Puzzles vs Problems in Philosophy: Karl Popper and the poker of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Below is an excerpt from section 26. “England: At the London School of Economics and Political Science,” in Karl Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1985. This book is a reprint of the “Autobiography of Karl Popper,” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper in The Library of Living Philosophers, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, 1974.


Early in the academic year 1946-47 I received an invitation from the Secretary of the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge to read a paper about some "philosophical puzzle". It was of course clear that this was Wittgenstein’s formulation, and that behind it was Wittgenstein’s philosophical thesis that there are no genuine problems in philosophy, only linguistic puzzles. Since this thesis was among my pet aversions, I decided to speak on "Are there Philosophical Problems?". I began my paper (read on October 26, 1946, in R. B. Braithwaite’s room in King’s College) by expressing my surprise at being invited by the Secretary to read a paper "stating some philosophical puzzle"; and I pointed out that, by implicitly denying that philosophical problems exist, whoever wrote the invitation took sides, perhaps unwittingly, in an issue created by a genuine philosophical problem.

I need hardly say that this was meant merely as a challenging and somewhat lighthearted introduction to my topic. But at this very point, Wittgenstein jumped up and said loudly and, it seemed to me, angrily: "The Secretary did exactly as he was told to do. He acted on my own instruction." I did not take any notice of this and went on; but as it turned out, at least some of Wittgenstein’s admirers in the audience did take notice of it, and as a consequence took my remark, meant as a joke, for a serious complaint against the Secretary. And so did the poor Secretary himself, as emerges from the minutes, in which he reports the incident, adding a footnote: "This is the Club’s form of invitation." [The minutes of the meeting are not quite reliable. For example the title of my paper is given on the printed list of meetings as “Methods in Philosophy” instead of “Are there Philosophical Problems?”, which was the title ultimately chosen by me. Furthermore, the Secretary thought I was complaining that this invitation was a brief paper, to introduce a discussion — which in fact suited me very well. He completely missed my point (puzzle versus problem).]

However, I went on to say that if I thought that there were no genuine philosophical problems, I would certainly not be a philosopher; and that the fact that many people, or perhaps all people, thoughtlessly adopt untenable solutions to many, or perhaps all, philosophical problems provided the only justification for being a philosopher. Wittgenstein jumped up again, interrupting me, and spoke at length about puzzles and the nonexistence of philosophical problems. At a moment which appeared to me appropriate, I interrupted him, giving a list I had prepared of philosophical problems, such as: Do we know things through our senses?, Do we obtain our knowledge by induction? These Wittgenstein dismissed as being logical rather than philosophical. I then referred to the problem whether potential or perhaps even actual infinities exist, a problem he dismissed as mathematical. (This dismissal got into the minutes.) I then mentioned moral problems and the problem of the validity of moral rules. At that point Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fire and had been nervously playing with the poker, which he sometimes used like a conductor’s baton to emphasize his assertions, challenged me: "Give an example of a moral rule!" I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers." Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.

I really was very sorry. I admit that I went to Cambridge hoping to provoke Wittgenstein into defending the view that there are no genuine philosophical problems, and to fight him on this issue. But I had never intended to make him angry; and it was a surprise to find him unable to see a joke. I realized only later that he probably did indeed feel that I was joking, and that it was this that offended him. But though I had wanted to treat my problem lightheartedly, I was in earnest — perhaps more so than was Wittgenstein himself, since, after all, he did not believe in genuine philosophical problems.

After Wittgenstein left us we had a very pleasant discussion, in which Bertrand Russell was one of the main speakers. And Braithwaite afterwards paid me a compliment (perhaps a doubtful compliment) by saying that I was the only man who had managed to interrupt Wittgenstein in the way in which Wittgenstein interrupted everyone else.

Next day in the train to London there were, in my compartment, two students sitting opposite each other, a boy reading a book and a girl reading a leftish journal. Suddenly she asked: "Who is this man Karl Popper?" He replied: "Never heard of him." Such is fame. (As I later found out, the journal contained an attack on The Open Society.)

