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Notes on Karl Popper.

THERE ARE TIMES when any philosopher worth his metaphysics yearns nostalgically for the good old days. By the "good old days" one means the days of the Presocratic philosophers of Greece. Those esteemed thinkers, who dwelt chiefly in Asia Minor during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., seem to many modern philosophers to have lived in a great and primordial era of Western thought, a time when "wild and crazy" ideas floated around the Mediterranean--to be eventually passed down to the modern world.

In that age, long before Plato and Aristotle, cosmology and mathematics were king. The names of Parmenides, Anaximander, Thales, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, and Empedocles, to name but a few major thinkers, were well known. These men had an almost mystical relationship with nature and continually ruminated on the origins of things.

Even though their writings have come to us only in fragments or sometimes as quotations cited in later writers, we have a good idea of what they were thinking. The idea of atoms as the building blocks of nature was bandied about, and the composition of the universe was contemplated--an attempt was even made to dismiss the ancient gods. Concerning the elements, Heraclitus proposed that there were four elements: water, fire, air, and earth.

So it was an amazing world, that of the philosophers from Ionia. It was attractive in that it seemed to be a free-thinking time, in which the ideas produced were based purely on empirical study, that is, on observation, as well as open speculation.

This world greatly appealed to the contemporary philosopher, Karl Popper (1902-1994) evident in his posthumously published book on the Presocratics titled, The World of Parmenides (1998). In this book, he sought to prove that scientific knowledge and scientific theory were far more experimental and intuitive than had been guessed. Being fascinated with the roots of science and the limits of scientific theory, Popper found the Presocratics ideal subjects of examination.

Popper's interest in scientific theory in fact has come to be his great claim to fame. But he also delved into political philosophy, and his books, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1957), have drawn increased interest in our day. In fact, his name now vies with those of Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992) and Isaiah Berlin (1907-1997) as being that of a major spokesman for political freedom.

In The World of Parmenides, a collection of essays, Popper proposed something that now seems obvious: "I suggest that scientific theories are inventions that differ from myths mainly in the adoption by science of the critical approach." This "critical approach" was Popper's chief tool in writing about science, as well as politics and philosophy.

It had not always been that way. Early in life, in his student years in Vienna, he had been captivated by the dogmatic approach to politics. This led to his becoming a communist for a few months in 1917 while a student at the University of Vienna. And no political philosophy is more dogmatic than Marxism. But a violent street demonstration organized by the Viennese communists that resulted in the loss of lives turned him against the Party. What use was such a sacrifice, he asked himself, and why had it taken place without its participants realizing the seriousness of the consequences?

Thinking over the tragic event, Popper decided that he had been deluded. "I had accepted a dangerous creed uncritically, dogmatically." Then: "By the time I was seventeen I had become an anti-marxist. I realized the dogmatic character of the creed, and its incredible intellectual arrogance."

Even the vestiges of loyalty to socialism (without Marxism, one supposes) was shredded by his steadfast rejection of the communists and other dedicated Marxists. The socialist idea of an egalitarian society he recognized as "a beautiful dream" and came to believe "that freedom is more important than equality; that the attempt to realize equality endangers freedom; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree."

In his later writings on political theory and dogmatism Popper deals at length on the dangers of what he calls "historicism," in which dogma is disguised as "inevitability" and even as "science." This he fought against from the very beginning of his professional career. His encounter with Marxists "made me a fallibilist, and impressed on me the value of intellectual modesty. And it made me most conscious of the differences between dogmatic and critical thinking."

Meanwhile, the student Popper studied music, mathematics, and physical science, and in 1928 he received his Ph.D. from the university. With this he hoped to find work as a teacher of mathematics and physical science. His means were very modest, and Popper had survived his student years only through a number of menial jobs--among them road mender and apprentice cabinetmaker.

Times were hard for the teaching profession in Austria in those days. There were too few teacher openings, and very little money for salaries. But Popper's choice of including math and physical science in his studies managed to land him a modest job teaching these subjects. His interest in music was more a sideline than a specialty; but he had in fact developed his own theories on the nature of music. He defined music as divided into "objective" and "subjective." And he found this exemplified in the figures of Bach (objective) and Beethoven (subjective).

Meanwhile, Popper had become acquainted with the so-called "Vienna Circle," which was comprised of, among others, Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, Herbert Feigl, Otto Neurath, and ex officio, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who never considered himself a formal member of the Circle, even though he was treated as a tutelary god by its members. The Circle consisted almost entirely of logical positivists--and certainly Popper was at odds with this branch of philosophy. But most of all, he loathed Wittgenstein and his neurotic posturings.

