Remembering Karl Popper

Remembering Karl Popper

David Cohen
David Cohen
11 min read

It’s the end of the wartime workday at 14a Westenra Terrace in the Port Hills of Christchurch, New Zealand, high above the southern terminus of the city’s streets. The one-bedroom apartment offers commanding views of a region shaped by the heaving of the Earth’s crust and the dry winds that blow in from the north-west and across the southern alpine range. But for the Austrian husband and wife living here, there’s not much time to contemplate these natural elements. This is the 1940s, and their focus remains instead on the heaving of their native European crust and the calamitous trends of intellectual history now bending their homeland out of shape.

Inside, the youngish Karl Popper—dark-eyed and slightly stooped—glances at his handwritten notes. His wife, Hennie, waits, a sheet of fresh paper rolled into the typewriter behind which she is seated. Slowly, he begins to dictate his latest thoughts for a work that he privately fears will receive as little enthusiasm from prospective publishers as he has received from many colleagues in his adopted home. “Great men,” the author offers in guttural English, “make great mistakes.” And with that, work on what would be one of the most important books of the century has begun.

During the eight years he spent living in New Zealand, Karl Popper was seldom taken for a great man. The three subjects of The Open Society and Its Enemies, however, most certainly were and, alas, still are: Plato, Hegel, and Marx, all of whom the author excoriates for their claims to “certain knowledge” about how societies ought to be organised and for their unwillingness to tolerate informed criticism. The late Isaiah Berlin, a biographer of Marx and a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, counted himself among the book’s first admirers, calling it perhaps “the most scrupulous and formidable criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living writer.”

Notices such as these have made it fashionable for Popper to be counted on the political Right. That kinship was always a bit of a stretch. He was simply a classical social democrat who despised Utopianism. Yes, he went after Marx, the father of the modern Left, with impressive zeal, but his principal scorn was reserved for Plato, whom he blamed for fatally influencing the other two “great” men and too many others besides. As Popper saw it, The Republic was a blueprint for generations of “little fascists.” About his contemporary Martin Heidegger, he had this to say: “I appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger. This man was a devil… and he has [had] a devilish influence on Germany.”

Popper knew a thing or two about the German intellectual climate of his day, having fled it for New Zealand in his 35th year (still tender in academic terms but clutching an impressively varied resumé). He had already turned his hand to a variety of activities. Initially, he was a trained cabinet-maker, and then he worked with delinquent kids in his native Austria; at the same time, he was teaching himself mathematics, and somehow finding the time to parlay his enthusiasm for socialism into various political activities. He had received his doctorate in philosophy nine years earlier at the University of Vienna, shortly before marrying Josefine Anna Henninger (Hennie). He was, too, a reasonably accomplished pianist and a trained schoolteacher.

Politically speaking, Popper had lived through much. He had seen the dissolution of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy. He was part of the subsequent intellectual revolution that, among other things, produced the Vienna Circle, of which he was a peripheral part. He witnessed first-hand the rise of the Nazis and, with equal dismay, the rise of Communism, which in some ways absorbed his attention even more than National Socialism. “I was from the beginning somewhat sceptical about the paradise resulting from the revolution,” he later reflected.

I certainly disliked the existing society in Austria, in which there were hunger, poverty, unemployment, and runaway inflation—and currency speculators who managed to profit from it. But I felt worried about [Communism’s] obvious intention to arouse in its followers what seemed to me murderous instincts against the class enemy. I was told this was necessary, and in any case not meant quite so seriously, and that in a revolution only victory was important, since more workers were killed every day under capitalism than would be killed during the whole revolution. I grudgingly accepted that, but I felt I was paying heavily in terms of moral decency.

Popper escaped what he called “the Marxist trap” around the time of his 17th birthday, and by the time he landed in my own country, the experience was clearly evident in his work. His repudiation of Marxism informed the critique of historicism he produced the year before his arrival, his belief in the importance of ideas and our responsibility to adopt a critical attitude towards them, and his fervent individualism. These points would be gathered together under the rubric of what he dubbed the open society.

Probably the single greatest influence in all of this had been his father, Simon Popper, a lawyer and polymath who wrote satire in his spare time, much of which took aim at two of the movements that characterised the intellectual life of Vienna at the turn of the century. Understandably, the Nazi crowd appalled Jewish-born Simon. But nor did he have much time for the nascent Zionist school headmastered by Theodor Herzl, even as it grew in importance beneath the gathering storm clouds. Vienna was also where the Hungarian-born Herzl scored a spot as Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse. This experience would convince him (most notably after covering the Dreyfus trial) that Jews did not—indeed could not—“belong in Europe.”

