Truths and Contradictions about Karl Popper

1. Introduction

The philosophy of Karl Popper (1902-1994) has gained a range of interest and reaction far wider than that normally received by professional philosophers; in recent times only Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) gained comparable (probably still greater) attention. Convinced that philosophical problems and issues came from outside philosophy itself, especially science, he addressed a broad audience. But he also entered the professionals’ field, and indeed attacked some major epistemological tenets held there, such as the assumption that knowledge was accreted by the inductive accumulation and classification of facts.

The response to Popper’s work has created interest in his life, which was known as falling in three periods: birth and early career in Vienna, followed by nearly a decade in New Zealand and finally a rather reclusive life-style in Britain after the Second World War. This book, devoted to the first two periods, is the outcome of a long research effort by the author started well before Popper’s death and incorporating a doctorate received in 1993. His book shows the incompleteness of Popper’s autobiography of 1974, which hitherto has been our main source.[1]

The author has used many archives, including the Popper Papers at Stanford University and available on microfilm in some other institutions. However, the only photograph is a portrait, on the dust-jacket.  Popper’s library, which has been purchased by Klagenfurt University in Austria, seems not to have been used; maybe some annotation or marks await the finding.

Footnotes welcomely appear as such, although the font chosen by the publishers may be rather small for some readers. Typographical errors are rare, although the computing cut-and paste technique is evident in a repetition on pp. xi and 5. A separate bibliography is included; however, the items under each author are listed by alphabetical order of titles instead of chronological order of publication or writing, so that the progress of work cannot be scanned. The main casualty here is Popper himself, for whom dozens of items are listed.

2. Forming the isolated philosopher

Popper was born in Vienna to a well-placed Jewish family, the last child after two sisters. He set on his lonely track in his late teens, when he moved for a few years into a former barracks in the suburb of Grinzing occupied by various groups and organisations. Among his contacts of that time were future major musicians such as Hanns Eisler and Rudolf Serkin (pp. 78, 85). He took a strong interest in music himself, composing on occasion and joining but soon leaving Arnold Schoenberg’s society for the promotion of modern music (p. 100). Life was held to limb by various jobs, most notably as a (trainee) carpenter. Taking courses on several subjects in and around Vienna University, his roving intellectual curiosity homed onto education, school reform and cognitive psychology.

Chs. 3 and 4 provide much information on various somewhat neglected figures influential upon Popper, such as Julius Kraft, Viktor Kraft, Karl Polanyi, Edgar Zilsel, Karl Bühler, Heinrich Gomperz and Leonard Nelson.[2] One factor common to some of them and to Popper was socialism, with a desire to create a less class-rigid society and provide a better quality of education for the populus. A thesis on ‘“habit” and “lawful experience” in education’ was written at the University’s Pedagogic Institute under Bühler in 1927 (pp. 142-149 but missing from the bibliography), to be followed in the following year by a University dissertation on cognitive psychology (pp. 156-163), and then a further thesis on the foundations of geometry (pp. 172-178) to provide qualification to teach physics and mathematics at school.

Such a posting, duly obtained in 1930 (p. 178), was the limit of Popper’s professional ambition at this time. (Very little information on his teaching seems to survive.) But his philosophical horizons were widening, for he saw his various studies as examples of two more general problems: the status of induction in the formation of knowledge, and the demarcation between scientific and non-scientific knowledge. Between 1930 and 1932 he gradually grasped the full generality of these questions and convoluted his position into a non-foundationalist epistemology, in which the assumption that (scientific) knowledge was certain had to be abandoned. It is easy now to write such short sentences; Popper had to struggle hard even to understand his own stance. Ch. 5 describes in great detail the twists and turns which he took in formulating his position, which finally asserted that the key to the demarcation lay in falsifiability, using deductive reasoning, and that it was fundamentally opposed to inductive epistemology. Both here and elsewhere the author correctly emphasises the central place of Kantian philosophy in Popper’s development, including the active role of the mind and the need for metaphysics — far removed from characterisation of Popper as a positivist which is still regularly made.

3. Circling the Vienna Circle

Another difficulty for Popper, largely of his own making, lay in his personal situation; even though he was living in one of the intellectual centres of the world, he worked largely on his own. The main product was a large manuscript on ‘the two problems of the theory of knowledge’, of which the first volume was completed in 1932 with a second left in fragments; there was little chance for publication (pp. 195-208).

