Reflections on the Passing of Sir Karl Popper

I. C. Jarvie

York University, Toronto

All rights reserved by the author. This file may be downloaded and/or printed only for the purposes of individual private study. The making of multiple copies, either directly or indirectly, is forbidden.

Distinguished professor of philosophy
Faculty of Arts,
York University
4700 Keele St. North York
Ontario, M3J1P3, Canada
icj@nexus.yorku.ca


It is difficult to accept that my great teacher, Sir Karl Popper, is dead. However, the appearance of many obituaries in western newspapers forces one to come to terms with it, especially as so many of the obituaries are very poor: factually inaccurate and confused about the nature of the achievements. My wish in these remarks directed to Japanese colleagues is to mix a small amount of reminiscence with an attempt to call attention to the largest of his achievements.
At his death Popper still had much left to do, as anyone who has done research in his archives at the Hoover Institution can test. There remain unfinished countless projects for books, articles, collections, not to mention lecture series waiting to be written up. Let us hope that plans afoot to publish the best of the material in his archives reach fruition. But now it is sure that it will not be under his hand, and we shall have the difficult problem of knowing quite what weight we can give to such material. A great deal of his published work has been through many editions and reprintings, and virtually none went by without Popper taking the opportunity to revise, polish, correct, and add to. Even though much of the unpublished material has already been corrected many times in typescript, we can be sure that it would have undergone further transformation before he would have authorised its final release.
Be all that as it may, his death is the moment to consider not what remains undone, but what has been achieved. Contemplating a long publishing and writing career there is room for much dispute about which of his works and which of his ideas are of the most importance. To discuss the issue is not to try to anticipate the judgement of historians of philosophical ideas, for their efforts, and those of the philosophical public, are entirely capable of remembering him for unimportant matters. It is, rather, a world 3 conjecture which will, I hope, spark rational discussion.
In the last thirty years of his life Popper turned his hand to many new problems, such as the body-mind problem, problems in the science of biology, and to the metaphysics of the quantum theory and of world 3. This was very exciting and involved him in many debates, distressingly few of them with philosophical colleagues. There was also the three-sided debate, originally only between Popper and Kuhn, with Lakatos trying, rather like Ross Perot in the 1993 American Presidential Election, to promote himself to the status of serious contender. There was also the utterly unresolved debate known as the Positivismusstreit over the philosophy of the social sciences. It was also the time when Popper became ever more well-known, with all of his English books in print and translated to many languages, and the awarding of many honours and prizes. The last book to appear in his lifetime contains a selection of the addresses he gave to a number of formal gatherings all over the world (In Search of a Better World).
By my reckoning, however, it is his classical work that has the greatest importance, the work he did when he was comparatively unknown and, at times, intellectually isolated. It was the work he did when he tackled two of the central problems of the theory of knowledge, the problem of induction and the problem of demarcation. It was the work he did in diagnosing the pernicious influence of the belief in laws of human destiny and the related idea that the object of intellectual inquiry was to reach the essence of things. It was the work he did when he tackled the problem of how our democratic society could have permitted its enemies to take it over from within, and what could be done in post-war reconstruction to make it less likely to happen again. It was the work that led him, before fascism had been defeated, to argue that the biggest threat to the open society would come from the Marxists, who stole its values and pretended to be its allies. Despite the extensive discussion these works received, it seems to me a fact that their innovativeness, their demand to change the agenda completely, has never been adequately acknowledged and in coming to terms with the death of Popper these matters will have to be faced.
This body of classical work appeared between 1935 and 1945, when Popper aged from 33 to 43. The brilliance and fertility of his mind, and its formidable intellectual powers, were never displayed to greater effect. And in contemplating the achievement one should not forget that during this period of creativity he did much else as well. He transformed himself from a native German writer into a master of discursive English, and also spent part of the time bringing his Ancient Greek up to a level where he could dispute classical scholars on their own ground.
Furthermore, aside from the three great works Logik der Forschung, "The Poverty of Historicism" and The Open Society and Its Enemies, massive achievements by any measure, he was also working creatively in the calculus of probability and on his system of logic, with results mostly published later. And this is still a partial picture.
The wider world became acquainted with Popper's classical work in the opposite order to the way it was conceived and published, which may have made it difficult for the unfolding of his genius to gain its appropriate impact. Because of the vagaries of his life, it was The Open Society (1945) that first made him known to those outside of his specialty, the philosophy of science. The book caused a minor sensation, as well it might. It argued that some of the intellectual heroes of mankind were among the worst enemies of the open, democratic, liberal, and egalitarian form of society the book recommended. Besides its formidable scholarly apparatus, it was written with passion and conviction for a general intellectual audience, and it touched on topics of interest to everyone. Indeed, had it been published about one year earlier, as Popper desperately wanted it to be, it might have been able to contribute directly to the debates about the shape of the post-war settlement among the victors and the policies for occupation and reconstruction of the vanquished. In the event, it was published only a few weeks before Britain voted in a government intent on rapid social change, and when the occupation policies of the allies had been pretty much set. This may explain why its critique of radical and utopian social engineering and of Marxism was seen, not for what it was, a plea for a cautious and gradualist social democracy, but as part and parcel of the new right. Little or no attention was paid to the proposal that it was quite possible to punish harshly the aggressor states of Germany and Japan while still treating their citizens leniently (see note 7 to chapter 9).
