Sir Karl Popper: A Personal Note

David Miller

University of Warwick

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David Miller
Department of Philosophy
University of Warwick

Karl Popper died on the morning of Saturday September 17 1994 in the Mayday University Hospital in Thornton Heath in South London. (There is no Mayday University. The hospital is a teaching hospital of the University of London, and is situated in Mayday Road.) The cause of death was a combination of pneumonia and kidney failure.
He had been taken into hospital ten days earlier (on the evening of September 7) for an emergency operation. This had been successful but had disclosed an unsuspected carcinoid tumour of the small gut, which had spread extensively in the abdominal cavity. I think that, after this discovery, his friends had very little expectation that he would ever leave hospital, and even feared that if he were to do so the dignity of his life would be calamitously diminished. He had, after all, lived alone since 1986 at his delightful house in Welcomes Road in Kenley, set high up on the edge of the North Downs; and though his assistant Melitta Mew and her husband Raymond, and his housekeeper Margaret Coulstock, lovingly provided essential support for his happiness, he succeeded in living a life of most admirable independence. He had not always been well, to be sure, but he was well looked after, and he had undergone the most careful internal investigation by doctors in both Britain and Germany. In later years he suffered numerous small strokes and tachycardias. His short-term memory was conspicuously unsteady, though its sins were sins of omission not of commission, and in the last two years he often found concentrated thought a considerable strain. 'My brain hurts', he would sometimes say, especially after a spell of work on probability axiomatics. But he was remained his own man, fully in charge of his life -- and continued to be so in hospital, much to the dismay of the nursing staff. It would have been extremely distressing if it had ever had to be otherwise.
My own relationship with Popper goes back almost 30 years. In October 1964 I went to the LSE as a student on the new MSc(Econ) degree in "Logic and Scientific Method". There were half a dozen of us on the programme on that first year, three of whom planned to follow the course in Advanced Mathematical Logic. At that time there was no mathematical logician at the LSE. Lakatos was supposed to teach the course, but he was away in La Jolla, and in any case he did not know much logic. It was agreed that we should attend lectures at other London colleges (especially Bedford College) and receive some extra tuition from Popper. Thus it was that, within a week or two of arriving at the School, Allan Findlay, Ivor Grattan-Guinness, and I found ourselves gathered in his gloomy office. Popper lit up the whole room that first afternoon with his enthusiasm for the heroism of Principia Mathematica. He talked of much else besides, with relentless energy and earnestness. It was soon to become my office too, for after about three months at the LSE I was asked by Popper if I would like to become his research assistant. This I eagerly did, working nominally only six hours each week until my examinations were finished, and thereafter nominally only full time. With the help of the LSE Library staff I tracked down the books and papers he needed, sometimes reported on them, read and criticized almost everything he wrote, and became involved in a useful if minor way in his intellectual life. He said that I did a good job as his assistant, and later he trusted me with his writings in a way that he rarely trusted others; nonetheless, I was amazed, and endeared, by the meekness with which he so often accepted my suggestions and emendations. His own effect on my intellectual life was many orders of magnitude greater. During these three years in which I was Popper's assistant we became good collaborators, and we became also good friends.
There was a small hiatus between 1967 and 1970, when I spent two years at Stanford University in California, and then returned to take up a teaching position at the University of Warwick. But there was never anything behind the relative lack of communication in these three years except distance and preoccupation with new challenges. I never really managed to quarrel properly with Popper in all the years that I knew him. We disagreed on many issues, of course, philosophical, technical, stylistic, tactical, and personal. But far from being overbearing, he was patient and tolerant. If there was difficulty in resolving disagreements, it was not tiresome confrontation, but something like the difficulty faced by Tom and Dick in The Open Society, Chapter 24, iii (p.236 of the British edition). Sweet in argument, Popper was as often as not the one who gave way.
In the summer of 1971, shortly after Warwick had become the first British university to award Popper an honorary degree (for which nomination I deserve credit only for the initial suggestion), our collaboration was emphatically renewed in the massive labour of preparing the great bulk of the dreadfully overdue Replies to My Critics for Schilpp's The Philosophy of Karl Popper. Incredibly, this was all achieved -- and the autobiography thoroughly revised and checked too -- in less than eight weeks. I have a precious letter from him afterwards saying how much my help had meant to him and to his wife, and that he would be in my debt to his life's end.
Since then, we have worked together on many things, and shared many things, especially technical problems in probability theory; problems, Popper confessed in A World of Propensities (Thoemmes 1990), 'whose allurement remains with me to this very day' (p.8).
I hope that eventually I shall be able to honour the memory of this inspiring friend and teacher by completing the book that we planned jointly years ago as a statement of our approach, and our solutions, to some of these alluring problems.
As it happens, on the very day on which Popper went into hospital I sent him the latest draft of a joint paper replying to criticisms of our 1983 Nature note 'A Proof of the Impossibility of Inductive Probability'. And when I visited him the next Monday, almost the first thing that he said was 'I am sorry, David, but you will have to finish it without me'. The paper itself is not of great consequence, but -- despite the feeling that he sometimes voiced when contemplating the tragedy of Bosnia, that philosophy seemed of little importance -- his concern to get things right never deserted him.
On the day that I visited him in hospital, he knew that he would die soon, having been told that morning how bad the cancer was. He was not in the least afraid -- he never had been afraid of death -- and he told me that the confirmation that he had cancer had no emotional effect on him at all. It confirmed his expectation, but it did not affect it. He felt prepared to die. Much as he loved life he had no wish to go on living in the terrible pain that he had begun to suffer. In our last meeting the pain was for a few hours abated, and he was lively and sharp, very exhausted (he had taken nothing but liquids for several days), but animated and eager to talk. He was all too plainly saying goodbye; and much as I hoped to see him on the Saturday of that week, it was not to be possible. That Monday was really his last good day, and thereafter as the pain became worse, more painkillers were required, leading to the inevitable lapse from full consciousness. I am confident that nevertheless he did recognize those friends (including Gunter and Dorothy Wachtershauser and Bryan Magee) who visited him in the days before he died.
According to Popper's own request, his funeral was quiet and unassuming, at the crematorium at Croydon. There were about 40 people present, mostly close friends and former students. Short addresses were given by Lord Dahrendorf and by Sir Ernst Gombrich. A grander memorial service will be held in London at a later date. Popper's ashes have been deposited in the grave of his devoted wife Hennie, who died in November 1985. Popper was an Honorary Citizen of the City of Vienna, and the grave will be maintained in perpetuity as an honorary grave.
His ideas, we must hope, will survive also in perpetuity. But this will not happen unless those who have understood the breathtaking simplicity and daring modesty of Popper's message are resolved to pass this understanding on to those who will listen. It is clear that the truths of critical rationalism conflict with much that even the most intelligent people take for granted; simple as they are, these truths are not manifest. We must not assume that, if they are lost, they will be easily regained.