Popper: man who taught us to be wrong

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SIR KARL Popper, widely described as the most important philosopher of the 20th century, the true successor to Immanuel Kant, died yesterday in a London hospital at the age of 92. His published work embodied the most effective demolition of the philosophical basis of Marxism and an eloquent advocacy of liberal democracy.

Popper was one of the very last survivors of that remarkable group of philosophers, scientists and logicians who flourished in Vienna from the mid-1920s until driven overseas by the threat of Nazism. He replaced the dogmatic emphasis on verification (or certainty or proof) that was the byword of logical positivism with a new critical philosophy that stressed the conjectural character of all knowledge. Scientific hypotheses were not worthy of investigation, he insisted, unless they could be falsified by experience and evidence. There was no such thing as a theory that could be held, beyond doubt, for all time and in all circumstances. Newton's theory, the most successful scientific theory of all time, was eventually refuted and replaced by Einstein's.

Scientific progress, he argued, is based not on searching for facts to prove theories but on designing the tests that could falsify them. Marxists and psychoanalysts had proposed no such tests. For this reason, their theories did not deserve to be taken seriously as scientific propositions.

Popper created a philosophy in which the rational attitude was no longer identified with a desire to be proved right but with an eagerness to be shown wrong. These doctrines have never been very popular amongst professional philosophers, though thinkers in almost every other walk of intellectual life - the natural sciences, art, politics, anthropology, economics, history, even religion - have found inspiration in the refreshing modesty of Popper's message and the direct applicability of his ideas to real problems. His thought stands above both the arid pedantry of much of what is called 'analytic philosophy' and the despair of reason found in much of the fashionable philosophies that describe themselves as 'continental'.

Popper was born in the Ober St Velt district of Vienna on July 28, 1902, to prosperous and cultivated parents - his father was a distinguished lawyer, his mother a talented musician. He studied mathematics and physics, psychology and music for many years at Vienna university. After obtaining his doctorate in 1928, he qualified as a school science teacher. But he continued to work on almost every subject under the sun, and in 1934 published his masterpiece The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Translated 25 years later into English, it has remained in print ever since.

In 1936 Popper and his wife - a physical education teacher - left Vienna for Britain. He had been offered a post at Cambridge reserved for refugees, but on securing a regular position in New Zealand generously gave the Cambridge opportunity to another refugee. The Poppers spent the entire war in New Zealand, where he completed The Open Society & Its Enemies, a powerful and brilliantly written defence of democracy. It has been described as one of the greatest books of the century. Like The Poverty of Historicism, which had been completed before the war, it attacked the idea that there were inexorable laws of human history. Politicians, like scientists, he said, must proceed by trial and error, by forming hypotheses about the best way to organise a society and testing them against the outcomes. He denounced totalitarian ideas in all their forms and criticised even Plato who, though the great of all philosophers, was also, in Popper's view, the first great totalitarian. Hegel was a tool of Prussian absolutism, much of whose work was pretentious nonsense. The Open Society is particularly admired in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The publication of a Russian translation of the book two years ago brought Popper much pleasure.

Popper moved in 1946 to a readership (by 1948 a professorship) in logic and scientific method at the London School of Economics. He remained there throughout his academic career, and his weekly seminar was one of the most significant - and often the most feared - of institutions. Popper usually dominated the proceedings, and could be ferocious in argument; he was contemptuous of attempts to be clever, or to impress, of braggadocio, and of bluff. But those who knew him well, both in the academic world and outside it, knew that there was quite another side to this indomitable man, a person of gentleness and sweetness, of extraordinary sensitivity and of marvellous generosity.

He was knighted in 1965 and made a Companion of Honour in 1982. After retirement in 1989 he became a figure of world renown, showered with international prizes and honours, though for nearly 10 years he suffered through the final illness of his devoted wife Hennie, who died in 1985. But his old age was, as he never ceased to say, 'wonderfully happy'; he also gave much happiness to his friends, who will miss him deeply.

The author, a former research assistant to Popper, is now reader in philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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