¿Hay problemas filosóficos? / Cantórbery Cuevas

Are There Philosophical Problems?

I never met Wittgenstein. That is to say, I never interacted with him. Walking with Russell through the Cambridge campus on occasional mornings, we would barely stumble upon him from a distance (the ties between the two of them had long ago frozen, to say the least), with his thick, uncovered neck and his bearing of a retired official in tweed jacket, contritely heading to his seminar at Trinity College.

And of course, that stormy vigil in room H3 of King's on the 25th of October of 1946, in which he was the central contender, I won't forget that too easily. I attended thanks to the generous request by the coauthor of the Principia that I accompany him. The presentation was supposed to unfold in the Moral Sciences Club—an institution established at that University in 1878 for "arcane debate led by emminent thinkers for the illumination of serious students"—and that night the presenter would be Dr. Karl Popper, under the condition of invited speaker. His inoffensive theme: Are There Philosophical Problems? Among the illustrated attendants—besides Russell, dean of philosophers and already a celebrated figure in the world, and Wittgenstein himself, a luminary as well, who functioned as club residents since '44—I remember the faces of Friedrich von Hayek and Richard Braithwaite, along with the legs of the latter's wife, Margaret Masterman.

That distant post-war autumn, the tiny academic precinct was freezing and filled to capacity. A miniscule flame tried unsuccessfully to warm up the room a bit from the fireplace. Along with many others, I had to "upholster" the wall standing up at the very back amidst jostling. Evidently word had spread that the guest lecturer—at the time almost unknown—was arriving with a battle plan to dismantle the maestro's (L.W.) thesis, according to which philosophical problems do not exist, only linguistic puzzles do. Tugging at his left earlobe, Popper showed his impatience to begin the talk, Russell serene to his right. The speaker began without any courtesies.

Tumbling and pruning, as they say. To begin, his intervention would not include "riddles," which according to him would be mere banal substitutes for the true subjects of philosophy, of which he gave examples. Wittgenstein leaps up in a fury: "Those are no more than mathematical or sociological problems!"

(Throughout this Margaret Masterman doesn't stop crossing and uncrossing her legs from the window (it was said she didn't wear blumers), in an atmosphere that was more charged each minute.)

They've moved on to the Moral Question, and unable to silence Popper—who actually doesn't let himself—with demolishing arguments (as he is accustomed to in front of his flock), Wittgenstein uses a poker from the fireplace as an aide to imposingly underline his assertions in front of the other, making the atmosphere boil even higher with the gesture. Those of us in back crane our necks so as to not miss whatever might come. Popper and his adversary yell at each other simultaneously, the poker stoking their tempers. And suddenly Russell jumps from his seat, pulling the pipe out of his mouth indignantly: "Put down that poker immediately, Wittgenstein!" He drops it, not without complaining exasperated: "You misinterpret me, Russell, always misinterpreting me!" "The one who is always confusing things is you," the maestro answers back at him.

Perhaps adhering to the proverbial precept with which he closes his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein immerses himself in a deep silence. Someone (Whas it him? I was looking at Mrs. Braithwaite's calves) asks Popper for an example of a "moral rule," and he answers sharply: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with a poker." The author of the Tractatus had already left in a fury.

In sum, it was a memorable vigil in which two philosophical giants angrily confronted each other regarding perennial themes of human consciousness, and a Supreme Figure served as referee. As for me, I didn't understand in the least whether philosophical problems exist or not. What remained very clear was that there was about to be a huge philosophical brawl at the highest levels during the fiery night of that 25th of October. And with sticks and all.

{ Cantórbery Cuevas, TalCual, 2 May 2001 }

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