A Blupete Biography Page

Sir Karl Popper

Sir Karl was a Professor of Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics for 23 years. In his book about Popper, Bryan Magee said:

"... philosophy [according to Popper] is a necessary activity because we, all of us, take a great number of things for granted, and many of these assumptions are of a philosophical character; we act on them in private life, in politics, in our work, and in every other sphere of our lives - but while some of these assumptions are no doubt true, it is likely, that more are false and some are harmful. So the critical examination of our presuppositions - which is a philosophical activity - is morally as well as intellectually important."1
Popper was born in Vienna. While early on he espoused left wing politics, he swung around in the thirties and found himself at variance with the prevailing philosophical thought, logical positivism (see Comte). From 1937-1945, Popper taught philosophy at the University of New Zealand. In 1946, he went to England. Popper's theories, however, continued to be unacceptable to the establishment; neither Oxford, nor Cambridge, wanted him as a professor. Eventually, Popper did find a spot at the London School. Popper was knighted in 1965.

Popper, in his philosophy, offers a solution to Hume's problem, the problem of induction. Popper concluded that all we know is but "a woven web of guesses," that while empirical generalizations may not be verifiable, they are, at least, falsifable. It was through this process that Einstein turned Newtonian physics on its ear.2

In his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Popper stated that the guiding public policy should be to "Minimize avoidable suffering," this in contradistinction to the Utilitarian maxim, "Maximize happiness."3 While granting that Plato is the "greatest philosopher of all time ... [one] of unequalled intelligence," Popper attacked, in his book, Plato's political programme. What Plato recommended was a "closed society,' viz., totalitarianism. Bertrand Russell wrote that Popper's unorthodox attack on Plato was "thoroughly justified."4

Professor Popper's theory has been expressed 5 this way:

P1 --> TS --> EE --> P2

Where P1 is the initial problem, TS the trial solution proposed, EE the process of error elimination applied to the trial solution and P2 the resulting situation; it is essentially a feedback process. Thus, when a person enters into a new situation he immediately takes a measure of it and pastes a label on it, we pigeon hole it, - get its number, so to speak: almost anything will do at the first moment, but then we assess, then we adjust our opinion based on our assessment, and then reassess, and then change our opinion, and then reassess, readjust, reassess, and so on and so on; nonstop. For example:

"When we enter a new situation in life and are confronted by a new person, we bring with us the prejudices of the past and our previous experiences of people. These prejudices we project upon the new person. Indeed, getting to know a person is largely a matter of withdrawing projections; of dispelling the smoke screen of what we imagine he is like and replacing it with the reality of what he is actually like."6
The process described above is essentially one of learning and growing, of submitting our expectations to the test of experience, as Magee puts it, "the control and correction of speculations." Back in my business days, we used to pull a group of managers together and have "brain storming sessions." In these sessions, no matter how absurd or, at first glance unworkable, propositions relating to the problem would be tossed out and listed for consideration; the second round would be a process of examining each proposition with a view, - giving regard to the past experiences of the group - to its unworkability, to its elimination. What we would be left with is a short list of possible and workable solutions, some, or all of which, we might put to work; in turn and in time further "brain storming sessions" would be had; - an unending process, as I recall.
"Before we as individuals are even conscious of our existence we have been profoundly influenced for a considerable time (since before birth) by our relationship to other individuals who have complicated histories, and are members of a society which has an infinitely more complicated and longer history than they do (and are members of it at a particular time and place in that history); and by the time we are able to make conscious choices we are already making use of categories in a language which has reached a particular degree of development through the lives of countless generations of human beings before us. ... We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything at all from scratch, free from the past, or unindebted to others, could not conceivably be more wrong."7
Thus, tradition and culture are of incalculable importance. Popper, in his philosophy, adopts Darwin's evolutionary view, - it is a "critical feedback process of successive adjustments." It does away with the notion that situations, including complex ones such as the economic social order, "can be created, or made over, at a stroke, as if from a blueprint": changes, of necessity, can only take place in stages, and in time, in an evolutionary fashion: things progress as a "running argument."8

Popper's philosophy allows for, and, indeed, calls for "passion or imagination or creative intuition; and it condemns as 'scientism' the notion that science gives us certain knowledge and might even be able one day to give us settled answers to all our legitimate questions."9

In light of Popper's philosophy, what is needed is a kind of society which is adapted to problem-solving, a kind of society which "calls for the bold propounding of trial solutions which are then subjected to criticism and error-elimination;" this cannot be a dictatorship; it can only be a democracy with free institutions.10 However, we cannot have freedom without some restrictions on our freedom; as a society we cannot have unlimited tolerance, certainly tolerance cannot be extended (in a democratic society with free institutions) to those who go beyond rational argument and would assert their ideas by the use of force. There cannot be total economic freedom, the state must interfere with the activities of "semi-political organizations such as monopolies, trusts, unions, etc.;" but no more intervention than is necessary to preserve freedom of the market; otherwise, totaliarianism. In all, what is needed is an optimum, not an absolute. As Popper asserts, what is needed is the maximum possible tolerance in the operation of our free institutions, but the paradox is: too much freedom will do away with freedom, thus government intervention is necessary to guarantee freedom; it is, however, a "dangerous weapon: without it, or too little, freedom dies; but with too much of it freedom dies also."

Popper picks up, in his work, on the Freudian refrain that there exists a conflict between the demands of civilized society and the instincts implanted in every person:11

"... most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility."
Sadly, as Magee12 put it, "we purchase freedom at the cost of our security, equality at the cost of our self-esteem, and critical self-awareness at the cost of our peace of mind." If we are not happy with the existing state of things then we wish, it seems, for a utopia, or to return to the security of a pre-civilized society which is led by gods, kings, priests, or chiefs; where certain matters, as it might suit the hierarchical authority, are held to be inviolable, sacred, forbidden, and/or unlawful; where people are under a perpetual or temporary prohibition from certain actions, which actions will often extend even to what foods are to be eaten and with which people one should associate.

What is left is to make reference to another of Popper's brilliant works. It is, of course, The Poverty of Historicism (1957). In this work, Sir Karl sets forth a fundamental thesis of his, that, the belief in historical destiny is sheer superstition, and that there can be no prediction of the course of human history by scientific or any other rational method. Popper dedicated his book to "the memory of the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny."

For more on Popper and F. A. Hayek, see my essay, "Vienna: Hayek and Popper."


A featured sketch in a book


Biographical Sketches: The Thinkers



1 Popper (London: Fontana/Collins, 1973) p. 15.

2 It was Sir Isaac Newton, it had been thought by generation after generation of western man, who presented through the inductive method a secure and certain knowledge about man's physical enviroment.

3 Utilitarian views were popularized by the herd of "social scientists" that took their cue (it was a miscue) from John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

4 See Magee, op. cit., p. 93.

5 Ibid., p. 65.

6 Psychiatrist Anthony Storr as quoted by Magee, p. 65.

7 Magee, p. 69.

8 Ibid., p. 67.

9 Ibid., p. 68.

10 See Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. An open society has been defined (by Ronald B. Levinson, see Magee pp. 92-3) as "an association of free individuals respecting each others' rights within the framework of mutual protection supplied by the state, and achieving, through the making of responsible, rational decisions, a growing measure of humane and enlightened life.'"

11 As will be found in Freud's work, Civilization and Its Discontents.

12 See Magee, op. cit., p. 84.


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Peter Landry