For those of a philosophic bent, one of the best books of recent times has been Wittgenstein’s Poker, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, which provides a brilliant overview of two giants of 20th century thought, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. (The title derives from the infamous meeting of Wittgenstein and Popper in room H3, King’s College Cambridge on 25th October 1946 when Wittgenstein allegedly brandished a hot poker at Popper over a fundamental philosophical disagreement.
The dispute between Wittgenstein and Popper represents the major clash of philosophical opinion in the 20th century. In simple terms (if that is possible), Wittgenstein felt that philosophical problems were merely puzzles caused by the misuse of language. By analysing our use of language properly, we would dissolve away the issues. Popper violently disagreed with this view. For him, there were real problems, not mere puzzles that could be just explained away by language analysis. For Popper, Wittgenstein’s theories were the equivalent of intellectual navel gazing. And he was backed up in this by Bertrand Russell (who ironically was one of Wittgenstein’s early supporters). As Edmonds and Eidinow describe: “Russell had pioneered the analysis of concepts, and, like Popper, thought that this could often clarify issues. But also like Popper he believed precision was not the be-all and end-all. Popper pointed out that scientists managed to accomplish great things despite working with a degree of linguistic ambiguity. Russell averred that problems would not disappear even if each word were carefully defined.“
By way example, Russell used the following anecdote. He was cycling to Winchester and stopped to ask a shopkeeper the shortest way. The shopkeeper called to a man in the back of the premises:
“Gentleman wants to know the shortest way to Winchester”
“Winchester?” an unseen voice replied.
“Way to Winchester?”
The connection with today’s social media and PR world is that I keep seeing a lot of Socratic questions being asked eg What is PR? What is social media? The underlying implication being that if we could simply define what social media and PR are then we are well on the way to promised land. However, I’m with Popper and Russell. We can spend our time defining terms all we like – the problems to be solved won’t go away. Namely, how can we best solve client’s marketing and PR problems for them in a profitable manner. Continuing to obsess over definitions isn’t going to help.