• Email
  • Print

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?)

If Popper’s style puts off many, however, it also attracts some fervent disciples most of whom are represented in The Philosophy of Karl Popper. For some years now there has been a little hand of enthusiastic Popperians, carrying forward the banner of Popper’s ideas. Now and again one will fall from grace, and another will appear. Magee is obviously a recent convert; on the other hand, Popper’s reply to the essay by Imre Lakatos in The Philosophy of Karl Popper clearly marks the excommunication of that once lofty follower, for the series of papers in which this former student and colleague of Popper’s has tried to guide the reader through Popper’s writings is now declared, by the ultimate authority himself, to be “unreliable and misleading,” Poor Lakatos.

Popper’s knack of attracting disciples is an intriguing phenomenon, although one that cannot be discussed here. The irony is that Popper, the biting critic of petty, scholastic wrangling, now has to admit that his own works have become the subjects of scholastic disputes. It must be galling for Popper to find himself divided by his supporters into Popper, Popper1, and Popper2 with consequent endless possibilities for debates over interpretations. On the other hand, Popper complains so frequently of being misunderstood—the intentions of the editor of The Philosophy of Karl Popper have been seriously thwarted by the fact that on several occasions Popper and his critics simply fall to engage because, according to Popper, the essays are directed against positions that he never held that one begins to suspect that the fault may lie with the author as much as with the expositor or critic.

Finally, so far as style is concerned, Popper’s desire to swamp his opponents with criticism results in a failure to distinguish good arguments from bad. While one may applaud Popper’s conviction that real argument is preferable to the kind of suggestive observations that Wittgenstein and his followers used to throw out, Popper himself has debased the currency of argument by his indiscriminate employment of any argument that comes to hand. Does Popper really think, for instance, that it is an argument against the impossibility of doubting one’s own existence that Kipa, a Sharpa who went further up Everest than was good for him, afterward thought he was dead? Or even that Popper himself had the same experience when struck by lightning in the Austrian Alps (Objective Knowledge, p. 36)? Any undergraduate philosopher would reply that believing one is dead is very different from believing that one doesn’t exist.

Some of Popper’s replies to his critics in The Philosophy of Karl Popper contain arguments almost as bad—for instance, in reply to the ease for determinism presented by Feigl and Meehl, Popper remarks that they were unable to predict the form his reply would take, although Feigl and Meehl had explicitly disclaimed the ability to make such predictions.

What has Popper achieved in the philosophy of science, and how does his achievement relate to the problem of induction?

Science, according to a tradition going back to Francis Bacon, proceeds from the open-minded accumulation of observations. When the scientist has collected enough data he will notice a pattern beginning to emerge, and he will hypothesize that this indicates some natural law. He then tries to confirm this law by finding further evidence to support it. If he succeeds he has verified his hypothesis. He has discovered another law of nature.

Popper’s challenge to this view starts from the simple logical point that a universal statement like “All swans are white” cannot be proved true by any number of observations of white swan—we might have failed to spot a black swan somewhere—but it can be shown false by a single authentic sighting of a black swan. Scientific theories of this universal form, therefore, can never be conclusively verified, though it may be possible to falsify them.

Hence Popper says that it is wrong to begin by accumulating observations, and it is wrong to seek confirming instances of a theory. Instead we should advance bold conjectures—derived from intuition, or creative genius, or any way we like—and attempt to refute them. Of two competing theories, the one that has run the greater risk of falsification, but has not been falsified, is the better corroborated. This does not mean that it is true—it may be falsified in the future—but it is likely to be a closer approximation to the truth than its rival. We can never, in science, know that we have discovered the truth although there is such a thing as truth, it is a regulative idea which we try to approach, but can never be sure of reaching.

There is an objection to this, urged by both Hilary Putnam and Thomas Kubn in their contributions to The Philosophy of Karl Popper; it is always possible to deny that a theory has been falsified by an observation that at first foes seem to falsify it. One can deny, for instance, that the reported sighting of a black swan was authentic; or one could say that if the bird was black, then by definition it just wasn’t a swan, no matter how much it resembled swans in other respects. In general, scientific theories are not tested in isolation, but in conjunction with other assumptions; therefore it is possible to save the theory, and explain away an observation that contradicts it, by claiming that one of the other assumptions was at fault.