By then Popper was known to the ‘Vienna Circle’ (hereafter ‘VC’) of philosophers, which had formed in 1924 around Moritz Schlick (1882-1936) and was given its name late in the decade (by Otto Neurath, to little enthusiasm from other members).[3] Popper’s relationship with this circle, a major feature of his early career, receives much attention here in chs. 6-7. However, the author’s characterisation of the circle as a united team with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus  (1921, 1922) as its bible (p. 192) is too simple, and indeed is contradicted three pages earlier. This was true for Schlick for some time, and always so for Felix Kaufmann (who however also adopted phenomenology) and Friedrich Waismann; but among others the adhesion was much less marked. In particular for Popper, Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) rejected some of the seer’s chief pronouncements, such as the meaninglessness of tautologies, and emphasised the distinction between theory and metatheory (the word ‘metalogic’ in the modern sense is his) which Wittgenstein rejected.[4]

Popper rewrote his manuscript into a shorter one called ‘Logic of investigation. Towards the epistemology of modern science. (‘Logik der Forschung. Zur Erkenntnistheorie der modernen Naturwissenschaft’).  The developments included detailed evaluation of the scope and limits of conventions, and examination of the role of probability theory. The place of corroboration of theories was rather marginalised, and the interaction  of theory with experiment (where, for example, an experiment may suggest the scientific problem in the first place) was reduced to a one-way influence from theory.[5]

Thanks to further editing work by an uncle, the manuscript was reduced to a length commercially suitable for Julius Springer in Vienna,[6] and appeared late in 1934 in a VC book series edited by Philipp Frank and Schlick. Thus the book was in the Circle’s own repertoire; and moreover it received much warm praise, especially from Carnap,[7] even though a thought experiment proposed for quantum mechanics was soon to be shown by Einstein and others to be faulty (pp. 257-259). It sold 414 copies by 1937,[8] quite reasonable for such a volume.

However, Popper was still an outsider to the VC, because Schlick never invited him to join. Popper explained the difficulty as due to his different philosophy, especially over the clash between falsificationism and verificationism and the status allowed (or denied) to metaphysics. However, the author shows that another factor was Popper’s own personality: a clever but arrogant and rather immature man. Popper still felt his exclusion in later life,[9] thus compounding difficulties already in place.

4. Exile in New Zealand, 1937-1945

For all Jews and intellectuals in general, life in Central Europe was becoming steadily more precarious. To members of the VC the situation became especially clear when Schlick was murdered by a former student in September 1936 and the authorities did not work hard at finding the assassin of a professor who was not even Jewish (p. 190). In 1937 Popper secured a lectureship at the Canterbury College in the University of New Zealand, where he remained throughout the War years. The author provides in chs. 8-9 a vivid account of this period, which hitherto has been little known; Colin Simkin, Popper’s former colleague there, has provided much valuable information.

This phase of Popper’s career is best known for the writing of a book finally entitled The Open Society and Its Enemies (hereafter ‘OS ’), a sustained attack on the the role of philosophies underlying social determinism and the totalitarianisms of the time. The approach was based upon a meta-epistemological analogy with the clash between falsificationism and verificationism in science, with falsification now generalised to criticism of theories of all kinds, even metaphysical ones. Plato, Hegel and Marx were the main targets; the author assesses each part of the book very carefully, and in particular sustains the criticism made after its publication that Popper did not include a proper account of Hegel’s positions in his attack (pp. 436-438).

Popper saw his book as his ‘war work’;[10] but also on his mind was the early part of the century (when New Zealand had been noted for its socialist practices, incidentally). A strong memory from his Vienna childhood was of the Dienstmädchen  system. The woman worked as servant to a family for 13 days per fortnight, from a Sunday to the following Saturday week; then the head of the household decided whether or not she be sacked at the end of the next fortnight.  Around 1911 Popper’s father accused their servant of stealing some money and dismissed her under this convention; upon asking about the woman’s prospects, young Karl ‘did not receive a satisfactory reply’, as he put it to me. He confirmed that OS  had been written to oppose that sort of system as well as the Nazis and the Stalinists.

The author also sheds light on one of Popper’s most perplexing pieces, allied to OS : a ‘stodgy’ (K.R. Popper) essay on ‘the poverty of historicism’, which was started in the mid 1930s but was completed only (shortly) after OS  was finished (pp. 352-382). This spread of time and of influence on either side of the writing of OS  explains its rather inconsistent character.

5. Exile in Britain, 1946-1994

OS  had a protracted publication history from its completion in 1943 (pp. 450-459). After some American and British rejections it was taken by Routledge, thanks to reader Herbert Read; parts were rewritten and readied for publication late in 1945. Admirers in Britain, especially F.A. von Hayek and Ernst Gombrich, already wanted Popper employed there (pp. 496-499); and a readership was secured at the London School of Economics, which he took up in 1946 and where he was to remain for the rest of his career. This is the best known sector of his life, ‘enjoying bad health to the ripe old age of 92’ (p. 460): explicitly not treated in this biography, the author supplies a fine succinct summary in an epilogue with some of Popper’s influence on social philosophy and economics assessed in ch. 10.

