What minds make, Nelson Wattie

Beyond Wittgenstein’s Poker: New Light on Popper and Wittgenstein
Peter Munz
Ashgate Publishing Limited, $62.00,
ISBN 0754640159

Working at the interface between literature and science, Gillian Beer recently asked in The Guardian: “How do you have new ideas? Language is so historical and communal.” This expresses in a nutshell the challenging question Peter Munz boldly confronts in this book. The human mind constantly throws up new ideas, new questions and new challenges to itself. These go beyond what was thought before; they go beyond the conventions of inherited language and, much more than that, they go beyond what biology and environment demand of us. They might and often do carry us into areas of danger.

Munz’s answer is a “new idea” in itself: we go beyond what is really needed because our minds are “too big”: too big for merely coping with present circumstances, whatever they may be, and, indeed, too big for our own good. As a result, humans require something unique to them: culture. (He reminds us here that “long before ‘culture’ meant Mozart’s operas, Titian’s paintings and Virginia Woolf’s novels, it consisted of human sacrifices, immolation of babies, self-flagellations, blood feuds, female circumcision and other similar unpleasantnesses.”) The purpose of culture is “damage control” – to cope with the inappropriate size of our brain and its way of leaping ahead of itself.

Munz places Darwinism at the centre of explanation – and so does Gillian Beer: she “still finds it ‘extraordinary’ that Darwin was able to think against the grain and then express his own theory so persuasively.” The fact that he could do so makes a mockery of one strain of modern Darwinism, which believes that our minds evolved to cope with our bodies’ circumstances, and no more. Like other great thinkers, Darwin himself is a counter-example of what such “Darwinism” claims to find. Munz spends the last part of his book in an extensive, devastating attack on this “Evolutionary Psychology”.

But this is to leap ahead of ourselves. For the book is rooted in its author’s experience, and in particular his personal knowledge of two of the greatest minds of the 20th century: Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Peter Munz was, apparently, the only person who attended philosophy classes under both.

Until it found a home with Ashgate, Munz’s manuscript was, he says, rejected by publishers who disapproved of its autobiographical component. In that case, they were deaf not just to an attractive quirk in the book but to its essential nature. Ideas new and old do not exist in a remote ethereal realm of abstraction, but in human minds. The academic convention that refuses to let the first-person pronoun into a work of science or philosophy obscures the fact – which remains perfectly clear in the presentation despite such obfuscation – that the work was written by a human being engaged in the material. Only in its encounter with the mind does the material have any relevance to its readers, or the culture it is embedded in, and masking that encounter does nothing for the clarity of the thought or its presentation.

The autobiographical component is not just the way Munz presents his material; it is an inseparable part of the material itself. The ideas of the book were developed over time in its author’s mind, stimulated and influenced by encounters with Popper and Wittgenstein, but also – and this is no less essential – going beyond their influence. His abstract conclusions by themselves would not make the subject matter of this book: in Popper’s thought, and consequently in Munz’s, conclusions are never conclusive. The process, not its goal, is the subject matter. Like Popper’s own Unended Quest, this book might be subtitled “an intellectual autobiography”.

Just as he makes it clear that his arguments arise from his own life experience, Munz also provides amusing anecdotes to reveal subjective aspects of Popper’s and Wittgenstein’s minds. Neither of them were very attractive people in a person-to-person sense. Stories of Popper dealing with his neighbours in Christchurch suggest that he took his own philosophy a touch too seriously, applying it to everyday situations where it was scarcely appropriate. These stories resonate later, when Munz explains that Popper had far too little of Wittgenstein’s awareness that truth is created within social structures (“forms of life”, as Wittgenstein calls them). There are some equally revealing stories about Wittgenstein, whose own social skills, paradoxically, were practically nil. These stories also resonate in discussions of his thought, since Wittgenstein was insufficiently aware that “forms of life” could be multifarious, located on a scale from “open” to “closed” in Popper’s terminology.

Munz is, after all, a storyteller, an historian. When he copies out a letter Popper wrote to him in 1981, he comments: “I am publishing this letter here in spite of Popper’s injunction [‘Please take this letter as confidential!’] because it belongs very much to the story I am telling.” The need for storytelling is explained a couple of pages later, and it is the explanation of the historian rather than of the philosopher: “The past, even the past of the quest for knowledge, is, as it stands, a jumble of myriad events. Change the criterion of selection, and the sequences which one comes up with will change accordingly.”

The “jumble of myriad events” is an analogy to the mass of signals the mind receives from the senses at any given time, and the living human being must, like the historian here, have a “criterion of selection” and a “binding principle” to create meaning from that disparate mass. This is why positivism (the philosophical tradition from Bacon through Locke, Hume, Comte etc to behaviourism and “Evolutionary Psychology”) has too little explanatory power. Its basic thesis that “the mind was a replica of the world which had flown in through the senses”, as Munz sardonically puts it, can make nothing of how the mind manages the data provided by the senses and, indeed, goes beyond them.

That the mind does go beyond the sense data to create hypotheses and theories not immediately justified by them is fundamental to Popper’s great insight. Knowledge in general and science in particular do not progress by observation but by leaping out beyond what observation delivers, and then submitting the results to rigorous criticism. Einstein never observed space curving around matter, nor did he see objects becoming shorter in the direction they travel. But, even after rigorous criticism, his understanding that these things are so explains a greater range of phenomena than Newton’s physics can, and his theories, like those of Newton, must consequently serve as “true” until they are falsified. The implications of this, Popper’s insight, are vast and surprising and his books are a wonderful exploration of them. Later he came to see that the mental process he had described was similar to the process of mutation and selection that underlies Darwinian thought. The similarity is more than an analogy. Popperian mental processes are almost identical with Darwinian biological processes, even though Munz points out an essential difference: while it takes generations for the process of species selection to run its course, a theory proposed by a thinker can be falsified in a moment, so that the two processes occupy quite different time-scales.

Wittgenstein approached the world from a different angle. Once he had implicitly discarded the “positivism” of his Tractatus, he turned, in the Philosophical Investigations, to an examination of the way language, used within a “form of life”, creates meaning. Munz tells the tale of the way the two great thinkers developed their insights while almost deliberately ignoring each other. Hence their all too brief exchange of words and Wittgenstein’s flourishing of a poker in Popper’s face at a meeting Munz witnessed and here describes in detail. But, true to his principle that history does not merely tell the given tale but assembles it according to a theory or agenda, Munz goes out beyond the given to discuss how the ideas of Popper fill a gap in Wittgenstein’s thought (the types of human society) and how Wittgenstein can explain something Popper left unexplained (how it is possible to transcend, meaningfully, the material provided by the senses). History is more than a recapitulation, it is a creation of meaning, and Munz consciously provides the originality such a concept of history demands. In doing so, he applies to Popper what Popper in fact demanded: rigorous criticism of the theory. And he pays the same compliment to Wittgenstein.

This book, which transcends national history, would nonetheless be something quite different without its New Zealand roots. Popper was indelibly marked by his stay in Christchurch, where he wrote his social science master-piece The Open Society and its Enemies. In the autobiographical component of Munz’s book – which might be called a frame rather than a component – and also in the lively way colloquial language is used to pursue the most abstract of ideas, the author also reveals how New Zealand helped to shape his own mind and perceptions. Published in Britain, intimidatingly expensive here, this book is nonetheless essentially of New Zealand, documenting the mental life of its author, a truly remarkable New Zealander, and one who has profoundly influenced many other New Zealand minds.


Nelson Wattie wrote on Karl Popper for Out of the Shadow of War: The German Connection with New Zealand in the 20th Century (1988).


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