Though Popper knew many of the Circle's members, he was never invited to join its weekly meetings. In 1932, in a talk to another group he launched into a barrage of criticism of the Vienna Circle, and of Wittgenstein in particular. That talk of course ended Popper's possible membership in the Circle, or any other related group of academic philosophers. He had hoped to turn over the positivists' carefully constructed house of cards, and thereby flouting the current academic establishment. He called Wittgenstein a mystic rather than a philosopher, and mocked his holier-than-thou behavior in which he refused to "discuss" anything.

Even though he still remained friends with a number of positivist philosophers in Vienna, Popper stood outside this Circle's activities. Some of the members disliked him intensely. Moritz Schlick, for one, was furious at Popper for his peppery lecture criticizing Wittgenstein.

Oddly enough, Popper's first book, Der Logik der Forschung (The Logic of Scientific Research, 1934), was published by the Vienna Circle, in its series, "Writings on Learned Opinions." Furthermore, because Popper's manuscript was extremely long, it had to be shortened to fit in with the series's format--and the shortening was done by several of the Circle's members. So, in one respect, despite the Circle's apparent rejection of Popper, its members found him brilliant enough to want to publish his work.

In his Logik book on scientific theory, Popper strove to draw the line between science and pseudoscience. He wanted to apply what he called the "falsifiability test," in which a proposition can only be accepted as valid if it has undergone falsifiability tests. That meant that if one negative result occurs among a series of tests, the theory is demolished (this was an idea that Popper says he developed from a remark made by Einstein). "It is part of my thesis that all our knowledge grows only through the correcting of our mistakes."

This test he wished to apply not only to scientific theory but also to politics. Chief target in this was Marxism, which he regarded as pseudoscience, with its bogus claim to be able to predict history (the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, etc.)--an impossible claim, in his opinion.

Popper considered Marxism pseudoscience, as bogus as palm-reading. In his later book, The Poverty of Historicism, he ridicules the idea that Marxism was a science, or that it even could be called a part of "social science."

Meanwhile, Austria's political problems began to reach crisis level, what with the fascists and communists daily at each other's throats. Anti-semitism was growing by the year, and the outlook for an independent thinker, and a Jew, looked gloomy indeed. By the mid-1930's Popper decided to start looking for work in another country, and chose England.

Unfortunately, his only book, Der Logik der Forschung, had not yet been translated into English (an English edition appeared only in 1957). Nevertheless his reputation was increasing among academics through the grapevine. In 1935-1936 he traveled to England and gave a number of lectures at English universities. During this visit, he became acquainted with a few English philosophers, one of whom suggested that he apply for an opening then available at a New Zealand university.

By this time, Popper was certain that he had to make a break with his native land. Hitler was threatening Austria with Anschluss, and most Austrians did not seem to mind being annexed into the Third Reich. In fact, the atmosphere in Austria was so hostile to Jews that there was no doubt in Popper's mind that, once Hitler seized the country, all Jews would sooner or later be deprived of their livelihoods--and worse. When his application to Canterbury University College, Christchurch, New Zealand, was accepted in December of 1936, he gladly took the job.

He and his wife Hennie, who was also a teacher, resigned their Vienna positions, and sailed for England. From there they took a ship to the Pacific, and arrived in New Zealand in March 1937.

His years at Canterbury University College were fruitful ones. He completed two books: The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society (the latter was actually a lengthy spin-off from the first). Both were in essence, as he wrote in his autobiography, "my war effort." "... These books were meant as a defence of freedom against totalitarian and authoritarian ideas, and as a warning against the dangers of historicist superstitions."

These years in exile enabled Popper to think more intensely on politics and on the dangers of political dogma. His political opinions turned to the same field of studies that was preoccupying Isaiah Berlin, involving "the power of ideas," which in fact was the title of a posthumous collection of Berlin's essays on political philosophy.

Interestingly, it is in the collection The Power of Ideas (Oxford, 2000), that Berlin seems to approach closest to Popper--though in other things the two were opposed. In "My Intellectual Path" Berlin recalls his opposition to the logical positivists and their mania for "verifiability" of philosophical propositions. They would deny Keats's statement "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" because it could not be scientifically proven. Worse, they would sneer at it for being "metaphysics."

Berlin also denied the concept of "absolute certainty." "No matter how solidly based, widespread, inescapable, 'self-evident' a conclusion or a direct datum may seem to be, it is always possible to conceive that something could modify or indeed upset it,..." This is, in brief, the core of Popper's "falsifiability" theory. (And ironically enough, also one of Wittgenstein's propositions.)

