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Having just written about Wittgenstein, I thought following up with a short post on the philosopher Karl Popper would be apt.  Wittgenstein and Popper are an interesting duo, both very different kinds of planets orbiting around the sun of philosophical thought.  On an evening in October of 1946, Popper, Wittgensten as well as other philosophers (including Bertrand Russel) had a gathering of the Cambridge Moral Science Club held at King’s College.

Popper was to present on the topic, “Are There Philosophical Problems?”
And for about ten minutes, a battle of philosophical perspectives raged in that small room. In their book, ‘Wittgenstein’s Poker,’ which attempts to uncover what exactly happened that night, Edmonds and Eidinow write,

“What is clear is that there were vehement exchanges between Popper and Wittgenstein over the fundamental nature of philosophy – whether there were indeed philosophical problems (Popper) or merely puzzles (Wittgenstein).”

Why was Wittgenstein so angry?  And why did he seemingly threaten Popper with a red-hot fire poker? Only debated recollections remain from that evening, but what we do know is that probably two of the greatest philosophers of that time both came to that meeting thinking that they were protecting philosophy from the errors of its past, and Popper saw Wittgenstein as “philosophy’s ultimate enemy.”

In Popper’s memoir he writes that Wittgenstein “had been nervously playing with the poker” using it like a “conductor’s baton to emphasize his assertions.”  At one point the question of Popper’s view on ethics came up, and “Wittgenstein challenged Popper to give an example of a moral rule.”  Popper writes, “I replied: ‘Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.’  On saying this, Wittgenstein threw down the red-hot poker in a rage and stormed out of the room.

It’s an interesting little event in the history of bizarre encounters in academia, where those who hold there ideas so dear let the emotional conviction of their ideas run rampant in their debates.

Feeling that I needed to know a little more about Popper, him having a similar background to Wittgenstein (both having lived in Vienna during the famous Vienna circle, both coming from wealthy families, and both having escaped Vienna during World War II because of their Jewish heritage) I read his essay, “The Myth of the Framework.”


I am posting it here, because he said some interesting things about language and the implications of learning another language.

Popper begins by quoting Plato,

“Those who believe this, and those who do not, have no common ground of discussion, but in view of their opinions they must of necessity scorn each other.”

When I read this quote, I couldn’t help but think he had the brief ten-minute raging philosophical duel with Wittgenstein somewhere in the back of his mind when he wrote this essay.

The essay is worth a read, but a nice overview of its main points with some insightful commentary can be found here.  My main interest in bringing it up here is that in order to argue his point, that discussions with people from different perspectives is the only way to make progress, he brings up Whorf‘s notion of linguistic relativity, linguistic relativity being the idea that language influences or perhaps even structures the way we see the world.  And people with different languages therefore see the world in a different way.

There is a passage that Popper writes on this I thought worth quoting in full, because it gives an interesting perspective that sees language as having the power to shape reality as well as the power of learning a new language to break out of old frameworks.

The metaphor of language and prison:

“Whorf himself, and some of his followers, have suggested that we live in a kind of intellectual prison, a prison formed by the structural rules of our language.  I am prepared to accept this metaphor, though I have to add to it that it is an odd prison as we are normally unaware of being imprisoned.  We may become aware of it through culture clash. But then, this very awareness allows us to break the prison. If we try hard enough, we can transcend our prison by studying the new language and by comparing it with our own.”

Widening the prison:

“Admittedly, the result will be a new prison.  But it will be a much larger and wider prison.  And again, we will not suffer from it.  Or rather, whenever we do suffer from it, we are free to examine it critically, and thus to break out again into a still wider prison.”

Prisons as Frameworks:

“The prisons are the frameworks.  And those who do not like prisons will be opposed to the myth of the framework.  They will welcome a discussion with a partner who comes from another world, from another framework, for it gives them an opportunity to discover their so far unfelt chains, to break these chains, and thus to transcend themselves.  But this breaking of one’s prison is clearly not a matter of routine: it can only be the result of a critical effort and of a creative effort.”

In some ways, learning a new language is like expanding the horizons of our current prison, not simply because it forces us to experience new ways of seeing the world, but rather because it forces us to reexamine our own.


“Were a language ever completely “grammatical” it would be a perfect engine of conceptual expression. Unfortunately, or luckily, no language is tyrannically consistent. All grammars leak“.

–Edward Sapir, Language (1921), p. 38

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4 responses to “about”

  1. Hello Gavin,
    I just finished attending a conference in Grenoble, France http://epal-grenoble.net and met a French colleague/PhD student & researcher who loves your blog, which I recently discovered. Looks fascinating!!!
    Aloha from a graduate of the MA program in SLS at UHM (moi 🙂

  2. Hi Merica, thanks for the link, looks like an interesting conference! Glad to know there are people out there who enjoy reading my blog! especially SLS grads! 🙂 Mahalo nui loa for the comment:-)

  3. Hey Gavin!
    I have a couple of questions for you but I don’t see a way to contact you on this blog, so I’m just leaving a comment…could you send me a message to my blog’s e-mail [@ gmail] when you get a chance?

    Mahalo 🙂


    “When the infernal machine of plantation slavery began to grind its wheels, iron laws of economics came into play, laws that would lead to immeasurable suffering but would also, and equally inevitably, produce new languages all over the world – languages that ironically, in the very midst of man’s inhumanity to man, demonstrated the essential unity of humanity.”

    – Derek Bickerton




Author: rogerglewis

https://about.me/rogerlewis Looking for a Job either in Sweden or UK. Freelance, startups, will turń my hand to anything.

1 thought on “KARL POPPER: BREAKING OUT OF THE PRISON OF LANGUAGE July 15, 2012 · by Gavin

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