David Edmonds and John Eidinow have written two fascinating accounts of quarrels between philosophers: Wittgenstein's Poker and, more recently, Rousseau's Dog. In this interview for Virtual Philosopher they discuss both books.
Nigel: What gave you the idea for writing Wittgenstein's Poker? What's its main theme?
David and John: Wittgenstein's Poker centres on the first and only encounter between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein, when Popper delivered a paper entitled ‘Are There Philosophical Problems?’ to a tumultuous meeting of the Cambridge philosophical society, on a bitter evening on 25 October 1946.
Such was the controversy surrounding this episode that more than half a century later, in 1998, it became the subject of an angry series of letters in the Times Literary Supplement.
In his autobiography, Unended Quest (1974), Popper had described himself as having despatched a poker-waving Wittgenstein with a devastating quip. When a posthumous tribute to Popper reiterated his version, a Wittgenstein supporter and eyewitness to the meeting wrote to the TLS charging Popper with lying. Other eyewitnesses piled in. The tone of the correspondence was intriguingly passionate, and to us highly amusing: after all, these conflicting claims were over an argument that lasted barely 10 minutes. We began to dig into the episode - deeper and deeper, until we had unearthed research to fill 300 pages.
Its theme: well at heart it's a detective story. We set out to answer the question - did Professor Sir Karl Popper really lie? The answer required an examination of the personalities and lives of our two heroes, their shared Viennese heritage and their complex relationship with another man in the room, Bertrand Russell. Then, of course, there were their contrasting ideas: in particular, they profoundly disagreed about the purpose of philosophy. Even so, why was this academic debate carried out with such ferocity?
Nigel: Wasn’t it difficult to write a biographical book about Wittgenstein when Ray Monk's biography had already been published to such acclaim and McGuinness had been working on his for so long? Did you manage to discover anything new about Wittgenstein?
David and John: Ray Monk had indeed already written a superb, justly acclaimed biography. There was also Malachi Haim Hacohen’s Karl Popper – The Formative Years. But our aim was not biographical. The purpose was to understand the clash. However, by exploring it in depth, we were able to uncover some original material – for example, about Wittgenstein’s dealings with the Nazis. After Austriabecame part of the Third Reich, under Nazi race laws the Wittgenstein family were deemed Jewish. The family used its immense wealth to buy aryan status for themselves and Ludwig was involved in some of the negotiations. This agreement enabled two of his sisters to live out the war in Vienna unharmed. Interviews with surviving members of the Wittgenstein family, and access to documents that had lain undiscovered, gave us the hitherto unpublished details of this amazing story, including the amount paid. Popper’s roots, by contrast, were in an impoverished middle class Viennese Jewish family. We became convinced that the social chasm between him and the aristocratic Wittgenstein played a significant role in the Cambridge meeting.
Nigel: How difficult is it to write collaboratively? Not many people manage to pull it off as well as you do...
David and John: Thank you! Well, Dave begins one chapter, John begins another, and then we send each of these chapters ping-ponging through cyberspace, editing and re-editing, that by the time we say, ‘That’s it: finished.’, we can't be sure who penned the original words. We aim to achieve a consistent style that belongs to neither one of us, but rather to both of us.
Nigel: Were you surprised at the popularity of your book?
David and John: As this was our first book, we didn’t know what to expect. We were happily surprised that a quirky story about two philosophers clashing should have such a wide readership. In the US, it had a most unusual sales trajectory. It was released in September 2001, when that country had more pressing things to worry about. So reviews only began to appear several months later. Then it became a national best seller in the US. We now have about 25 foreign editions of the book.
Nigel: Have you subsequently discovered anything about Wittgenstein or Popper that you'd have included if you were writing the book now?
David and John: Nothing substantial or that changes our answer to the question, did Popper lie? But whenever we've given lectures about it, inevitably a man or woman of a certain age will raise an arm, or approach us post-talk, and tell us how they were a student of Popper's and how Popper had once said...
Nigel: You wrote at least one other book in between, but with Rousseau's Dog you returned to the idea of a quarrel between two philosophers, this time in the eighteenth century. What attracted you to this topic? Did it require a different approach from Wittgenstein's Poker?
David and John: It had all the ingredients of our genre - in particular, a fearful bust-up between major thinkers, conditioned by a rich social and cultural context, and with a mystery to be unravelled. Here we have two of the greatest philosophers of the 18th century - David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hume took Rousseau under his wing when Rousseau needed a saviour. They then had had a violent falling out that became the talk of salon-Europe and embroiled many of the leading figures of the day - Voltaire, Adam Smith, Diderot, d'Alembert, George III, the King of Prussia, Boswell, Horace Walpole etc. Hume, who prided himself on the beauty of his character, tore into Rousseau as ‘the blackest and most atrocious villain that ever disgraced human nature', a ‘rascal, a knave and a liar’. Delicious – but why did Hume depart from his cherished beneficence in this way, dismaying and horrifying his friends?
Yes, Rousseau’s Dog did demand a different approach. Rousseau’s Dog was essentially a personality-driven rather than an intellectual battle, and the eyewitnesses were long beyond interview.
Nigel: Perhaps even more than with Wittgenstein and Popper, there is a marked contrast between the personalities of Hume and Rousseau. Their styles of life and thinking seem completely antithetical. Is that a fair characterisation?
David and John:Not sure about 'even more'...but it's true that Hume and Rousseau differ in almost every imaginable way. As we point out in the book, Hume was a combination of reason, doubt and scepticism. Rousseau was a creature of feeling, alienation, imagination and certainty. While Hume’s outlook was unadventurous and temperate, Rousseau was by instinct rebellious; Hume was an optimist, Rousseau a pessimist; Hume gregarious, Rousseau a loner. Hume was disposed to compromise, Rousseau to confrontation. In style, Rousseau revelled in paradox; Hume revered clarity. Rousseau’s language was pyrotechnical and emotional, Hume’s straightforward and dispassionate.
One early biographer of Hume wrote ‘The annals of literature seldom furnish us with two contemporary writers of the first rank, both called philosophers, who cancel one another out with almost mathematical precision.’
Nigel: Do you plan to write any more books in this intellectual spat genre that you seem to have invented?
David and John: Watch this space.
Nigel: I will. Thank you.