Many people believe that Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was the 20th century’s most important philosopher. It is somewhat ironic, then, that he is probably best known for waving a poker at fellow philosopher Karl Popper.
The setting for this peculiar event was a meeting of the Cambridge Moral Science Club in October 1946. There are different accounts of precisely what took place, but the general gist of it is that in the midst of a heated discussion about the validity of moral rules, Wittgenstein picked up a poker, gesticulated with it in order to make a point, and then abruptly departed the scene. Popper is said to have subsequently given as an example of a moral rule that one should not threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.
Wittgenstein’s biographers all agree, as this story suggests, that he had an intense, if compelling, personality. He was born in Vienna on 20 April 1889, the youngest child of Leopoldine and Karl Wittgenstein. His father was a rich and successful Austrian industrialist and enjoyed a position of some prominence in Viennese society. The Wittgenstein home was a centre of cultural excellence; Brahms and Mahler were frequent visitors, and the young Wittgenstein was encouraged in these early years, particularly by his mother, to develop his own musical interests.