The very first part of Popper’s British phase involved positive involvement with Russell and negative reaction to Ludwig Wittgenstein. It might have borne a little more detail than is given here, as much territory in British philosophy was marked out; three mutually different philosophers, with Russell siding for Popper. For example, OS  and Russell’s History of Western philosophy were published within months of each other, and the famous confrontation between Popper and Wittgenstein in 1946 in Russell’s presence (p. 523) occurred over an anti-Wittgensteinian topic which Russell had encouraged Popper to present.[11]

6. ‘A difficult man’

This biography is excellently objective throughout. While the author clearly admires Popper’s philosophy (pp. 288, 551), he records the failings of the man in many places.[12]  My own contact with Popper suggested to me that one cause, or at least epiphenomenon, was his short height; for he exhibited more than anyone else of my acquaintance the aggressive body and speech language to others taller than himself.

A main cause of Popper’s mediocre social skills must be his chosen isolation, from his youth. Although he seems to have recalled his father with affection, apart from anti-Zionism he did not follow him in many ways;[13] on servant girls, quite the opposite, as we saw. His mother and two elder sisters do not appear to have made substantial impact on him (pp. 62-64). At a rather young age he left home for the barracks. His wife, a school-teacher before their marriage in 1930 and up to their departure from Austria (which left her with permanent homesickness for Vienna), seems not to have influenced the content of his thought, though she advised him on topics to study and spent much time as his typist and contact with publishers and others (pp. 179-180, 460). They had no children, and may not have indulged much in the necessary preliminaries. Life was work and little else, ‘360 [sic] days a year, day and night’ (p. 222); however, periods of intense activity alternated with those of longueur and sleeplessness, a pattern sometimes held to manifest manic depression. Various acolytes emerged during his London phase, but many were struck off the roster at some stage.[14]

The author expressly denies the intention of writing a volume 2; but any such work will benefit massively from this volume 1, which must rank among the best of its genre. An especially nice feature is its publication by the house which rejected OS  in 1943 for its disrespect for Plato (p. 457).

7. Popper to Charles Morris, 1936

Much material remains in the Popper Archives and elsewhere to fill out still more details of his life and career. It is appropriate to include here a letter written on 9 September 1936 by Popper to Charles Morris (1901-1979), and mentioned on p. 321. A philosopher in the American pragmatist tradition, Morris was also associated with the VC and an important colleague of Carnap at Chicago University, especially over the International Encyclopaedia of Unified Science that Neurath was (sort-of) launching from Amsterdam.[15]

This letter must be one of the first that Popper wrote in English (compare p. 312), and shows that his command was already not bad. He wrote this letter right at the end of his Vienna time — consciously so, as he indicates his hopes of emigration and hopes for advice about work possibilities in the USA. In his reply of 10 October 1936 Morris recommended that Popper publish in American journals (p. 321).

Popper begins by recalling meeting Morris a year earlier at the first of the VC congresses of philosophy, held in Paris. He describes some features of the succeeding gathering in Copenhagen, including the news of the murder of Schlick. He also recalls some events during his recent visits to England (when, among other contacts, he met Russell), and summarises his indeterminacy interpretation of quantum mechanics following the failure of his thought experiment.

The letter is transcribed from the top copy, held in the Morris Papers, Peirce Project, Indiana University at Indianapolis; a carbon copy is kept in the Popper Papers (file 329, 37).  It is typewritten; orthography is followed exactly, and a few penned corrections have been silently followed. Editorial footnotes fill out some details.

September 9th, 1936,

Neukräftengasse 8,     

Vienna XIII.               

Dear Professor Morris,

it is nearly one year now that I have seen you the last, in Paris. I would like to know how you are getting on. Are you now back in Chicago, and do you see often Prof. Carnap?

I have been in England the main part of this year, delivering there some lectures, under them: On the Method of Soziology (London School of Economics), and a course, On Probability (the Mathematical Department of the Imperial College of Science).[16] Then I have been in Copenhagen, visiting there the ‘Second Congress’. I had the ocasion to speak to Nils Bohr; I was very much impressed by his extraordinary personality.[17] I discussed with him the Problem of Interpretation of the New Quantum Theory.

