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)

Karl Popper
Karl Popper; drawing by David Levine

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…

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