Karl Raimund Popper Biography

Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Popper became well known in the 1930’s for his rigorous analysis of the logic of scientific research. During World War II, he wrote two influential works on the philosophy of politics and history.

Early Life

Karl Raimund Popper was the only son of a prominent Viennese lawyer. His mother and father were born Jewish but converted to Lutheranism and baptized their children in that faith, believing this action would help the family become assimilated into the Christian society of Austria. In 1918, Popper dropped out of secondary school and began to audit courses at the University of Vienna. From 1922 to 1924, he apprenticed himself to a cabinetmaker to learn how to work with his hands. He next spent a year volunteering at a clinic for neglected children run by Freudian psychologist Alfred Adler; he dismissed psychoanalytic theories as unscientific.

For a few months in the spring of 1919, Popper considered himself a Communist but became disillusioned when he observed his friends changing positions as new directives arrived from Moscow. When his comrades defended a disastrous protest demonstration in which students were killed by police, Popper was appalled by their argument that the importance of their goal justified using any means to attain it. Popper’s intensive study of Karl Marx’s writings soon turned him into an anti-Marxist.

After formal matriculation at the University of Vienna in 1922, Popper earned a primary-school teaching certificate in 1924, completing work on his Ph.D. in 1928 and qualifying to teach mathematics and physics in secondary schools in 1929. In 1930, he obtained a position as a secondary-school science teacher and married Josephine Anna Henniger, a fellow student of education at the University of Vienna; they had no children.

Life’s Work

Popper’s doctoral dissertation on dogmatic and critical ways of thinking brought him to the attention of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers and scientists who were developing the theories of logical positivism. Despite his disagreement with many of their ideas—his nickname in the circle was “the Official Opposition”—Popper was a valued contributor to the discussion group. When he had difficulty getting his first book accepted, the circle published The Logic of Scientific Discovery in a series they sponsored although they cut the manuscript to about half its original length.

The publication of The Logic of Scientific Discovery earned Popper an international reputation as an original contributor to the philosophy of science. Even though the book was not translated into English until 1959, Popper received many invitations to lecture at British universities. Popper defined his positions through debate, contrasting his own ideas with prevailing views of the course of scientific research. He also discussed the problem of distinguishing true science from nonscience. Popper rejected the traditional view, accepted by logical positivists, that accumulated experience led to scientific hypotheses, which in turn were verified by further factual observation. Instead, he contended that hypotheses developed first and were then tested by experiments designed to see if predictions based on the theories were falsified by experience. In support of his argument, he cited physicist Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which made testable predictions about astronomy and physics. If any of the predictions proved false, the theory would be discredited; if, however, they proved true, the theory advanced scientific knowledge. What distinguished science from nonscience was that theories of science were empirically falsifiable, providing a rational basis for acceptance or rejection. In contrast, the theories of psychoanalysis were not scientific because they could not be formulated in a way that permitted a falsification test; however, they might contain useful and valuable insights. For Popper, absolute certainty was not attainable. Experience taught by correcting errors. No matter how many times a prediction derived from a theory proved true, the next prediction might reveal a flaw in the hypothesis that required correction. Popper, unlike the logical positivists, did not dismiss metaphysical speculations as nonsense statements. Noting the way cosmological myths of the ancient world led to the earliest development of testable scientific theories about astronomy, Popper argued that metaphysical ideas might lead to verifiable hypotheses and thus contribute to the advancement of science.

Popper’s successful 1935 and 1936 lecture tours in Great Britain brought him to the attention of organizations devoted to rescuing scientists and scholars liable to persecution as liberals or Jews. Despite his baptism as a Protestant, both Popper and his wife were considered Jewish by the Nazis. Popper welcomed an offer in 1937, arranged by his British friends, of a lectureship in philosophy at Canterbury University College, Christchurch, New Zealand. He remained there throughout World War II. Despite his heavy teaching load as the only lecturer in philosophy—and the frowns of university authorities who considered his research and writing merely time stolen from his paid work as lecturer—Popper composed two major works on history and politics that established his reputation in those fields.

Popper called The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies his war work. By historicism, Popper meant the belief that there were laws of historical development that determined the future in the same way that astronomical laws determined the motion of the planets. This implied that the task of the social scientist was to discover such “laws” or “trends” and use them to make predictions about the social and political development of the world; if astronomers could predict eclipses, social scientists should be able to predict political revolutions. Popper rejected historicism, contending it was based on a view of natural science and its methodology that misunderstood the nature of science and the...

(The entire section is 2508 words.)