Vienna seemed to indicate otherwise for a relatively prosperous family like the Poppers. They called it the City of Dreams. Jews constituted 10 percent of the city’s population and were well represented in law, medicine, and journalism. A happy future beckoned. Simon himself was comfortable having converted to Lutheranism at an early age without any apparent qualms. For Popper père, Jewish emancipation lay not in any newfound homeland—and certainly not in the madness of German nationalism—but in cultural assimilation. Simon drummed this lesson into Karl and it appears to have been successfully absorbed. The culturally contented Karl nearly didn’t make it out of his beloved city before the implementation of the Final Solution, which led to the murder of some 56,000 Jews—progressive Jews, I suppose you’d call them, in the contemporary sense—who had made the catastrophic decision to stay on in the city.

Fortunately, by the mid-1930s, Karl saw the writing on the wall and lit out for Britain, which served as a sort of warm-up for his trip to the Antipodes. The flinty relationship Popper sometimes experienced with colleagues in Britain is memorably captured in the unlikely bestseller Wittgenstein’s Poker. Journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow conduct an eccentric investigation into a celebrated row between Popper and Wittgenstein, which took place in a tutorial room at the University of Cambridge during a meeting of the normally genteel Moral Science Club. Wittgenstein had simmering issues with Popper. He disliked the scientific ideas Popper first set forth in his 1934 book Logik der Forschung (later translated as The Logic of Scientific Discovery)—mainly, one supposes, because they flatly contradicted his own.

As Adam Gopnik explained in the New Yorker, Popper believed that science wasn’t so much a form of proof as a “style of quarrelling.” Science wasn’t the name for knowledge that had been proved true, but rather that for guesses that might be proved false. Until Popper, scientists had tended to believe that their task was to find as many examples to confirm their theories as they could. Wittgenstein, author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, appeared happy enough to go along with this. Popper, however, believed that scientists ought to look for examples that were apparently inconsistent with a theory; “falsification,” he held, not “induction” was the only credible basis for scientific inquiry. This is the idea to which he would give a political twist in The Open Society: “No number of sightings of white swans can prove the theory that all swans are white. But the sighting of just one black one may disprove it.”

Whether or not they admit it, whenever scientists today look for black swans and, finding none, pronounce themselves reasonably sure of their theory, they are taking a bow in Popper’s direction. According to Malachi Haim Hacohen, an associate professor of European intellectual history at Duke University and author of Karl Popper: The Formative Years, 1902–1945, the promulgation of this idea marked a philosophical watershed. This is widely agreed to, even by those unconvinced that Popper managed to resolve the problem of how best to validate scientific knowledge.

Wittgenstein was among those unimpressed. And Popper, 13 years younger than the eminent philosopher, later acknowledged in his memoir Unended Quest that he had arrived from London that evening “to provoke Wittgenstein… and to fight him on this issue.” He certainly succeeded in provoking him. The Edmonds–Eidinow book turns on the question of whether Wittgenstein really did menace Popper with a red-hot poker in the presence of Bertrand Russell, who is said to have extinguished his pipe and then separated the feuding scholars. Popper, challenged to give an enduring instance of a moral rule, is said to have replied, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.”

Like many great arguments, in marriage and friendship as well as politics and culture, the tiff wasn’t entirely about what it purported to be about. Edmonds and Eidinow conclude that Wittgenstein probably did threaten Popper with a poker. But the incident was really about the need of both men to enjoy Russell’s graces—and, indeed, those of an Anglo-Saxon scholarly world at large that never quite accepted either of them. (As for the poker, it was eventually dropped on the tiles of the hearth “with a little rattle,” the book says, while some younger students got down on all fours and scampered through the legs of guests to retrieve it.)

Alan Musgrave was a research assistant of Popper’s from 1963 to 1965 at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where, with Imre Lakatos, he edited Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, an influential collection of essays on the philosophy of science. He once told me that some of Popper’s later, less appealing attitudes were born of resentment that his political work was not sufficiently recognised by his contemporaries. He was proud of what he achieved, “but he was also very bitter,” Musgrave said.