The articles on "The Poverty of Historicism" had appeared immediately before this in the specialist journal Economica (1944-1945). They were not made into a book until twelve years later, in 1957. At that time the work was treated as a shot across the bows of the first postwar New Left in Britain, and invalid inferences about Popper's political sympathies were drawn from the friendly references to Hayek. Popper had by this point thrown down the gauntlet in front of two influential groups of super-scholars: the Classicists and the Marxists (groups which sometimes overlapped). The classicists accused him of travestying Plato - though nothing was said about his accusation some leading that classical scholars, with or without the excuse of Plato, openly espoused anti-democratic sentiments. The Marxists, at that time busily engaged in rewriting Marxism on the basis of unpublished manuscripts, went so far as to declare that Marx was no historicist. (The even more comical claim, that Marx was a methodological individualist, was to come later.)
Last but by no means least of these classic works to reach the English-speaking world was the translation of The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959. At a time when Popper's views on Marxism and the planned economy were being marginalised after their initial stormy reception, the 1957 and 1959 books placed him at the centre of a whole new round of debates over the philosophy of the social and of the natural sciences. Like all of Popper's output, the translation of Logik read as simply and clearly as he could manage. Apart from technical matters, Popper's work never presents itself as "difficult", which may be one reason why it is often read superficially. In point of fact all three of these classics are very dense texts, with many more ideas and insights than are flagged and signalled as such. To this day I believe there has not been a full grasp of all the implications of his methodological conventionalism, which shows that the demarcation problem cannot be solved logically or formally, only by institutionalising a decision in favour of theories and theoretical systems refutable by experience. My own acquaintance with Popper's work followed the chronology outlined above. When I took my first course with him in 1955-1956 - Logic and Scientific Method - only The Open Society was available in English. Bowled over by the impact of his ideas, I remember buying and reading it in the summer of 1956 as a way of continuing to study his ideas when it became known that he would be away in the academic year 1956-1957. During that hiatus I switched my major from economics to anthropology, and endeavoured to apply what he had taught to my anthropological studies. At the beginning of the following academic year my thirst for more Popper pushed me, a final year undergraduate, to seek permission to attend the only other course he gave, his graduate seminar. Without any hesitation I received a note saying that of course I could attend. My co-student Oswald Pike and I were regular attenders in the 1957-1958 academic year, and even managed to stumble our way through a presentation of what we thought were some of the methodological problems of functionalist social anthropology. Although the seminar had a reputation for storminess and vigorous confrontation, we two semi-coherent juniors were always treated with kindness, encouragement and respect. Both of us, and others as well, were to reap considerable trouble from the anthropologists over our Popper-inspired critiques of the holistic and observational practice of anthropology. Indeed, the anthropologists turned me down for graduate study and Popper came to the rescue by accepting me as his student. Being his apprentice was a lot harder, I think, than his own apprenticeship to the master carpenter Adalbert Posch (Unended Quest, p. 7), but not as hard for me as Agassi reported it was for him (A Philosopher's Apprentice). Popper's seminar and his circle was a very intense group experience, one that was governed by the cooperative and egalitarian morality embedded in the doctrine of "I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth" (Open Society, ch. 24).
Popper was a captivating personality. Even in a large lecture room his shy smile and forceful intellect could reach out and touch one. Peter Munz, W. W. Bartley, III, and Joseph Agassi have written excellent pen portraits. My own attempt is in Otto Molden, ed., Krise der Moderne?, the volume from the 1988 Alpbach European Forum. Particularly striking was the strong contrast between Popper's unrelenting intensity and seriousness when ideas were at stake, or seemed to him to be at stake, or when moral responsibility was an issue, and his sweetness and charm in private and social life.
Entering graduate school in 1958, I almost immediately was able to read the galley proofs of The Logic of Scientific Discovery and finally discover the fully worked out system sketched in the lectures and discussed tantalizingly in The Open Society. From that day to this, no day goes by, no intellectual problem is considered, but that I find myself thinking through the thing on lines suggested by these great classics. The literature upon them is voluminous but very largely without intellectual value. They solve the problems they set out to solve, and many others besides, and both have yet to be hit, in my view, with any criticism that does any serious damage. It is a great pity that much of the western philosophical world persists with errors and intellectual dead ends that Popper exposed so long ago.The physically rather short Popper was a giant among us and it was a privilege to have known and worked with him. To his students and followers now falls the heavy responsibility of helping to make his philosophy make more of a difference in the intellectual world; the kind of difference the brilliance and grandeur of the ideas warrants.