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December 17, 2002

Kelly The Philosopher

I've been reading Wittgenstein's Poker, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, in dribs and drabs for weeks now. I got it from the library, and it is exactly the sort of book that stretches the limits of renewals, at least with my current lifestyle. When Jean and I were first together, no kid, I could work my way through anywhere from fifty to one hundred fifty books a year (I kept count). But my entertainment habits have changed (more television, more computer time, more game console, more parenting), and I doubt I read ten or twenty books a year (I note them, but don't count anymore).

So anyway, I was talking about Poker with Jean last night, doing that annoying thing I do where I read quotes out of the book, and she makes meaningful "mm-hmm"s. I want to dig out one quote by Wittgenstein where he insults another philosopher/mathematician, Carnap, and post it here, as it is illustrative of what a jerk he was. As it turns out, Karl Popper, the other central figure in the book, was also an abusive personality.

Kelly got in on the conversation, wanting to know why these guys were such meanies. I tried to explain that while it was not an excuse, these guys were geniuses in their field, which led many to tolerate their eccentricities and rudeness. I was filling the bathtub for Kelly's bath by this time, and she asked me to stay with her. "Okay, but I'm gonna read my book while I sit here."

"Can you read it out loud?"

"What, my Wittgenstein book? I don't think you'll find it interesting. It's a lot of talk about these two guys, where they were from, why they differed, and so on. Do you really want me to read it?"

Kelly said yes, and I proceeded to read aloud from a passage describing Karl Popper's aggressive behavior toward students, colleagues and random members of the audience during any given lecture. "Argue, argue, argue" seems to be the key phrase. Even in expressing condolences to Margaret Thatcher that she had lost her election, he included the statement that some of her policies were wrong.

Then came a passage describing how kind he could be, how he would unstintingly write recommendations for his graduate students, help them find jobs. How he tried to help friends mend their rocky marriages. A long list of examples of areas of his life where he was quite generous -- so long as it did not touch on philosophy.

Kelly pitched in at this moment: "now they're talking about a different Popper, even though it's the same man. He can behave two different ways, like he has two lives."

I was surprised and pleased. "Yes, Kelly, that's exactly it. You really were paying attention, weren't you?" I hope this teaches me (or begins to teach me) not to underestimate what goes on in that mind of hers. Next time she asks me to read one of my books to her, I'll oblige, though I won't expect her to be interested or pay attention every time!

By the way, we wrapped up the evening reading two chapters from Matilda, by Roald Dahl.

Posted by dpwakefield at December 17, 2002 08:51 AM