Thursday, 3 May 2012

Aggressive Academics

Preston's Elbow & Wittgenstein's Poker: the perils of visiting Professors

PROFESSOR PAUL PRESTON's performance in elbowing Barry Woodling away from the microphone  while he was speaking at the GERNIKA 75 Conference in Manchester's People's History Museum on the 28th, April 2012 (see post below entitled:  'Pro. Preston Shoves Critic Aside...'), was not unique as an act of aggression by a member of the community of scholars.  Far from it!  The more illustrious case of Ludwig Wittgenstein's poker and Karl Popper springs to mind, an occasion at which in 1945 the two great philosophers clashed.  In the Wittgenstein case a red hot poker was waved in front of Popper's face there was no direct physical contact, but with last Saturday's encounter over the Spanish Civil War between Professor Preston and Barry Woodling the historian's sharp elbow actually struck Woodling while he was trying to make a point.

The case of Wittgenstein's poker is famous and it happened at the Cambridge Moral Science Club, where a discussion group of the university's philosophers and their students met for a meeting on Friday October 25th, 1945 at 8.30pm.  The guest speaker was Dr. Karl Popper who was to deliver a paper on 'Are There Philosophical Problems?'  Professor Ludwig Wittgenstein, regarded as the most brilliant philosopher of his time, was chairman of the club and the philosopher Bertrand Russell was also present.  Popper, like Professor Preston was from the London School of Economics.  This was the only time these three great philosophers  were together.  Yet, to this day, no one can agree what precisely happened.

In Popper's account, found in his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest, published in 1974, more than two decades after Wittgenstein's death, he put forward a series of what he insisted were real philosophical problems. Wittgenstein summarily dismissed them all. Popper recalled that Wittgenstein 'had been nervously playing with the poker', which he used 'like a conductor's baton to emphasise his assertions', and when a question came up about the status of ethics, Wittgenstein challenged him to give an example of a moral rule. 'I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers."  Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out.'

In an article in The Guardian newspaper on 31st, March 2001, John Eidinow and David Edmonds wrote:  'Three years after Popper's death, a memoir published in the proceedings of one of Britain's most learned bodies, the British Academy, recounted essentially Popper's version of events. It brought down a storm of protest on the head of the author, Popper's successor at the LSE, Professor John Watkins, and sparked off an acerbic exchange of letters in the Times Literary Supplement. A fervent Wittgenstein supporter who had taken part in the meeting, Professor Peter Geach, denounced Popper's account of the meeting as "false from beginning to end". A robust correspondence followed as other witnesses or later supporters of the protagonists piled into the fray.'

We must await further speculation on the events of last Saturday between Prof. Paul Preston and Barry Woodling, but if it follows the case of Wittgenstein and Popper there will be much disputation as to what precisely happened at the GERNIKA 75 Conference in the Manchester's People's History Museum.
Mr. Eidinow and Edmonds in their Guardian article on crucial elements of the Wittgenstein's poker story concluded:
'the sequence of events, the atmosphere, how the antagonists behaved - there are clear memories equally clearly in conflict. The poker is red-hot or it is cool. Wittgenstein gesticulates with it angrily or uses it as a baton, as an example, as a tool. He raises it, uses it for emphasis, shakes it or fidgets with it. He leaves after words with Russell or he leaves after Popper has uttered the poker principle. He leaves quietly or abruptly, slamming the door. Russell speaks in a high-pitched voice or he roars. What really happened, and why?'


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