Having become clear already some times ago that I have to modify something of my former position I explained to Prof. Bohr a standpoint - something like a compromise - the main features of it beeing the following theses, maintained already in my elder position: (1) Heisenbergs Formula, looked at as to be deduced from the New Quantum Theory (viz. its deductions by Pauli, Dirac, and others) must not be interpreted in an other way than only as an statistical statement, saying itself nothing about ‘indeterminacy’. (2) The non-statistical Thesis of Indeterminacy is no statement of the physical theory and has not got the character of a ‘law of nature’. (Nevertheless - this I had to admit - it plais a certain role in the interpretation of the theory with help of ‘classical’ concepts.) (3) It is not possible to solve the problems of Einstein’s New Paradox by means of the so called ‘Heisenberg’scher Schnitt’.[18]

I was very happy to get Bohr’s consent to this standpoint. He encouraged me in his kind way to a new publication on the matter I am preparing just now.[19]

During the Congress the message of Schlick’s death reached Copenhagen. Returning to Vienna I read the newspapers there and at first I had the impression that one must not see as political murdering in this case although the whole athmosphere of shooting and killing which poisons the brains of the younger generation of Central Europe certainly must held as to be responsible of this case.

But now the situation begins to change and I am rather certain you will take an interest in the fact, that there is now something like a press-campaign against the dead Schlick. Especially a periodical with the charming title “Schönere Zukunft” (The Fairer Future) representing the now dominating (so called ‘christian’) course, published a paper the essence of which can be formulated as: Not the murder is guilty but the murdered.[20] The whole ‘mental’ armament of this ‘Fair Presence’ we are living in, is used to prove this thesis; Antisemitsm, as always, is playing the main role: It was the Jewish-destructive Philosophy of Schlick which poisoned the brains of his pupils, especially the brains of his ‘arisch’ pupils, who are not enough prepared to bear this poison. So it seems to be something like a reaction of self-defendence that one of the pupils killed the man who poisoned him first. Therefore: Men like Schlick must not be allowed to teach at a Christian and German University, - they only may be allowed to teach Jews. (As a matter of fact Schlick was not of Jewish origin but as I learn of very ancient nobility his ancestors having been Counts, very famous in Austrian and Bohemian History.)

It is a pity, but this happening is characterising the ‘Fair Presence’ of Austria. Antisemitism and racism are leading the fashion under Austrian teachers unfortunally also of the school at which I am working, making it impossible for me to practise my post. I don’t feel myself any longer to listen day by day to allusions and affronts. I am decided to leave this country as soon as possible. But it is rather difficult. Thirring (who is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Vienna) has tried to get me a Rockefeller-fellowship, but he got the answer, the foundation is not in the situation any longer to give fellowship to physicists;[21] and as a philosopher I cannot get it either.

I am prepared to go to America without a fellowship, but only if I could get some invitations to deliver lectures there (as I did in England) or, if possible, a temporary lectureship, perhaps as a substitute of a lecturer who has gone abroad. Prof. Nils Bohr is willing to help me by writing letters about me to people who could do something in this matter (and in a similar way Einstein) - but I don’t know whom I should name him.

Have you ever read in my book? I would be interested to hear your opinion about it. I hope to publish very soon two papers in English.[22]

With my best regards,

           Yours very sincerely,

                                              Dr. Karl Popper. [signed]


[1] K.R. Popper, ‘Autobiography’ in P.A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Karl Popper, 2 vols (La Salle, Ill., 1974), 1-181; repr. as Unended Quest  (London, 1976).

[2] Among other background figures mentioned, Hugo Dingler was a German philosopher of science and of mathematics, not a ‘Viennese physicist’ (pp. 204, 249).

[3] The chief single source on the VC, including for this book, is F. Stadler, Studien zum Wiener Kreis. Ursprung, Entwicklung und Wirkung des Logischen Empirismus im Kontext. (Frankfurt am Main, 1997); an English edition is in preparation.

[4] For more on this topic see I. Grattan-Guinness, ‘A Retreat From Holisms: Carnap’s Logical Course, 1921-1943’, Annals of Science, 54 (1997), 407-421. Pace p. 191 of this book, I see the decisive influence upon Carnap as Russell rather than Frege.

[5] The bearing of Popper’s philosophy upon technology still needs further study.  Apparently during the Great War young Popper worked in a factory (p. 91); I remember him mentioning that he had worked in one which made lifts.

[6] This is a comment on the financial situation of the time. Carnap’s own Logische Syntax der Sprache  (Vienna, 1934) had had to lose about 50 pages for the same reason; they soon appeared as two separate papers but were restored to their original locations in the English translation The Logical Syntax of Language  (London, 1937).