Popper has not overlooked this objection; indeed, he mentioned it in his earliest writings. His reply is that as a methodological rule we should avoid “immunizing” our theories in this way, although he admits that there will be times when it is worth trying to preserve a theory despite anomalous observations.

What Popper says on this point is hardly precise, and perhaps for that reason it may not satisfy his critics; at the same time, Popper warns against the search for precision in places in which it is not to be found. We must allow ourselves to be guided by the circumstances of each case. In this way, Popper is able to retain his central point; the asymmetry of verification and falsification.

It may be helpful to illustrate this by an example, and the example that actually influenced Popper most decisively serves well. When Einstein conjectured that light rays passing close to a heavy body like the sun would be deflected from their normal path, this effect had never been observed. Newtonian physics predicted no such effect. When the observation was made and Einstein’s prediction confirmed, Newton’s “laws” were shown to be false, despite the immense amount of “verification” they had received over the centuries. It might in fact, have been possible to cling to Newton’s theory by introducing some ad hoc hypotheses to explain the observations, but to do so seemed implausible when the new theory explained matters more simply. The point is that Einstein could account for all of Newton’s successes, plus one of his failures. Newton’s theory could not stand; Einstein’s must be a closer approximation to the truth. So it survives to face further testing.

Although, as The Philosophy of Karl Popper shows, this view of science may not be unanimously accepted today, it has much support. I regard it as a huge advance upon the previously accepted idea of scientific method. Is it also a solution to the problem of induction? In two separate essays in Objective Knowledge and again in the course of his replies to his critics in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, Popper claims that it is. He complains, however, that other philosophers have not recognized his solution and he says that his critics have not understood him.

What is this notorious problem of induction? Hume’s logical problem of induction is whether we are justified in reasoning from instances of which we have experience to instances of which we have no experience. For example, we have observed the sun rising on numerous past occasions. Does this justify our belief that it will rise on a future occasion, say tomorrow?

The assumption that this belief is justifiable is, Hume said, absolutely basic to our ideas of rational belief and rational action. Without it the most carefully derived expectations are ultimately no more defensible than the bizarre fancies of a madman. Without a justification of induction, the distinction between rationality and irrationality appears to be in peril.

How does Popper answer Hume’s question? First, we must note how he interprets it. He regards it, correctly, not merely as a problem of generalizing from single cases to all cases, but as one about reasoning from past cases to a single future case. He also—perhaps less soundly, but we cannot go into that here—agrees with Hume that describing our belief about tomorrow’s sunrise as probable, rather than certain, makes no difference to the argument.

Popper then says that Hume’s question has to be reformulated. The main effect of his various reformulations is to turn the issue from a question about single cases to one about universal explanatory theories. On that reformulated issue his answer, predictably, is that observations cannot justify the claim that a universal theory is true, but they can allow us to say that it is false, and they can justify a preference for some theories over others.

Popper’s critics point out that this does not seem to answer Hume’s question. The theory that the sun rises every day may have survived falsification yesterday, but is this a reason for believing that it will survive falsification tomorrow? That was what Hume wanted to know.

Popper retorts that he has answered this question. His answer is “No.” Induction is not justifiable. That a theory has been corroborated in the past “says nothing whatever about future performance.” The best corroborated theory may fall tomorrow. “It is perfectly possible that the world at we know it, with all. Its pragmatically relevant regularities, may completely disintegrate in the next second.”

Of course universal disintegration is possible, but we appear to be justified in gambling heavily against it occuring in the next second, if only because the world has not disintegrated In any of the previous seconds of which we have knowledge, and we have no grounds for believing that disintegration is more likely in the next second than in any other second.

