Drakopoulos, Pan: Hayek and Wittgenstein

The third encounter of the two cousins was unexpected and more unpleasant. In 1939, the war had broken out and the London School of Economics was accommodated, in some way, in Cambridge. Keynes had managed to secure rooms for Hayek in the Gibbs Wing at King’s College. Keynes asked the professor of philosophy, Richard Braithwaite, to invite the newcomer to take part in the meetings of their philosophical club. The meetings took place in Braithwaite’s rooms –a floor under Hayek’s. Wittgenstein was also a member of the club. He had returned to Cambridge in 1929. In 1930 he became a lecturer and in 1937 a professor of philosophy, succeeding George E. Moore, the man who had already, since 1910, fashioned the philosophical climate of the University which has remained relatively unchanged until today. Hayek entered the room, exchanged a conventional `good evening’ with everybody, including his cousin and said nothing in particular. One of the members started reading his own paper –a subject that the Austrian newcomer was apparently indifferent to. Hayek `followed’ the ensuing discussion while doing his own thinking. Nobody can say whether the distance between him and the others was noticeable. However, all of a sudden, Wittgenstein started up from his seat, grasped the brass poker near the fireplace and, absolutely beside himself, began to move it to and fro, screaming that all these things were trivialities and oversimplifications unworthy of being discussed. “Looking at that frantic man”, in Hayek’s own account, “screaming and moving the brass poker in a dangerous way; and looking at the members of the club squashing into the corners of the room to protect themselves, I frankly was under the impression that my poor cousin was mad”.

Was he? Hayek’s impression was rather based on the dogma that he himself followed and also taught to his students, according to which you should be `suaviter in modo, fortifer in re’ (approximately: mild in manners, forceful in arguments). But we cannot give an opinion based on that dogma, since Wittgenstein –and arguably, other strong minds as well– would have considered it a sham petit bourgeois formulation. It is also worth noticing that this same performance, `Wittgenstein with a poker’, happened once again.

At the end of 1946, Professor Karl Popper, also an Austrian who lived in London, –another proof that the `Blue Danube’ did not suffice to keep intellectuals in Vienna between the two World Wars– was invited by the same club to give a speech on `the Philosophical Puzzles’. Popper understood that the wording belonged to Wittgenstein, whose theory was that out of the domain of logic there were no philosophical problems but only philosophical puzzles with words and their meanings. Popper didn’t recall that that theory did not belong exclusively to Wittgenstein, but also to the so-called ‘School of Vienna’ (Karnap and others). So, he gave a speech on the subject: `Are there philosophical problems’? He started reasoning that: Yes, there were such problems, and if there had not been there would have been no reason for philosophers to exist, to have Chairs at Universities, clubs, periodicals etc. All of a sudden –again!– Wittgenstein sprang out of his chair, interrupted Popper and started explaining in anger that the problems of philosophy on the whole were linguistic complexities, logical inconsistencies etc. Popper, in his turn, interrupted him, raising his voice even higher, and insisted that they certainly existed and he had made a whole list of them. Wittgenstein asked him in a commanding voice to read his list. Popper started reading:

a) Do we know things through our senses or through other ways?

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