The meeting of the Moral Sciences Club became almost immediately the subject of wild stories. In a surprisingly short time I received a letter from New Zealand asking whether it was true that Wittgenstein and I had come to blows, both armed with pokers. Nearer home the stories were less exaggerated, but not much.

The incident was, in part, attributable to my custom, whenever I am invited to speak in some place, of trying to develop some consequences of my views which I expect to be unacceptable to the particular audience. For I believe that there is only one excuse for a lecture: to challenge. It is the only way in which speech can be better than print This is why I chose my topic as I did. Besides, this controversy with Wittgenstein touched on fundamentals.

I claim that there are philosophical problems; and even that I have solved some. Yet, as I have written elsewhere "nothing seems less wanted than a simple solution to an age-old philosophical problem".[See Conjectures and Refutations [1963], p. 55.] The view of many philosophers and, especially, it seems, of Wittgensteinians, is that if a problem is soluble, it cannot have been philosophical. There are of course other ways of getting over the scandal of a solved problem. One can say that all this is old hat; or that it leaves the real problem untouched. And, after all, surely, this solution must be all wrong, must it not? (I am ready to admit that quite often an attitude like this is more valuable than one of excessive agreement.)

One of the things which in those days I found difficult to understand was the tendency of English philosophers to flirt with nonrealistic epistemologies: phenomenalism, positivism, Berkeleyan or Humean, or Machian idealism ("neutral monism"), sensationalism, pragmatism — these playthings of philosophers were in those days still more popular than realism. After a cruel war lasting for six years this attitude was surprising, and I admit that I felt that it was a bit "out of date" (to use a historicist phrase). Thus, being invited in 1946-47 to read a paper in Oxford, I read one under the title "A Refutation of Phenomenalism, Positivism, Idealism, and Subjectivism". In the discussion, the defence of the views which I had attacked was so feeble that it made little impression. However, the fruits of this victory (if any) were gathered by the philosophers of ordinary language, since language philosophy soon came to support common sense. Indeed, its attempts to adhere to common sense and realism are in my opinion by far the best aspect of ordinary-language philosophy. But common sense, though often right (and especially in its realism), is not always right And things get really interesting just when it is wrong. These are precisely the occasions which show that we are badly in need of enlightenment They are also the occasions on which the usages of ordinary language cannot help us. To put it in another way, ordinary language, and with it the philosophy of ordinary language, is conservative. But in matters of the intellect (as opposed, perhaps, to art, or to politics) nothing is less creative and more commonplace than conservatism.

All this seems to me very well formulated by Gilbert Ryle: "The rationality of man consists not in his being unquestioning in matters of principle but in never being unquestioning; not in cleaving to reputed axioms, but in taking nothing for granted."" [See p. 167 of Ryle’s review of Open Society in Mind, 56 (1947), 167-72.]


Commentary: By Popper’s own exhortation never to argue about the meaning of words, this seems to be a case of arguing about the uses of the words “puzzle,” “problem,” and “philosophy.” Wittgenstein too seems to be taking a position inconsistent with his idea that some words are ambiguous, vague, and some have a logic of “family resemblances.”

The central question is what to include under the label “philosophy.”

As it turns out the word “philosophy” — as many other words — is both ambiguous, vague, and has “family resemblances.” Wittgenstein is known for claiming that philosophical problems are due to linguistic confusions. Examples of such confusions are the various paradoxes, which can be treated by a distinction of use and mention of words, and the distinction between a language and a meta-language — as pointed out early by Bertrand Russell. Other sorts of linguistic confusions are category mistakes, made much of by Gilbert Ryle. Wittgenstein added to this tool box, the idea that language has many uses. And I suppose it would be a category mistake to confuse these many uses.

Popper saw philosophy as including other concerns (problems) — which he mentions, and which Wittgenstein readily pigeonholes as logical, mathematical or ethical. As a first take on the situation, the word “puzzle” has the connotation of not being urgent or serious; whereas the word “problem” has the connotation of being something requiring at least some urgency and seriousness.