Hume showed, however, that this plausible argument simply assumes that past observations do justify future predictions, and if we try to defend this assumption on the grounds that those who, in the past, assumed that the future will be like the past have turned out to be right, we have again assumed what we wanted to prove. So we have an assumption that appears impossible to defend without circularity, but equally impossible to avoid making.

Popper wants to say that it is possible to avoid assuming that the future will, or probably will, be like the past, and this is why he has claimed to have solved the problem of induction. We do not have to make the assumption, he tells us, if we proceed by formulating conjectures and attempting to falsify them.

Unfortunately, we still have to act. If I did not assume that because water has come out of my tap in the past when I turned the handle the same will happen today. I might equally sensibly hold my glass under the electric light.

On this pragmatic issue Popper’s more recent contributions do have a little more to say, but it does not help. He says that, as a basin for action, we should prefer “the best-tested theory.” This can only mean the theory that has survived refutation in the past; but why, since Popper says that past corroboration has nothing to do with future performance, is it rational to prefer this? Popper says that it will be “rational” to do so “in the most obvious sense of the word known to me…. I do not know of anything more ‘rational’ than a well-conducted critical discussion.”

The reader familiar with Popper’s contempt for linguistic philosophy will rub his eyes at this. Popper has picked up that once trusty but now discarded weapon of linguistic philosophers, the argument from a “paradigm usage” of a word—in this case, the word “rational.” The argument proves nothing. As Popper himself has said many times, words do not matter so long as we are not misled by them. Popper’s argument is no better than Strawson’s claim that induction is valid because inductive reasoning is a paradigm of what we mean by “valid” reasoning. In fact Popper’s identification of a “well-conducted critical discussion” with the idea of rationality is doubly unhelpful, since until we know how to establish which theory is more likely to hold in the future we have not the faintest idea how to conduct a “well-conducted critical discussion” that has any bearing on the question we want answered.

More fundamental still is the question how, even in theory, we can possibly prefer one hypothesis to another, or take one as a nearer approximation to truth than the other, if past corroboration has no implications for the future. Without the inductive assumption, the fact that a theory was refuted yesterday is quite irrelevant to its truth-status today. Indeed, in the time it takes to say: “This result corroborates Einstein’s theory but not Newton’s,” all the significance of the remark vanishes, and we cannot go on to say that therefore Einstein’s theory is nearer to the truth. So jettisoning the inductive assumption makes nonsense of Popper’s own theory of the growth of scientific knowledge. ‘While it is true that on Popper’s view induction is not a means of scientific discovery, as it was for Bacon. It remains indispensable, and the logical problem of induction is no nearer to solution than it was before Popper tackled it.

Popper’s theory of “objective knowledge,” presented in his most recent book, is less rigorous, less tightly argued than other aspects of his thought. The theory itself comes over clearly enough, but how it helps to solve important problems is not easy to discern.

Popper divides the kinds of things that exist into three “worlds.” “World 1” is the ordinary world of tables and flesh and bone—the world that materialists say is all there is. “World 2” is the ‘world of consciousness, minds, and, if you believe in them, spirits—the world that idealists say is the only real one. Duelists, of course, say that both worlds exist. Popper adds a third world, the world of objective knowledge. By this he does not mean the marks on pieces of paper stored in libraries (those are World 1 objects) nor the subjective consciousness of the import of these marks in the minds of scholars poring over them (this is World 2) but the knowledge itself, which is said to “exist” independently of being known by a conscious subject.

Popper has a point here. Humans postulate theories, but once postulated there are logical connections between these theories that are independent of human consciousness. A computer may print out formulas that are filed away without being looked at; nevertheless the stock of knowledge has been increased.

So what? It may seem an odd extension of our ideas of “existence” to apply them to knowledge in this sense, but if Popper wishes to do so there seems little harm in it. Equally it is unclear what is gained.