It was on December 21st, 1936, that the University of New Zealand’s Canterbury College appointed Popper to the position of lecturer in education and philosophy. Rather than being welcomed with open academic arms the following year, as one might have supposed, he found himself somewhat marginalised as a designated “refugee” occupying a relatively low-ranked position. The university was kind enough to allow him to share an office with the local church organist. Looming over his department was Professor Ivan Sutherland, a psychologist with a thing for power games and not a lot of time for Popper. Sutherland viewed most research and researchers with suspicion. A lecturer with a specialist background in mathematics and physics writing a book about politics held little appeal. Sutherland forbade the use of institutional funds on any such work, including secretarial assistance. So, the drafts to The Open Society were tapped out on paper the Poppers paid for themselves and in their own time.

Popper had his work cut out in more immediate respects, too. As Hacohen points out, with only 15,000 titles, the Canterbury library was almost the size of the family library back in Vienna. What was more—or rather less—the college’s philosophy collection boasted just 40 volumes from the 20th century, the most recent of which was 10 years out of date. The library subscribed to just one philosophical periodical (Mind), and had no catalogue system. The college subscribed to the local newspaper, but its one page of scant international coverage appalled and presumably distressed Popper, as he grasped around for the latest news from home.

But if Popper’s activities were a mystery to some of the college barons, the same couldn’t be said of many colleagues and students. “He thought aloud and spoke fluently and slowly, without notes, and never faltered,” the late Peter Munz, one of only two students who studied under Wittgenstein and Popper, wrote.

Ideas seemed to flow from him in their own inner logical succession. The combination of seriousness and lucidity, sometimes interrupted by touches of seemingly improvised humour, was completely persuasive. He spoke with a heavy Austrian accent but was always intelligible. He took endless care with individual students, on many of whom he left a lasting impression.

Munz had been born in Italy and was a diehard Platonist in his undergraduate years, before he fled Europe for a new life Down Under. He first spotted Popper at the pitifully stocked campus library. The older man beckoned to him from near the stacks. “He asked me if I would like for him to explain why I was wrong about Plato,” Munz once told me. “He didn’t offer to argue the point, or for us to exchange views—just to tell me why I was wrong. I later learned that that was his style.”

As it happens, Popper did manage to convince Munz that Plato was wrong about how societies ought to be organised, and that he had been a tyrant to boot—indeed the whole notion of controlling the ideas to which people are exposed is tyranny writ large. So began what Munz, who was to become a professor of history at Victoria University in Wellington, described as his own intellectual dawn, despite their lifelong differences over the subject of history. “Popper thought that people who are honest become scientists but people who are dishonest become historians, sociologists, and so forth, because these were people who could convince others of anything they like.”

Other philosophers have come and gone since then, of course, but it’s hard to think of many who produced anything as enduring as The Open Society. Popper had promised it would be his wartime effort. Sadly, it came too late for the actual war at hand (he tried unsuccessfully to sign up for the New Zealand army during this period), and certainly too late for many of his kith and kin, 18 of whom were murdered in the concentration camps.

In The Open Society, Popper reminds us that life is about normal people making endless small choices and striving each day to “minimise avoidable suffering.” He rejects the Nietzschean idea of history shaped by the great plans of great men. Instead, it is the product of the “piecemeal social engineering” of ordinary people doing ordinary things—so long as the government, or the mobs, don’t get in their way. I think of what he achieved with The Open Society as a galloping philosophical riff on what one of my favourite writers, James Baldwin, once said: “History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to normal people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.”

The idea of an open society was no figment of Popper’s philosophical imaginings—something that might yet be created. It was something that already existed but that could be destroyed. Towards the end of his life, Popper said as much. Looking back on his greatest literary accomplishment at the close of his memoir, he wrote that anyone prepared to compare life in Western liberal democracies with life in other societies will be forced to agree that we have “the best and most equitable” open societies in human history.

Not only are there very few people who acutely suffer from lack of food or lack of housing, but there are infinitely more opportunities for the young people to choose their own future. There is a wealth of possibilities for those who wish to learn, and for those who wish to enjoy themselves in various ways. But perhaps the most important thing is that we are prepared to listen to informed criticism and are certainly happy if reasonable suggestions are made for the betterment of our society. For our society is not only open to reform, but it is anxious to reform itself.

In spite of all this, the propaganda for the myth that we live in an ugly world has succeeded.

Open your eyes and see how beautiful the world is, and how lucky we are who are alive!
Top Stories

David Cohen

David Cohen is a New Zealand author who writes frequently about music.