In his act of opposing scientific and political theories that were "immutable," Popper played the role of the heretic questioning the dogma of the church, as well as the rituals performed within it. Indeed, he was at this time the heretic of the academic philosophical community.

Yet, during the World War II era and afterwards, the heretics began coming out of the woodwork. There was Friedrich von Hayek and his Road to Serfdom (1944); then Isaiah Berlin, first with his pathbreaking Karl Marx (1939), and then his many lectures and essays (later collected by Henry Hardy into a uniform edition).

As we have noted, Popper's own books on political philosophy began appearing not long after the war: The Poverty of Historicism (1945--in three parts in the journal Economica; in English, 1957). The Open Society and Its Enemies was published in 1945.

Of course the ideas of these works had been for some time fermenting in the mind of their creator, who had lived through the 1930s with its stresses and strains of the totalitarian ideologies, the revolutionary seizures of states, and the violence ensuing in their wake. In these years the dictators' solutions to social problems ("Obey me, and you'll be free."), had been the shaping fire of the revolt of the philosophers.

Isaiah Berlin's view is calmly put: "That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones." (Two Concepts of Liberty, Oxford, 1979.) The technology (death camps, for one; firing squads, for another) would be provided by the dictators, their ideologues, and their armies of true believers.

Philosophers like Popper, Berlin, and Hayek had lived through all of this and had seen the world turn into a battlefield. Popper was a refugee from his native Austria, as was Hayek; and Berlin had served in His Majesty's government during the war, and visited the Soviet Union during the Stalin era and knew the sufferings undergone by intellectuals such as Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak under the Stalinist regime. These three men knew the world very well indeed.

And thus this new wave of anti-Marxists and anti-totalitarians arose, and through the 1950s and 1960s their ideas slowly began to take hold in the academic world and beyond.

The fact is that after World War II, Popper's ideas were no longer those of a marginalized philosopher (though in the English--speaking world this marginalization was not due to any rejection of his writings; rather it was because most of his books were not translated into English until the 1950's and after). Increasingly, his views were taken seriously--especially those related to scientific theory.

In the course of his 1992 lecture, "How I Became a Philosopher Without Trying," Popper states his main proposition quite simply: "There are great solutions, but a final solution does not exist. All our solutions are fallible."

His growing reputation led of course to misinterpretations of his work and subsequent attempts on his part to clarify his position. In his paper "On Freedom," given in 1958, he posits his position by offering "my confession that I am a Rationalist and a man of the Enlightenment." In this respect, he defined "Rationalist" and "Enlightenment": "... the true Enlightenment thinker, the true rationalist, never wants to talk anyone into anything. No, he does not even want to convince; all the time he is aware he may be wrong."

Here, we are in the private realm of Popper's "critical thinking" method, and certainly no one can accuse him of immodesty, not from a philosopher who says: "I know nothing." But at the same time we must be very careful of intellectuals who claim to know nothing but write volumes about it. That is, despite their modesty they write long and detailed studies that are clearly the work of someone who knows his subject and believes in what he says. In Popper's case, one can assume that what he really meant was "I don't pretend to be all-knowing."

Perhaps this is the hedgehog and the fox situation, so beautifully discussed by Isaiah Berlin in his eponymous study of Tolstoy's philosophy. Popper is certainly the fox, though he often liked to play the hedgehog. In his youth he had been foxily interested in many things: music, mathematics, even cabinetmaking.

As a fox, Popper approaches us with an attractive mien--he denies any unique insights, claiming that he only knows one thing, like the hedgehog. But in fact, he is just as clever as the fox. In "How I Became a Philosopher Without Trying," he says modestly, "I had evolved from a schoolteacher to a professional philosopher, teaching in a university, without having ever chosen philosophy as my subject of study--in fact, without ever having tried to become a philosopher."

No one thinks of Popper today as anything other than a philosopher--and one who deals specifically with the roots of both scientific knowledge and political theory. His world is that of knowledge, epistemology--how we come to know certain things and how we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we know everything about the world we live in.

In Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy (1945), he writes: "In philosophy, ever since the time of Protagoras there has been an opposition between the men whose thought was mainly inspired by mathematics and those who were influenced by the empirical sciences." This conflict was primal in the days of the Pre-Socratics as well, for the traditional way of thought, going back to the Babylonians, was indeed based on mathematics and its methodology.

This is not to say that philosophy boils down to a dispute between the accountants and the astronomers. Accountants rely on the results of their figurings, while the astronomers depend on their observations of the universe (though more and more, astronomers are beginning to take on the attitudes of mere number crunchers). Instead, it has become much more a quarrel between those who rely solely on the results of scientific experiments and those who rely instead on reason and personal observation.