Magee, of course, thinks an enormous amount is gained, but he does not explain how. Popper himself has not used the theory to solve major philosophical problems; at most he has suggested that attention should be shifted away from traditional problems toward those his theory can handle. Thus, in reply to Feigl and Meehl’s case for determinism, Popper says that what concerns him is not the refutation of determinism, but the demonstration of “the openness of World 1”—that is, the fact that the physical world may be affected by the mental world and the world of objective knowledge. In some contexts this is an important point to make, but it is quite compatible with the truth of determinism. Similarly Popper does not actually offer a solution to the problem of the relation between minds and bodies, he merely says that the problem is altered once we admit the existence of World 3 and its interaction with World 1 via World 2.

However, if the theory of objective knowledge is taken up and applied it may prove fruitful. It should in any case be a healthy influence against excessive subjectivism in fields like art, literature, and perhaps even morality. These activities, Popper wants to say, are human inventions but not merely the expression of subjective human feelings. Just as mathematics is in some sense an invention of the human mind, but still subject to objective criteria, with real problems and right or wrong answers to them, so art, for instance, sets its own problems, and solves or fails to solve them.

Unfortunately the application of the theory to fields like art and morality is only hinted at, and none of the essays in either Objective Knowledge or The Philosophy of Karl Popper attempts a detailed application. Part of the trouble is that Popper has neglected one of his own sound maxims/?/ start from a specific problem and previous attempts to solve it. Instead, the theory of objective knowledge is an attempt to “enrich our picture of the world.” This does not suit Popper’s argumentative style. The change of approach leads. Magee astray to such an extent that he excitedly reports the success of the idea in illuminating a variety of fields, apparently oblivious of the un-Popperian methodology this implies. Whereas in an earlier chapter Magee criticized psychoanalysis and Marxism on the grounds that “once your eyes were opened you saw confirming instances everywhere, the world was full of verifications of the theory,” now he so far forgets himself as to report that Popper’s theory accounts for “virtually all processes of organic development,” “all learning processes,” mathematics, art, human relationships, etc. Magee fails to ask what would falsify the theory—a question to which there is no easy answer.

We have seen that Popper’s interest in scientific method developed as a result of his realization that a theory like Einstein’s risked refutation in a way that Marxism or psychoanalysis did not. One outcome was Popper’s defense of this method of formulating and testing scientific theories. The other, which did not emerge in print until much later, was his critique of the claims to knowledge of social, rather than physical, phenomena made by those writers whom Popper calls “historieists.” By this term Popper refers to those who approach the social sciences with the aim of predicting the course of history, an aim they believe attainable once we reveal the general laws and patterns that are supposed to underlie the historical process.

Popper’s attack on historicism forms the core of two separate volumes: The Poverty of Historicism,1 and the second volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies. The former is a general critique of writers as diverse as Comte, Mill, Marx, and Toynbee; the latter concentrates on Hegel and Marx.

In his lucid essay on historicism in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, Alan Donagan reminds us that when Popper wrote The Poverty of Historicism the belief that iron laws determined the course our future would take was relatively widespread. Undoubtedly Popper influenced the decline in popularity of this idea in Western intellectual circles, although the continuing perverse refusal of events to conform to the best historicist predictions may have been even more influential. Now that some radical circles have revived historicist views, however, it is worth asking how many of Popper’s arguments are still telling.

One important point that Donagan makes and Popper, in his reply, appears to accept is that although particular historicists have often been confused about their aims, and especially about how the method of the natural sciences might be applied to history, the aim of making historical predictions is not itself incoherent, and it cannot be shown merely by philosophical arguments that it will never succeed. The most that Popper has shown is that predictions may always be invalidated by unpredictable advances in knowledge that change the initial conditions on which the predictions are based; but this still leaves considerable scope for suitably qualified predictions.

So contemporary historicists cannot be refuted simply because they claim knowledge of the course of history. Nor are they likely to be impressed by Popper’s arguments against specific historicists, for of those Popper discusses only Hegel and Marx are still fashionable in radical circles and, as we shall see, what Popper says about these two is hardly definitive.

What then remains of Popper’s critique? I believe the core of it—the application of the critical method to the social sphere—is as valid today as it ever was. Those who believe that interpretations of history in terms of class struggle (or, for that matter, in terms of the struggle between “Aryan” and “non-Aryan” races) are scientific theories, rather than more or less fertile sources for formulating hypotheses that need to be tasted, should face the challenge of formulating their theory so that it is testable. That an interpretation of history is capable of ordering a good many facts does not demonstrate its truth, any more than do similar claims about past conjunctions between the positions of the planets and events on earth demonstrate the truth of astrology. The historicist, like the astrologer, must say what future developments, or new discoveries about the past, would refute his theory; and if he cannot or will not do so, his claim to scientific knowledge need not be taken seriously.

Popper’s attack on the two historicists most influential today—Hegel and Marx—did not help his general attack on historicism. The scholarly furor provoked by The Open Society gave those opposed to Popper’s views a chance to impugn his scholarship and ignore his arguments.

Popper’s chapter on Hegel in The Open Society is the most vituperative of the entire polemical work. Popper brands Hegel an outright fraud who deliberately adopted a bombastic and obscure style in order to conceal the real emptiness of his thought; his one aim was to serve his employer, the reactionary Prussian monarchy, to whom he, in turn, owed his prestige and influence. All this is supported by long quotations from Hegel, but the passages are not quoted whole; instead single sentences and phrases are plucked out of their context and strung together. By this technique one could make most writers look foolish; Hegel is a particularly easy victim because he discusses each aspect of a topic separately. When writing of, say, the state, he stresses the collective side of politics; when writing of civil society he gives more emphasis to individualism, and the true picture is obtained only when both sides are brought together. But Popper, in this chapter, was not trying to understand Hegel: he was trying to destroy him.2

In the light of this, Hegelians may now allow themselves a smile at Popper’s admission, in Objective Knowledge, that Hegel is one of his forerunners, both in the theory of objective knowledge itself and in Popper’s schema of the evolutionary growth of knowledge from one problem, via a tentative solution of that problem, through criticism of this solution, to a further problem. Although Popper tries to emphasize the differences, students of Hegel will have no difficulty in recognizing the Hegelian concept of knowledge in the former, and Hegelian dialectics in the latter. Popper’s (and Magee’s) account of the difference between Hegelian dialectics and Popper’s schema is based on the mistaken idea that standing contradictions are tolerated in the Hegelian system, but not in Popper’s; actually Hegel does not accept contradiction any more than Popper does. According to Hegel it is the impossibility of tolerating a contradiction at any given stage that forces us to move on to another position that can reconcile the previously contradictory points of view. Further contradictions then become apparent and the process repeats itself. The parallel with Popper’s idea is very close.

It is surprising that Popper’s treatment of Hegel is totally neglected in the long Schilpp volumes; even more disappointing, however, is the absence of any critical assessment of Popper’s writings about Marx. There is a contribution by H.B. Acton on Marxist Ethics, but Acton’s attitude to Marx is so similar to Popper’s that he is hardly a suitable choice for a critic, and all Acton sets out to do, in his own words, is “add to” the account of Marx that Popper has given. Maybe, though, something should also be subtracted. In any case, Magee’s striking assertion that The Open Society contains a definitive refutation of Marx requires a closer look.

According to Magee, Popper’s method is “to seek out and attack an opponent’s case at its strongest.” In order to do so Popper “sees if any of its weaknesses can be removed and any of its formulations improved on.” Quite apart from the humorous side of this statement taken as a description of Popper’s treatment of Hegel, it need hardly be pointed out that such a procedure has its pitfalls. Marx might have preferred being understood correctly to having his ideas reformulated by a professed opponent, even one sincerely attempting to make improvements.

Popper’s Marx is a rigid determinist who thought he had discovered the inexorable laws that control our destiny, laws in the face of which we are “mere puppets, irresistibly pulled by economic wires.”3 Using this discovery, Marx, like a good historicist, is supposed to have considered himself in a position to prophesy the allegedly inevitable outcome of all human history.

