Oh no, not another silly title. The great quest of British publishing is profundity by association, the search for books that can convince middlebrow readers that they are reading something highbrow. By Will Self

Wittgenstein's Poker: the story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers

David Edmo

Since Julian Barnes published his novel Flaubert's Parrot in 1984, it has become widely recognised, among the cognoscenti, as the originator of a contemporary literary sub-genre. I am not referring here to the idea of using a fictional form to investigate the particularities of a real life - that gig's as old as the Gospels - but to the jokey title, which, by eliding a great name with a quirky object, seeks to signpost the reader towards a gentle stroll around the precincts of knowledge. In the past 15 years, there has been a whole slew of these titles - Lenin's Brain, Darwin's Shooter, The Pope's Rhinoceros and so on, ad tedium. Whether ostensibly factual or fictional, what these tomes have in common - excepting their titles - is a search for that desideratum of British publishing: the book that can convince middlebrow readers that they are reading something highbrow.

For some time now, I myself have been considering a riposte to these feeble sleights of mind, in the form of a short story entitled "Haydn's Nasal Polyp". (Not as wacky as it sounds: Haydn really did have a nasal polyp. Indeed, it apparently afflicted him so badly during the winter of 1797, when he was composing The Creation, that he mistakenly scored an entire part for it, under the impression that the fluting and whistling he heard, when his breathing became laboured, was in his inner ear.)

With Wittgenstein's Poker, David Edmonds and John Eidinow have made a valuable contribution to the sub-genre. It is ostensibly the story of the ten-minute argument between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, which took place on 25 October 1946 at a meeting of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, and ended, allegedly, with the former brandishing a poker at the latter. But the authors have used this bite-sized brouhaha as an opportunity to chew the cud. This book recapitulates the biographies of both men at some length, gives a brief survey of philosophy in the 20th century, and offers an inquiry into the status of assimilated Jews in prewar Vienna.

Superficially, the Wittgenstein poker-waving epi-sode does look pro-mising as a synecdoche of all of the above. In 1946, Wittgenstein was approaching his zenith as the presiding spirit of Cambridge philosophy. So influential was he on an entire generation of younger philosophers, that not only did his ideas comprehensively hold sway, but his personal quirks and mannerisms did as well. Edmonds and Eidinow recount how a former graduate student was able to recognise another as such, in Australia, many years later, simply because of the way that he smote his forehead when concentrating on a philosophic problem. Wittgenstein's acolytes dressed like the great man, spoke like the great man, and wrote like him (though Wittgenstein himself derided academic philosophy and urged his students to take up more utilitarian and, preferably, manual occupations).

Despite his effortless dominance, Wittgenstein was only spasmodically involved with the Moral Sciences Club. He had imposed a Wittgensteinian agenda on the meetings of interested students and faculty, asking that visiting speakers be required to discourse solely on problems of philosophic language, rather than the whole range of metaphysical, ontological, teleological and epistemological questions to which, at that time, philosophers still felt themselves, to a greater or lesser extent, capable of providing answers. It was this that was a red rag to the bullish Karl Popper. Popper, 13 years younger than Wittgenstein, felt himself to be the sole important critic of the Vienna Circle (of which Wittgenstein had been the largely unwilling eminence grise) and a defender of the true faith in philosophy's ability to say something meaningful about the world. Wittgenstein's evolving view, that philosophic questions were essentially semantic confusions, was an anathema to Popper (although, in 1946, he was only intuitively, rather than concretely, aware of it), and he resolved to lock antlers with a man he perceived as trivialising the quest for certain knowledge.

Present at the meeting was a select group of students and faculty but, most importantly, also in attendance was Bertrand Russell. Russell was a paradoxical figure in relation to the protagonists. For Popper, he was the presiding father of 20th-century philosophy, a mighty figure, whose enthusiastic endorsement of The Open Society and Its Enemies - the younger man's recently published broadside against the totalitarian tendency in European political thinking - was a source of burgeoning pride. But for Wittgenstein, in 1946, Russell was a satyromaniac has-been, a churner-out of cheap, penny-dreadful populist works, and a mere wax dummy of the thinker he had once been. The pity for Popper is that Wittgenstein was essentially right, and, in his heart, Russell knew him to be right as well.

So when, years afterward, Popper glossed (which is what academics do when they are lying) the episode in his autobiography and had himself effortlessly facing down an irate, poker-wielding Wittgenstein - who was aggressively challenging him to give an example of a moral statement - with the cool riposte, "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers", he was still performing to an audience whom his opponent had regarded all along as a lot of swine, with their feet jammed in their mouths. It is this imbalance between the two men - Popper obsessed by Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein utterly unconcerned by Popper - that gives this book its lopsided feel.

There's that, and there is also the truth that the influence the two men have had on the history of ideas has been wholly disproportionate. Edmonds and Eidinow make a case for Popper's Open Society as the Little Yellow Book of global neoliberalism, only rendered obsolete in the west by the victory over totalitarianism that it sought, but they do not convince. The truth of the matter is that Popper's commonsensical deconstruction of Plato, Rousseau, Marx et al was only ever just that: an antacid preparation poured into the turbulent tummy of Europe, in between the fascist entree and the communist main course. As for Popper's contributions to the philosophy of science, the authors have to concede that they, too, have been almost wholly superseded.

But the legacy of Wittgenstein is with us still, and pullulating as I write. Arguably, the great shift from structuralism to post-structuralism, as modes of inquiry into the human sciences and the arts, reflects the two different phases of Wittgenstein's philosophic thinking. Certainly, the current, ruckled relativism of our moral and political thinking can be directly traced to the limitation he identified in the powers of reason to resolve our ethical dilemmas.

And when it comes to philosophy itself, the puzzlers have won hands down over the problem-solvers. You would be hard put nowadays to find any academic philosopher who would seriously contend that work on their subject - given the necessary fiscal apportionment - will eventually turn up the solution to such questions as the nature of certain knowledge, or the status of reality, or the purpose of humanity.

Wittgenstein's Poker is an engaging, tolerably written book, and I do not want to be disrespectful of the energy and dedication its authors have lavished on it. But, as with the rest of this sub-genre, the pretext for the book is so much slighter than the subject matter itself (Ray Monk, in his definitive biography of Wittgenstein, grants the poker incident a single paragraph) that you cannot help feeling that it is very much an attempt at profundity by association. As is the rest of the sub-genre - except for "Haydn's Nasal Polyp", that is.

Will Self's most recent novel is How the Dead Live (Bloomsbury, £15.99)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube