of the moral sciences club in king’s college cambridge in 1946, where, allegedly, wittgenstein brandished a poker threateningly at karl popper: not much material for a book, you might think – but not so, dear reader, for in this meeting lie the two rival approaches to the primary question of 20th-century philosophy

ludwig wittgenstein & karl popper: both viennese, both (at least partly jewish), both brilliant philosophers; but ludwig was a scion of perhaps the city’s wealthiest family; karl from a poorer part of town – and philosophically they were worlds apart: ludwig claimed to have written off all so-called philosophical ‘problems’ as mere puzzles with words (or problems in maths, not philosophy); popper maintained that there are genuinely philosophical problems, beyond the language in which they are couched

the book describes all this context in detail, as well as investigating ‘what really happened’ – did wittgenstein threaten popper with a poker before storming out? subsequent accounts differ: our authors conclude that popper’s versions (unconsciously) exaggerate wittgenstein’s aggression

ludwig’s ‘linguistic turn’ does seem to have been a tsunami hitting western philosophy, but the waves have receded, and the damp philosophers have picked themselves up, had showers, and are carrying on as if nothing had happened; our authors seem to be content with this, claiming that there are important philosophical questions which are not just down to problems with language: this is to my mind unresolved

patience (after sebald)

a documentary by grant gee about w.g. sebald’s novel the rings of saturn

[bfi info; watch it here]

this is one of those books you just find (in a holiday cottage in staithes) and which in a small way changes your life, so i was very pleased to hear of this film, with jonathan pryce wonderfully, breakingly, reading excerpts, and marina warner/katie mitchell/iain sinclair et al. making wise observations; luckily for me now i had wrote something on the book on this very blog

as for the film, it tries to, and does, capture both the melancholy ruminative quality of the book, as well as the way it fails to conceal its wonder for the world and the amazing things it contains: sebald cannot help sharing with us his fascination for life and all the ways things fit together; i think the film conveys these two aspects, negative and positive, well

How they are related

Both works turn on reactions to and consequences of the calamitous 20th-century conflicts: Sebald’s novel subtly circles, like, er, Saturn’s rings, round the dark heart of Nazism, sending probes into its centre enough to appal but not enough to desensitise: the film demonstrates, for example, how the book’s apparent digression on the East Anglian herring industry sets up the concentration camps; and the whole (real) conceit of walking Suffolk is as good a distraction as any from Sebald’s main theme.

As Austrian Jews Popper and Wittgenstein’s lives were largely shaped by the Anschluss and their escape: Popper’s taking a job in New Zealand was a career-sacrifice taken in order to get out, and his insistence on philosophy’s addressing real problems shows his dedication to the real world. His most famous book nowadays is The Open Society and its Enemies – a powerful, if (allegedly) aggressive rant against the totalitarianism of both right and left: small wonder Popper was fêted in the capitalist, ‘free’, West. Wittgenstein seems to have responded not by confrontation, but by deliberate withdrawal: first to the front line in WW1, then to Cambridge, Norway and elsewhere – a seriously disturbed individual, rarely (I can gather) happy or settled, telling his friends to get ordinary jobs rather than become philosophers. And his (early) insistence on the correct response to things we cannot speak of being silence (the last sentence of the Tractatus) reminds me of George Steiner’s post-holocaust book Silence, where he argues that in the light of what happened we should just shut up.

Three brilliant mid-20th-century German-speakers; three ways of dealing with it.

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