Popper is not the first to have misinterpreted Marx in this way. Indeed, this is one of those fortunate instances in which the author lived long enough to rebut the misinterpretation. In a letter written in reply to Mikhailovsky, a contemporary critic, Marx denies that he has given “a historico-philosophic theory of the general path that every people is fated to tread.” Mikhailovsky, he protests, “is both honouring and shaming me too much.”4 It was in reply to this sort of dogmatic, rigidly deterministic interpretation of his ideas that Marx, late in life, used to say that he was not a Marxist.5

Admittedly, Marx was being a little disingenuous. As Engels wrote in a letter to Bloch, he and Marx were partly to blame for the misunderstanding, having felt the need to stress the economic side in opposition to those who denied it any role at all in history. Still, as Engels goes on to say, one has only to look at Marx’s own historical writings, especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, to find that Marx is well aware that, as the first page of that work says, “men make their own history,” though under circumstances handed down from the past. The same point is also to be found in quite theoretical, non-historical texts—the “Theses on Feuerbach” is the classic example.

This is not to say that Popper’s attack on Marx misses its mark entirely. Marx sometimes, and Engels more frequently, wrote as if Marxism were a body of scientific knowledge that included general laws governing all historical development. Because this conception of Marxism is relatively easy to grasp, and attractive to a period impressed with the achievements of science in other areas, it has proved popular with later Marxists. Since most of the predictions that can be culled from the original general laws have turned out to be false, one would have to be extraordinarily biased to hold this view today. This is the only possible interpretation of Marxism that Popper could be said to have refuted.

It is not, in any case, a tenable interpretation. We have seen that late in life Marx and Engels rejected the idea of general laws determining all history. In his early years too, when Marx transformed what he thought sound in Hegel’s philosophy into the ideas that we now associate with his name, he made no claims to scientific certainty. Moreover, Marx continued to think in the categories and terminology of Hegelian philosophy even while planning his most “scientific” works, as the recently translated rough draft of Capital shows.6 In the light of these texts—which Popper admits he had not read when he wrote The Open Society—Marx appears less the Newton of the social sciences, more the philosopher struggling to apply to the real world the insights gained from his Hegelian education.

The fact remains that these insights do prove illuminating. A proper appreciation of Marxism would grant its philosophical orientation and would see it as suggestive of ways of looking at man and society that are scientifically fruitful, although it is not itself a full-blown science. We may disregard Marx’s sometimes excessive claims to certainty and his mistaken predictions, and yet agree that he has pointed out a path along which the social sciences may progress. Before Marx it was common to treat man and his ideas as if their history and development were independent of the fulfilling of more mundane needs; since Marx the idea that man’s ideological, political, social, and economic activities are bound up together and cannot be understood fully in isolation has become generally accepted. For this reason Marx could justly claim that his insights have made a science of society possible.

I cannot see why Popper should want to deny any of this. It fits well with his view of the role metaphysics can play in science, as a source of hypotheses for the scientist to test; and it fits too with his own admission that his treatment of Plato and Hegel in The Open Society was influenced by Marx, and that a return to pre-Marxian social science is inconceivable. To say that, today, no rational man can fail to be a Marxist would be an exaggeration—but no worse an exaggeration than Magee’s remark that after reading Popper no rational man can remain a Marxist.

Finally, what of Popper’s political suggestions? Magee notes that these have tended to get lost among the torrents of criticism of other writers that comprise the bulk of Popper’s writings on social and political theory. On the other hand, Edward Boyle’s essay in The Philosophy of Karl Popper reminds us that the positive doctrines of The Open Society did have a considerable influence on bright young politicians, of both major parties, in Britain after the war. Although it is absurd to rate Popper’s defense of democracy higher than that of, say, John Stuart Mill—as Magee apparently does—Popper’s views on democracy are worthy of serious consideration.

The special feature of Popper’s defense of democracy—and indeed the unifying element in his approach to fields as diverse as philosophy of science and political philosophy—is his application of the critical method to social and political questions. In contrast to the common belief that dictatorship is a more efficient form of government than democracy, Popper argues plausibly that an open society, with free institutions and ample opportunity for criticism, is likely to find better ways of doing things in the long run. Free institutions allow us to change our minds about how the nation should be run, and to put this change into effect without bloodshed. Given a political system that functions in this manner, anyone who uses force to promote his own policies is, like it or not, abandoning a peaceful method of making decisions in favor of one that must ultimately rely on force to resolve conflicts.

