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.
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.
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 provisional character of scientific laws. More important, he considered it socially dangerous because it encouraged believers to think they could use their knowledge to control the course of history. Popper asserted that whether expressed from a right-wing point of view in Hegelian dialectic or from the left in Marxism, historicism inevitably led to totalitarianism and authoritarianism, resulting in government control of the individual and misguided attempts at large-scale social planning.
The Open Society and Its Enemies began as an attempt by Popper to clarify, through an analysis of specific thinkers, a part of historicism that puzzled his New Zealand friends. As his work grew in size, Popper turned it into a book that helped explain how totalitarianism had become intellectually respectable. In accordance with his belief that knowledge advanced through the correction of errors, Popper focused on a critical analysis of the thinkers who made the strongest case for restriction of human freedom. With the exception of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose defense of Prussian absolutism repulsed him, Popper treated the philosophers he covered with considerable respect.
Volume 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies, “The Spell of Plato,” describes Greek philosopher Plato as a powerful thinker, responding to the political crises of Athens with great originality and creativity. The Greek idea of historical development treated change as degeneration—the golden age of the past deteriorated into the iron present. Plato observed that, as the closed world of traditional Athens gave way to a more liberal and open society, the rule of aristocratic oligarchs was replaced by a popular assembly led by demagogues, resulting in a loss of social privilege by Plato’s class and political chaos in the life of the city. Plato’s solution to the problem of degeneration and decay was to break out of the process by arresting all political change. The way to escape political degeneration was to establish a utopian state so perfect that it need not participate in historical development.
Plato believed the fundamental problem of politics was determining who should rule the state. His solution was that it should be governed by the “best” people. Popper objected to the authoritarian implications that whoever was “best” was entitled to rule and that opposition to such rulers was wrong. All totalitarian governments made this claim. Although he acknowledged the necessity of political constraints, Popper was pessimistic about governmental power, wanting to limit the activity of the state to a minimum. For Popper, the real problem was how to organize political institutions so that citizens could rid themselves of bad or incompetent governments without violence.
Volume 2, “The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath,” briefly, but scathingly, rejected Hegel as a paid apologist for the kingdom of Prussia. Hegel used historicist ideas to defend the status quo, asserting that whatever existed was right because it was the result of reason working through history. Popper noted that both left and right totalitarians followed Hegel’s historicist scheme—the left replacing Hegel’s war of nations with the war of classes, the right replacing it with the war of races.
The nearly two hundred pages on Karl Marx are highly respectful of Marx as a person, while subjecting Marxist ideas to a withering analysis of their shortcomings. Popper noted that Marx’s writings contained an implicit ethical theory that supported his denunciation of the exploitative capitalist system of his day. Popper considered Marx’s belief that the state would ultimately wither away an indication that he really favored an open society. Popper credited Marx with a sincere though misguided attempt to create a science of society. However, Marx misunderstood the nature of science and, instead of the testable predictions on which true science depends, created dogmatic prophecies of what the future would hold. When Marx’s prediction that capitalism would cause increasing misery for the general population did not come true, Marxists did not change their theory but rather looked for special circumstances to explain away the anomaly. Marx’s followers believed his prophecies absolutely; they knew what the future would inevitably hold and defended any means used to achieve that end, however horrible the immediate results. Just as Plato’s historicism justified the right of the “best” people to control the state, Marx’s historicism justified the dictatorial dominance of society by a Marxist elite.
Popper preferred a policy of democratic liberalism. He rejected pure laissez-faire theories calling for totally free markets. Popper believed government was needed, both to protect free markets and to prevent the oppression of citizens. Popper insisted that “there is no freedom if it is not secured by the state; and conversely, only a state which is controlled by free citizens can offer them any reasonable security at all.” Popper did not believe that voting and majority rule by themselves defined democracy; the majority might welcome tyranny, as the Austrians had done when they acclaimed Nazi Adolf Hitler’s annexation of their country. What characterized a truly open society was a structure of government that provided peaceful means whereby citizens could remove a corrupt or oppressive regime.
The Open Society and Its Enemies was published shortly before Popper returned to England in January, 1946, to take up a position as reader in logic and scientific method at the London School of Economics. Promoted to professor in 1949, he continued there until his retirement in 1969. Popper’s highly readable style and vigorous defense of freedom attracted a wide public. The book brought Popper both fame and controversy. He was invited to lecture at many colleges and universities, to participate in public forums, and to give radio talks for the British Broadcasting Corporation. His ideas antagonized leftists, who could not accept Popper’s denunciation of Marxism, and classical scholars, who resented his negative view of Plato. Their attacks ensured that Popper’s name and views would become widely known.
Although Popper was hailed by many scientists and philosophers as the most influential philosopher of science of the twentieth century, his views on the scientific method also came under attack. Believing that a critical and rational evaluation of ideas was the way to advance knowledge, Popper took his critics very seriously. Two collections of his major papers, Conjectures and Refutations and Objective Knowledge, show the development of his ideas as he argued with his critics. From 1955 to 1957, as Popper worked on the English translation of The Logic of Scientific Discovery, he began to prepare an addendum answering his critics, which grew so greatly in length that his three-volume Postscript to “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” was not published until 1982-1983.
Popper received numerous awards and honors. The University of Vienna offered him a professorship, which he declined. In 1965, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, as his reputation as a philosopher of both physical and social science grew, he was invited to lecture at Harvard and other major universities in the United States, Britain, Australia, and the continent of Europe. Both The Logic of Scientific Discovery and The Open Society and Its Enemies have become recognized as classics. His major works remain in print, and his admirers created a Web site where a vigorous ongoing discussion testifies to the continuing relevance of Popper’s ideas.
Burke, T. E. The Philosophy of Popper. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1983. Argues that, despite Popper’s disclaimer, intellectual and moral relativism are inherent in his philosophy of science.
Levinson, Paul, ed. In Pursuit of Truth: Essays on the Philosophy of Karl Popper on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982. Laudatory articles that provide a good introduction to Popper’s ideas and their impact on the philosophy of science. The last four essays focus on Popper himself.
Magee, Bryan. Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1985. First published as Popper in 1973, this brief but comprehensive exposition of Popper’s ideas remains the best introduction to Popper’s thought for the general reader.
O’Hear, Anthony. Karl Popper. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. A negative evaluation of Popper’s philosophy of science, arguing against his rejection of certainty and denying Popper’s contention that the principle of falsification is an adequate criterion for distinguishing what is true science from nonscience.
O’Hear, Anthony, ed. Karl Popper: Philosophy and Problems. Royal Institute of Philosophy series. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. This collection of essays examines Popper’s philosophy. Includes bibliography and index.
Raphael, Frederic. Popper. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.
Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of Karl Popper. 2 vols. La Salle, Ill: Open Court, 1974. Contains thirty-three critical essays, mostly by noted philosophers; Popper’s extensive “Replies to My Critics”; his intellectual autobiography (revised and separately published as Unended Quest in 1976); and a substantial bibliography.
Shearmur, Jeremy. The Political Thought of Karl Popper. London: Routledge, 1996. This book examines Popper’s contributions to political science. Includes bibliography and index.
Stokes, Geoff. Popper: Philosophy, Politics, and Scientific Method. Key Contemporary Thinkers series. New York: Blackwell, 1998. This volume, one in a series on contemporary philosophers, focuses on Popper’s contributions to social science methodology. Includes bibliography and index.
Williams, Douglas. Truth, Hope, and Power: The Thought of Karl Popper. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Interprets Popper’s social and political thought as a powerful defense of individualism and liberal democracy against the best known justifications of collectivism and utopianism in the Western philosophical tradition.