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Discovering Karl Popper

Karl Popper

by Bryan Magee
Viking, 115 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The Philosophy of Karl Popper

edited by Paul A. Schilpp
Open Court (The Library of Living Philosophers), 2vols., 1,500 pp., $30.00

Objective Knowledge

by Karl Popper
Oxford University Press, 390 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Bryan Magee’s clear little introduction to the thought of Karl Popper opens with the remark that Popper’s name is not yet a household word among educated people. The remainder of the book is an attempt to remedy this allegedly undeserved neglect.

The educated reader might think that Popper has received adequate recognition. After all, Popper, an Austrian schoolteacher who left his native land in 1937 in anticipation of Nazi annexation, gained a world-wide reputation in 1945 with the publication of The Open Society and Its Enemies. Later, at the London School of Economics, he became Professor of Logic and Scientific method. He has now been a leading figure in the philosophy of science for many years; his Logic of Scientific Discovery, a translation of a work he had already published before he left Austria, must now be a part of almost every philosophy of science course in the English-speaking world.

In 1965 Popper became Sir Karl, and this year the Danish government chose him, at the age of seventy-one, for its Sonning Prize, previously awarded to figures like Bertrand Russell and Sir Winston Churchill, and worth around $45,000. Now, the publication of The Philosophy of Karl Popper (a collection of critical essays with replies by Popper) gives Popper a niche in the Library of Living Philosophers, alongside predecessors like Dewey, Moore, Russell, and Einstein. In fact, Popper has upstaged them all by being the first to run to two volumes.

The rewards of academic life do not normally include knighthoods and large sums of money. Is there any reason why Popper should deserve more than most other philosophers? Magee thinks there is. His short book makes or endorses an extraordinary series of claims for its subject. If they were all justified, Popper would have to be regarded as the outstanding philosopher—perhaps the outstanding thinker—of the twentieth century.

Among these claims are: Popper is the greatest living philosopher of science, and has influenced outstandingly successful scientists; Popper has solved the problem of induction, that “skeleton in the cupboard of philosophy” which has baffled philosophers from David Hume to the present day; Popper published the central arguments against logical positivism, even before that particular philosophy became fashionable in the English-speaking world; Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies contains “the most scrupulous and formidable criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living writer” (the quotation is from Isaiah Berlin, but Magee adds: “I must confess I do not see how any rational man can have read Popper’s critique of Marx and still be a Marxist.”); Popper has written the most powerful defense of democracy in the English language.

Finally, Popper’s latest achievement, his theory of “objective knowledge,” offers solutions to the following range of problems: the relationship of bodies and minds, the objectivity of morality and aesthetics, problems of social and political change “which have engrossed the greatest philosophers from Plato to Marx,” and problems about intellectual and artistic change that have engrossed various other great philosophers. All this in prose that is “massively distinguished…magnanimous and humane.”

The Philosophy of Karl Popper, by the range of contributions it has assembled and the prestige of its contributors, also makes a strong claim for the uniqueness of its subject. There are philosophers interested in logic or philosophy of science, like William Kneale, W.V. Quine, Hilary Putnam, A.J. Ayer, and Thomas Kuhn; distinguished scientists discuss the bearing of Popper’s thought on fields like physics, psychology, and neurophysiology; John Wild criticizes Popper’s interpretation of Plato, and H.B. Acton has sent in an essay vaguely related to what Popper wrote about Marx; Edward Boyle, who might have been Britain’s Minister of Education had he not been too liberal for his Conservative colleagues, tries to say what Popper’s political ideas meant for him as an active politician; there are essays on Popper’s case against determinism, his views on the nature of time, and his theory of method in the social sciences; Ernst Gombrich completes the diversity by using some of Popper’s remarks to illuminate the history of art.

So…Popper is clearly an unusual figure among professional philosophers: but is he the genius Magee would have us believe?

Straight off, we can accept two of Magee’s claims—or say that they are, at worst, exaggerations of genuine achievements. This is enough to make us take Popper seriously.

First, if Popper is not the greatest living philosopher of science I am not sure who is; and that Popper has influenced important scientists is undeniable, since two of the contributors to The Philosophy of Karl Popper who acknowledge his influence are Nobel Prize winners Sir John Eccles and Sir Peter Medawar. Popper’s work in this field, of which I shall say more shortly, is his prime achievement. Although, as Popper himself admits in his comments on Medawar’s essay, his essential ideas had been anticipated by nineteenth-century logicians like C.S. Peirce and W. Whewell, we should not let this affect our estimate of what Popper has done. While the continuing tradition of American pragmatism has kept Peirce’s ideas alive at some American universities, it is largely to Popper that we owe the present widespread popularity of the approach to science that is common to the thought of Peirce, Whewell, and Popper; hence these ideas are rightly associated with Popper’s name.

