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Karl Popper

Pencil sketch of Karl Popper

Karl Popper – A Snapshot

Karl Popper was born on July 28, 1902, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. His father was a Doctor of Law at the University of Vienna and Karl was undoubtedly influenced by his father's love of history and philosophy, and the books he had about him.

As a teenager, young Karl debated philosophy with his father and formed the following view which lasted the remainder of his life:

'Never let yourself be goaded into taking seriously problems about words and their meanings. What must be taken seriously are questions of fact and assertions about facts: theories and hypotheses, the problems they solve and the problems they raise.'

In his early and middle teens Popper was a Marxist and then became an ethusiastic Social Democrat. In adition to his studies in science and philosophy and his involvement in left-wing politics Popper was involved in social work with children under Alfred Adler, one of the early pioneers in psychoanalysis. He was also passionately interested in music and was involved in the Society for Private Concerts founded by Schoenberg.

Popper received his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in 1928 and after graduating taught secondary school until becoming a professional philosopher in 1937, having first produced 'Logik der Forschung' in 1934. This was published in English, in 1959, as 'The Logic of Scientific Discovery'. In this work, Popper proposed a new line of demarcation between science and pseudo-science based on the principle of falsifiability.

Pseudoscience for Popper included any system of belief that insulates itself from critical evaluation. To qualify as science, a theory must be testable and must be capable of being proven incorrect. This notion was in sharp distinction to the view of most scientists of the day: that science discovers immutable laws by observing nature, developing hypotheses and verifying them through experiment. Instead, Popper described science as trial and error, or conjecture and refutation. Science represents a Darwinian natural selection of the survival of the best tested ideas, which appear to have truth content because they have not yet been proven wrong. Science is and must be forever different from dogmatic forms of thought because its assertions are always tentative.

In the late-1930s Popper came to foresee the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany and decided to leave the country before this happened. Although his family were Protestant, and both parents had been baptized, Hitler would have categorized him as a Jew, and so leaving Austria early probably saved his life.

From 1937 to 1945, Popper taught at Canterbury University College, Christchurch, New Zealand. In 1945 he accepted a post at the London School of Economics, where he taught until retiring from teaching in 1969. Popper was knighted in 1965 and became a member of the Royal Society in 1976.

His main published works include:

  • The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) – which is critique of Marxism and Plato – both of whom he viewed as enemies of democracy. He regarded writing this book as his 'war work'.
  • The Poverty of Historicism, (1957) – which was a pendant to 'The Open Society'.
  • Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963) – which was a pendant to 'The Logic of Scientific Discovery'.
  • Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1972) – which developed his philosopy of science further.
  • The Self and Its Brain, with John Eccles (1977) – dealing with the mind-body problem and free-will.

During the academic year 1946-47, Popper accepted an invitation from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge to 'Read a paper on a philosophical puzzle'. What followed was the famous 'poker incident'. According to Popper, Wittgenstein became angry because Popper said philosophy is about real problems, and this was perceived as a personal slight by Wittgenstein. He claimed that Wittgenstein waved a poker at him in threatening manner. This was the only time the two philosophers met but the encounter was symbolic because they represented contrasting and conflicting ways of doing philosophy.

Popper never stopped arguing against what he saw as a new form of medieval scholasticism being practiced by philosophers who play 'language games'. For him, philosophy is trivialized when it is about the determining meanings, or as Carnap and the Vienna Circle held, the 'explication of concepts'.

Popper was a realist who held that a tentative approach to finding truth was the socially responsible position. Induction was a myth exploded by Hume. That the later positivists clung to it only created confusion. Popper refused to take seriously psychologism, idealism, neutral-monism, positivism, phenomenalism or solipsism, because he regarded these movements as both false and 'treasons of the intellectuals'.

Popper held that the good fight each thinker must wage is against the assault on reason. Popper blamed anti-reason for much of the twentieth century's bloody conflict. The worst calamities befell those who were gulled by various leaders into thinking that their respective movements were truly scientific, and therefore represented historical inevitability. This can be said of all the fascisms as well as Soviet style Marxist-Leninism. Theories of historical inevitability from Plato on, are throwbacks to tribalistic, closed societies and need to be exposed to the clear light of critical method.

Later Popper focused on the problem of truth, and the relationship between mind and body. He agreed with Tarski that a statement is true when it corresponds with the facts. Popper said facts are 'reality pinned down by descriptive statements.' He claimed that Tarski's theory of truth also holds for explanatory theories. Further, 'The success of science is best accounted for by the metaphysical belief that the growth of knowledge consists in progress towards the truth.'

Popper continued writing and lecturing until his death on September 17, 1994, at his home in Corydon, Surrey, England.

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