[7] As well as a positive review, Carnap praised Popper in various manuscript notes: for example, to Schlick in 1934 (Schlick Papers, State Archives of North Holland, Haarlem, file 95), Morris in 1934 (Morris Papers, Peirce Project, Indiana University at Indianapolis), Kaufmann in 1935 (Carnap Papers, University of Pittsburgh, files 28-20-08 and -21-01), and at a Chicago research seminar 1937-1938 (C.K. Ogden Papers, McMaster University, Hamilton, box 7). The defence of Popper by Carl Hempel in a review of a critical paper on probability theory by Hans Reichenbach (p. 280) is not quite correctly cited: it was in Jahrbuch über die Fortschritte der Mathematik, 61 (1935, publ. 1939), 979, immediately following Hempel’s warm review of the Logik. The set-theorist Erich Kamke also wrote very positively about that book in Jahresbericht der Deutsche Mathematiker-Vereinigung, 45 (1935), pt. 2, 91-92. Several other reviews are listed on p. 275 of this book.

[8] Carnap Papers, file 27-60-106; for other sales figures, see p. 275 of this book.

[9] Popper pointedly contrasted his own position around 1930 with that of his exact contemporary Herbert Feigl (compare pp. 185-186) at the beginning of an article for a Festschrift  for Feigl (‘A Theorem on Truth-Content’, in P.K. Feyerabend and G. Maxwell (eds.), Mind, Matter and Method  (Minneapolis, 1966), 343-353).

[10] The author describes the writing of OS   mainly from 1939 onwards.  In the preface to the second edition (1959) Popper stated that the decision to write it was taken in March 1938, after he heard that Austria had been invaded (compare pp. 326 and 347 of this book).

[11] For details see I. Grattan-Guinness, ‘Russell and Karl Popper: Their Personal Contacts’, Russell, new ser., 12(1992-1993), 3-18; ‘Karl Popper for and against Bertrand Russell’, Russell, new ser., 18(1998), 25-42.

[12] The title of this section of the review alludes to p. 179, and especially to an essay by one the Popperians (note 14 below): W.W. Bartley, ‘Ein schwieriger Mensch. Eine Porträtsskizze von Sir Karl Popper’, in E. Nordhofen (ed.), Physiognomien: Philosophie des 20. Jahrhunderts in Portraits (Königstein, 1980), 43-69. A favourite quip at the London School of Economics, credited to Ernst Gellner, was ‘The open society by one of its enemies’.

[13] For example, Popper did not become a Freemason, a movement within which his father was master of a lodge in Pressburg (p. 41); his ‘Ansprache in der Warmholtz-Trauerfeier der L.[oge] „Humanitas”’, Der Zirkel, 40(1909-1910), 35-37, was a tribute on the death of his predecessor. He also wrote on the possible influence of the movement upon schools (‘Von unser neuen Generation. Deutsche Festrede, gehalten in der Grosslogenversammlung von 24. April 1910’, Orient, 35(1910), 120-126). These times are cited from A. Wolfstieg, Bibliographie der freimaurerischen Literatur, 3 vols (Leipzig, 1911-1926), I, 950 and II, 348.

[14] These are ‘the ‘Popperians’, usually professional philosophers, including Feyerabend, B. Magee, J. Agassi, I. Lakatos, J.W.N. Watkins, I. Jarvie, Bartley and D.W. Miller (pp. 537-538). They are to be distinguished from ‘the Popperian knights’, eminent beknighted (naturalised) British scientists and humanists who publicly supported his philosophy (P.B. Medawar, J.C. Eccles, H. Bondi and E. Gombrich), and of whom he appears to have been much more tolerant.

[15] See F. Rossi-Landi, Charles Morris  (Rome and Milan, 1953).

[16] [On this period, see this book, pp. 311-319.]

[17] [For a photograph taken at the Congress showing both Popper and Bohr, see Stadler (note 3), 415.]

[18] [These are allusions to the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox (a more successful thought experiment than Popper’s own), and to Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle (this book, pp. 253-259).]

[19] [No item in the Popper bibliography in Schilpp (note 1) seems to correspond.]

[20] [On this article, see this book, p. 190. A large file on the murder is provided in Stadler (note 3), 920-961.]

[21] [A Rockefeller fellowship had enabled Feigl to move to the USa in 1930 (compare note 9).]

[22] [Only one seems to correspond, but maybe written in New Zealand: ‘A Set of Independent Axioms for Probability’, Mind, new ser. 47(1938), 275-277, errata on pp. 415 and 552.]

I Grattan-Guinness on Malachi Hacohen, Karl Popper. The Formative Years 1902-1945. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
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