It is also true that Popper published important criticisms of logical positivism as early as 1934. At that time this particular philosophy had already had several years of popularity with Carnap, Schlick, and others among the philosophers of the Vienna Circle. Popper is sometimes thought to have been a member of this now almost legendary group of influential thinkers. The Philosophy of Karl Popper should settle this issue. It includes a substantial intellectual autobiography in which Popper discusses his relations with the Circle, as well as an essay by Victor Kraft, himself a member of the Circle, on the same topic.

Although Popper read papers to smaller “epicycles” of the Circle, he was never a member of it, and he never accepted its central doctrines. In particular he opposed the attempt to distinguish sense from nonsense by means of the “verification principle”—which holds that a statement only makes sense if in principle one can verify it. He argued against this idea that it would make all metaphysics gibberish, since one had to understand a metaphysical theory before one could judge whether it could be verified. Moreover, the principle of verification was itself unverifiable!

In place of the principle of verification, Popper proposed his own principle of falsifiability—not, however, as a means of distinguishing sense from nonsense, but as a means of separating scientific theories from various kinds of pseudoscience, especially those, like Marxism and psychoanalysis, that were in vogue in Vienna at the time. In contrast to Einstein, who had boldly risked his theory by predicting unexpected outcomes for certain experiments, Marxists and Freudians claimed to explain anything and everything by their theories. By failing to make claims that might be shown false, Popper said, they evaded refutation at the cost of their scientific status.

These and other arguments Popper published in his Logik der Forschung, which appeared two years before A. J. Ayer’s brilliant manifesto Language, Truth, and Logic spread the new gospel of positivism to the English-speaking world. For many years, philosophers in Britain and America took no notice of Popper’s objections, perhaps because they had not appeared in English.

It is more difficult to assess the rest of Popper’s work. In order to give some impression of the ground covered by The Philosophy of Karl Popper, and at the same time to consider the further claims that Magee makes on Popper’s behalf, I shall select three main areas. Apart from the two achievements just recognized, Popper himself would probably give most weight to the claim that he has solved the ancient philosophical problem of induction. In discussing this issue, we shall be able to see just what Popper has and has not accomplished in the philosophy of science. Second, I shall offer some brief comments on the newest development of Popper’s thought, the theory of “Objective Knowledge,” from which Popper’s recently published book of essays takes its title. Finally, I shall consider Popper’s political ideas, and his critique of Marxism.

Before we come to the substance of Popper’s work, however, a word about his philosophical style may help us to understand why he has become such a controversial figure on the normally decorous philosophical scene.

For Popper, philosophy is an attempt to get nearer to a true view of the world, that is, a view that corresponds to the facts. This makes philosophy a serious and important activity. To approach the truth, we must scrutinize assumptions—metaphysical, moral, and political—that affect everything we do. So philosophy is not just an intellectual game. It really does matter.

In the autobiographical section of The Philosophy of Karl Popper Popper tells of his first encounter with Wittgenstein, and this incident serves to mark the contrast between Popper’s idea of philosophy and that which prevailed in England from the end of the Second World War until roughly the early Sixties. In 1946 Popper was invited to give a paper at Cambridge “stating some philosophical puzzle.” The wording of the invitation revealed the hand of Wittgenstein, who held that there are no real philosophical problems, only puzzles to be cleared up by a careful analysis of ordinary language. Characteristically, Popper met the challenge head on by saying that if he thought there were no genuine philosophical problems he would not be a philosopher. After a brief exchange, Wittgenstein apparently decided that Popper was a hopeless case, and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.

So, during the heyday of Wittgenstein’s influence, Popper remained outside the mainstream of British philosophy, going his own way with a stubborn sense of what was really important and what was a mere dispute over words. It could hardly have been otherwise. This was a period in which philosophy turned in on itself, and philosophers puzzled away at little bits of linguistic usage that had led their holder predecessors astray. Popper was a philosopher for the physicist, the economist, the historian, the politician. While this audience appreciated the importance of the issues Popper was addressing himself to, mainstream academic philosophers thought him insufficiently subtle.

At the same time, Popper’s personal style did not help to endear him to his English colleagues. His commitment to the importance of his subject spills over into his books and articles, which become the weapons with which the battle against error is to be fought. He assails his opponents with arguments from all sides, and sometimes with ridicule and abuse as well. As if that were not enough. Popper can also be tediously repetitious and irritatingly egotistical, (Why, for instance, does he have to tell us on at least three separate occasions in Objective Knowledge that it was he who invented the label “Hume’s problem” for the problem of induction. Who cares?)

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