On similar grounds, Popper advocates “piecemeal social engineering” rather than utopian planning. Piecemeal improvements can be corrected when they look as if they are going wrong, whereas the attempt to bring about utopia is likely to involve great upheavals which may well result in a situation far worse than that with which we began. As in science, Popper prefers to eliminate error rather than to strive for perfection.

Behind all this lies Popper’s “negative utilitarianism”—the idea, sound as a maxim of practical politics if not as an ultimate ethical principle, that the relief of suffering should take priority over the promotion of happiness.

All this is highly persuasive. The difficult question, though, is whether we really can improve matters piecemeal. Popper’s political philosophy suited a period that was more optimistic, although at the same time more fearful, than ours. The Western form of democracy appeared to be coping with its problems reasonably well. People were not perfectly happy, but they did not seem miserable either, except for isolated “problem areas” that were in the process of being cleared up. There was a general consensus that we had found a good form of society, based on a healthy spirit of tolerance and compromise, and the path ahead was definitely upward. Moreover, the alternative to this moderately progressive compromise seemed to involve the risk of plunging us back into the totalitarian nightmare against which Western civilization had just fought a long and bloody struggle. Given this outlook, any form of political radicalism seemed folly.

Now we have had the experience of this same form of Western democracy apparently unable to provide peace abroad and security at home for its citizens; the drive toward equality has either stopped or gone into reverse, and the leading democratic nation has exported a new nightmare to Indochina. The issue is no longer whether we should risk our solid achievements in an attempt to bring about utopia: the issue is how to end the appalling misery for which our society has been and still is responsible.

Anyone seeking to revive Popper’s political ideas needs to show that they still apply in the grimmer post-Vietnam atmosphere. Short of this, the best that can be said on Popper’s behalf is that it is valuable to have an intelligent and humane defense of moderation to place against a fashionable radicalism that is in danger of becoming intellectually lazy for want of well-argued opposition.

Popper is undoubtedly an important thinker. If, in this review, I have been largely critical, this must be set against the background of excessive claims that are made for his ideas by his disciples, and by Popper himself. Popper must be admired by anyone who values a commitment to the method of critical discussion, and a serious approach to the progress of knowledge and the improvement of the human condition. In Magee he has found a lucid, sympathetic expositor. Popper has its faults, but—like the faults of its subject—they are part of a thoroughly worthwhile whole. Magee is to be numbered among Popper’s devotees, and this gives the book its fervor and its sense of intellectual excitement. Provided the reader approaches it in a skeptical frame of mind, it is a fine layman’s guide to the work of a prolific thinker. The same cannot be said for the more solid The Philosophy of Karl Popper, but these two volumes will no doubt furnish professional philosophers with plenty of material for new scholarly debates about Popper.

Letters

Prove It September 19, 1974

Power of Positive Popperism August 8, 1974

  1. 1

    First published in Economica, N.S. vols. XI and XII, 1944-1945; first published in book form in 1957, Second Edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1960: Harper Torchbook, 1964.

  2. 2

    Popper’s distortion of Hegel has been ably exposed by, among others, Walter Kaufmann in “The Hegel Myth and Its Method,” in From Shakespeare to Existentialism (Beacon Press, 1959.)

  3. 3

    The Open Society and Its Enemies, (5th Edition, vol. 2, p. 101.)

  4. 4

    Letter to the Editorial Board of “Fatherland Notes” (1877.) This and the other letters referred to below are included in Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy edited by L. Feuer (Doubleday Anchor, 1959.)

  5. 5

    Engels to Schmidt, 1890. Magee mentions this remark (p. 81) but quite misunderstands its import.

  6. 6

    Grundrisse, translated by Martin Nicolaus, (Random House, $15.00; Vintage, $3.95, paper).

  • Email
  • Print