Via a couple of threads at Crooked Timber, I’ve joyfully stumbled upon the reviews and essays of George Scialabba. As someone who tries to write book reviews from time to time I’ve been reading Scialabba’s reviews both for the books they detail and for the techniques in use.
One trick, which Tim Flannery is a master of, is to sneak the niftiest facts from the book and put them in the review. And so, a delighted ol’ me read last night that:
On October 25, 1946, Popper addressed the Moral Science Club at Cambridge University. Wittgenstein was Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and chairman of the club. Popper had recently arrived in England to take up a post at the London School of Economics, and “The Open Society” had just been published to great acclaim. He was on a roll. But Wittgenstein was already a legend, enthroned on his own private Olympus. He was accustomed to ignore, interrupt, and generally intimidate visiting speakers. A clash was inevitable. The meeting room was crowded with dons and students; even Bertrand Russell was there.
Popper’s talk was titled “Are There Philosophical Problems?” This was a red flag for Wittgenstein, who charged in, interrupting Popper. Popper stood his ground. Wittgenstein waxed wroth. The chairman’s seat was next to the fireplace, so Wittgenstein picked up a poker, jabbing the air with it as he paced and spoke. At one point Popper asserted that moral principles revealed the existence of philosophical problems. Give me an example of a moral principle, thundered Wittgenstein. Quick-wittedly Popper replied: “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.” Dumbfounded, Wittgenstein flung down the poker and left the room.
Wittgenstein’s supporters, it should be said, dispute this version of events.
And, I have to confess, I laughed harder than I ought when I read that, ‘[a]ccording to the late Ayatollah Khomeini: “Economics is for donkeys.”’ Which is not my opinion, I hurry to add, nor that of the reviewer, or of the authors of the books being reviewed. And what’s wrong with donkeys anyhow?