Philosophers: Karl Popper 1902-1994

Kate Hoolu

This is one of an occasional series about people whose thought has shaped ours. Karl Popper, along with Russell, was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th Century. Popper is a very important man in this respect, as it is often his ideas that underlie modern scientific research processes. It was Popper who came up with the Falsification Model- the realisation that you cannot PROVE anything. All you can do is support a notion by failing to find contrary evidence, or fail to support something, by falsifying the logic or assumptions behind it, so things are not ‘true’ in the absolute sense, they are only true conditionally, because they have not yet been falsified... get it?

Maybe a real-world example would help: a friend’s father was educated many years ago and in a physics lesson they were told that ‘the atom is absolutely the smallest particle in the universe’… end of story. That evening on the radio news it was announced that scientists had split the atom…. Thus all truth is conditional.

Karl Popper was born in Vienna of Jewish descent. He virtually educated himself; gaining his PhD in the Psychology of Thinking at the age of 26 while at the same time working for the leading psychologist Adler, and being active in the Social Democratic party. He married in 1930, and with Nazi anti-Semitism a major threat, he and his wife moved to New Zealand soon after. Popper lectured at University and later produced two major works; "The Poverty of Historicism" and "The Open Society and Its Enemies" which were philosophical-political studies. Among other things the books declare that historians and social scientists shouldn't attempt to design or foresee societies as this can lead to violent totalitarianism when put into coercive effect- which is a charge which has been laid at the feet of Weber regarding the Nazis...

In 1945 the economist Hayek invited Popper to England; where he continued to write and lectured in logic at the London School of Economics (becoming Professor of Logic three years later) until his retirement in 1969. Retirement didn't mean cessation of work, Popper continued writing; in 1977, a partnership with Nobel Laureate biologist Sir John Eccles produced "The Self and Its Brain", an up-to-date review of the thorny intricacies of Cartesian mind-body philosophy.

Over some 50 years Popper cultivated a philosophy of science, language and logic. This was a blending of empiricism with rationalism, producing a system that was both flexible and continually updating itself. Popper saw truth as relative, compared to time and new findings. While of the common view that equivocal language is inadequate for philosophy, Popper took a unique step by continually rephrasing and reworking his thoughts in the hope that a few more people might understand each version.

He was renowned as a very serious man, but also humorous, vivid and entertaining; being seen as the approachable face of a philosophy that can be daunting. Academic and scientific respect by his colleagues was underlined by a Knighthood before his death at 92.

Unusually, in the Guardian newspaper on the day his death was announced there were two obituaries of Popper; which may be seen as a reflection of how well regarded he was. Or cynically, one was a hack-journalist’s job because they weren’t sure they were going to get a version from a family friend before the printing deadline. Regardless, having two Obits is a rare event, and one that would have greatly amused Popper.

Despite the pubic perception of most philosophers being off their heads and out of touch with reality, Popper was never an inhabitant of an academic "ivory-tower". His intention was that thought should be for use, rather than musing, and he combined a sensible and serious approach with an appreciation of the needs of the mundane world for clarity. This contrasts with his rival thinker, Wittgenstein, who wrote his books in the full and pessimistic expectation of nobody understanding him. And few do…


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