But, really, is there a clear distinction?

This reminds me of the confrontation between Oedipus and the Sphinx. The Sphinx posed a riddle (a kind of puzzle). If Oedipus could not solve it, he would be killed by the Sphinx. And if he did solve it, the Sphinx would commit suicide. If the mark of a problem is its seriousness, then Oedipus had a problem of solving a puzzle (the riddle).

But perhaps Popper meant by a problem the finding of a peculiar type of explanation — perhaps a “scientific” explanation. In that case, Popper would be saying something to the effect that science and philosophy have no clear demarcation; while Wittgenstein was looking for such a demarcation. In his earlier book, Tractatus, he said metaphorically that philosophy if either above or below science.

In any case, judging by his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper saw philosophy as also concerned with a normative undertaking for a better society.

My own perspective on philosophy has changed from a minimalist perspective of avoiding contradictions such as found in paradoxes and category mistakes, especially within and between religions. This is a form of a priori criticism, which does not seek the truth, but which avoids error. I have also used a broader critique which assumes the reliability of science as a benchmark for what is plausible, and which then criticizes views as incompatible with science. And in the spirit of Popper, I include a further critique of institutions which centers on giving people the opportunity (freedom) to agree or disagree. In other words, I too seek an “open society.”

Also, people are ignorant, stupid, irresponsible, malicious, and manipulative — prone to bullshitting with all sorts of unsavory speeches and actions. I think the phrase “escaping from bullshit” encapsulates this broader concern and critique.

Is Capitalism a Political rather than an Economic system?

As I keep thinking about capitalism and socialism, and keeping in mind Max Weber’s characterization that the necessary condition for capitalism is the presence of a proletariat (= people who are deprived of access to means of production), it strikes me that the existence of a market economy is not essential (i.e., not necessary). Using John Searle’s insights about institutional facts, capitalism as a market system is a consequence of a law which forbids people from free access to subsistence land. And the law making power is the result of the government structures which are in existence. The market economy is, thus, the result of having governments which pass such laws. Capitalism is then rightly to be understood as a market economy which is created as a byproduct of a law which bars people from a free access to subsistence land.

The only one who focused on this political fact was Bernard Shaw, who said the following: “To begin with, the word Capitalism is misleading. The proper name of our system is Proletarianism.” [See Capitalism = Proletarianism] Barring people from doing whatever, can be called a political or coercive act. In that case Proletarianism [aka Capitalism) is a political system.

I know that people who defend Capitalism focus of the market transactions between a employers and employees, pointing out the benefits to the economy — technological innovations, mass production, and better living conditions. And this is true, except for the existence of the unemployed, the underemployed, and poverty.

I tried to understand the characteristics of capitalism (=proletarianism) by the model of two persons marooned on an island. [See Three forms of slavery: chattel slavery, serfdom, and wage-slavery]

There was one transaction between Crusoe and Friday which has bothered me. This is the situation in which Crusoe and Friday share the island equally, but Crusoe has a rifle and bullets, and the island if full of wild animals which can easily be hunted with the rifle. Crusoe offers Friday the use of the rifle on the condition that Friday is to provide to Crusoe half of all his kills. Friday agrees because he will be better off hunting with a rifle rather than by some more primitive mode. He will have more food with less effort, and more leisure. Here we have a situation in which Crusoe reaps a profit from Friday without doing any work himself. We can also call this an employer-employee relationship.

My point here is that you can have a market economy without slavery, serfdom, or wage-slavery. Or, put otherwise, a market economy can exist without Proletarianism (aka Capitalism).

What prevents Friday from making his own rifle and bullets?

On the island, nothing.

On the mainland, a government with a patent law!