The logical positivists, of whom Russell was a true believer, strictly asserted that nothing was true if it could not be scientifically proven. Here were the modern mathematicians rejecting the conclusions of the astronomers--as if to deny the value of observation. Popper was clearly on the side of the astronomers, not the mathematicians.

It is interesting to contrast Santayana's views with these--for he was far from a philosopher-scientist. He was a philosopher-skeptic. In his "A Brief History of My Opinions" he writes: "My matured conclusion has been that no system is to be trusted, not even that of science in any literal or pictorial sense; but all systems may be used and, up to a certain point, trusted as symbols." Immediately, one wants to ask, "What use are symbols in a world that wants answers?" Or, "How do symbols allow us to remain free and freethinking men?"

But in Reason in Common Sense Santayana notes "What could be more proper than that the whole worth of ideas should be ideal?" He prefers that the value of ideas be something more than the small change of scientific research. Rather, there is a higher aim in philosophy than that of proving that so many inches of rain fall on a stormy day.

Karl Popper's work reflects this same determination to make of philosophy, both scientific and political, something more than an explication. "I fully agree with Hugo von Hofmannsthal when he says in his Buch der Freunde: 'Philosophy must be a judge of her times; things are in a bad way when she becomes an expression of the spirit of her times."

Popper's "critical" approach to theory is really a form of keeping an eye on bold statements, and bringing a certain discipline to the profession, so to speak. In doing so, he has thwarted a great many thinkers in our times who have been determined to set hard limits to philosophy.

In 1945, Popper was offered a position in the London School of Economics--by Friedrich von Hayek. Weary of being isolated in the tropical paradise of New Zealand, Popper accepted. And soon he was established in England--where he felt perfectly at home.

Shortly after his settling there, in 1946 in fact, occurred that event now known as the "Wittgenstein's Poker" affair. Still talked about, quarreled over, and written on, the affair took place on October 25 in rooms at Cambridge University, where the Moral Science Club held its occasional meetings. Popper had been invited to open the meeting with a few remarks on philosophy.

Instead, Popper combatively opened with the subject, "Are There Philosophical Problems?" This was a direct challenge to Wittgenstein, who was chairing the meeting. Wittgenstein was known for claiming that there are no "problems" in philosophy, only "puzzles." Popper set about ridiculing this. As he proceeded, Wittgenstein kept interrupting him, and suddenly in his excitement he picked up a hot poker from the fireplace and began gesticulating with it.

At this point the fun began. Popper made a snide remark about waving pokers around, and then Bertrand Russell, who was also at the meeting, suddenly called out, "Wittgenstein, put down that poker at once." Wittgenstein, doubtless feeling himself under attack from all quarters, put down the poker and rushed out of the room, slamming the door. Later testimony from those at the meeting was contradictory--just like eyewitness reports of a traffic accident. Nevertheless, as detailed in David Edmonds and John Eidinow's book, Wittgenstein's Poker (2001), the essential facts leave no doubt that the clash was a serious one between the Puzzler and the Problem Solver.

If Popper seemed hellbent on showing up Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein himself seemed unable to "discuss" or even argue his point of view. Rather he appeared to lose his temper, threaten his opponent, and stamp out in a rage. In truth, Wittgenstein was accustomed to using sticks or canes to gesture with when he wanted to make a passionate point; but his temper was short, and the fact is, he was not used to being gainsaid.

Still, the core of the matter is that both men, the brilliant rationalist Popper, and the semi-mystical dogmatist Wittgenstein, represented two opposites of modern philosophy. While Popper was more interested in finding the truth of ideas, Wittgenstein preferred asking circular questions, like "What is the meaning of meaning?" And analyzing to death the meanings of words and how they are used.

In short, it was a question of, to put it simply, whether there were philosophical questions to be discussed, or not. Wittgenstein, who had a cult following, and still does, was not interested in such metaphysical questions as "What is beauty?" Popper was.

If Candide's advice to us all was that we were better off cultivating our garden, Popper's was that cultivating one's own garden would lead to little more than rutabagas. His message was that we should listen to the gardener, to the cook, to the greengrocer, and, as well, watch the skies. Somewhere in the end, after all these careful inquiries, the truth would be found. That was what it was all about: the truth, and man's endless search for it.

PHILIP BRANTINGHAM is a graduate of the University of Chicago who works in the textbook publishing industry.
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Author:Brantingham, Philip
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Brief biography
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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