Peasant Proprietorship

In the audio below, Bertrand Russell distinguished between peasant proprietorship and agrarian socialism. In his book on Bolshevism, Russell uses the word “communism” instead. I am puzzled by what point Russell was trying to make. Let me explain. Since the necessary condition for capitalism is depriving people of a free access to subsistence land, then [free] peasant proprietorship — i.e., without taxation, would be antithetical to capitalism, and compatible with anarchism. So, Russell’s use of the term “socialism” is not used as a simple antithesis to capitalism, but seems to require for him a co-operative form of organization.

Now, Karl Marx, in his critique of capitalism, was writing about the class struggle between proletarians and industrialists — and the resolution of this struggle was to be worker-controlled factories. But a peasant proprietor is not a proletarian. A proletarian is someone who does not have access to free modes of production. But free access to land is a type of free access to a mode of production.

Peasant proprietors should have been left alone with the freedom to form co-operatives — agrarian socialism. Instead, under Stalin, Ukrainian peasants were wiped out or forced into collectives.


I met Lenin in 1920 when I was in Russia. I had an hours talk tete a tete with him. And he spoke English much better than you would have expected. The conversation was in English. I expected it to be in German. But I found his English was quite good.

I was less impressed by Lenin than I expected to be. He was of course a great man. He seemed to me a reincarnation of Cromwell, with exactly the same limitations that Cromwell had — absolute orthodoxy. His any proposition could be proved by quoting a text in Marx. And he was quite incapable of supposing that there could be anything in Marx that wasn’t right, and that struck me as rather limited.

I decided one other thing about him because his great readiness to stir up hatred. I put certain questions to him to see what his answer would be. And one of them was: you profess to be establishing socialism but as far as the countryside is concerned, you seem to me to be establishing peasant proprietorship, which is a very different thing from agricultural socialism. And he said, “Oh, dear me, we’re not establishing peasant proprietorship.” He said, “You see there are poor peasants and rich peasants, and we stirred up the poor peasant against the rich peasants, and they soon will hang them to the nearest tree — ha, ha, ha, ha.”

I didn’t much like that.

Response to some objections to my claims and proposals

Objection 1: Your proposal to give each person a right to free subsistence land is a retrogressive proposal.

Response to 1: My insistence on giving each person the right to free subsistence land is threefold: (1) to provide the theoretical contradictory of capitalism, since the very definition of capitalism requires the existence of a proletariat; (2) to provide for those who do not wish to participate in a social undertaking — e.g., those who wish to be hermits; (3) throughout the world there are indigenous people who already live by agriculture or herding — their right to do so has to be secured.

It is, of course, more efficient to live in a cooperative manner. But this should be a matter of choice — a choice which reasonable people will make. As Kropotkin pointed out, a single tractor can do the work of 100 men. I am for using all the technology available. I am not for retrogression. Organizing an agrarian village seems simple by comparison to organizing a large city. In Ukraine [1918-21], the anarchist Nestor Makhno had no problem with villages, but cities baffled him. But, on the other hand, some crisis — like the loss of the electric grid — may force people to a more primitive way of living.

Objection 2: Overpopulation is not a problem. Malthus and the Ehrichs were wrong.

Response 2: They cannot be faulted for the general claim (1) that no living species can continue to expand beyond the resources of food. The other claim is: (2) food resources are limited. And the conclusion, then, is: (3) the population will stop expanding.

I don’t know of any way to dispute (1). However, (2) could be disputed by claiming that technology could make an unlimited amount of food. Presently, I do not see this in the offing. As to (3), there is a choice — either limit population growth through some kind of human intervention, or natural disasters will dwindle the populations in their own ways.

Objection 3: Switzerland should not be held up as a model for anarchists.

Response 3: I do not use Switzerland as a model for anarchism. I simply claim that it is the most democratic State in the world. The best feature is the seven-member Federal Council as contrasted with one-man rule of a President or a Prime Minister. It is also superior to the election of a President through Macro Democracy. And like the United States, it is a federal system with three layers of government: national, cantonal, and municipal — unlike the unitary or “integral” government as in Ukraine. Switzerland also has national and cantonal initiatives and referendums, which act as public controls on the government.