The great philosophers

Sir Karl Popper: An important philosopher of science

The Viennese-born philosopher questioned the very bedrock upon which science is built, and what distinguishes science from other enterprises. His conclusions continue to divide critics today

Tuesday 25 January 2022 14:07
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<p>Philosopher Sir Karl Popper (left) being presented with the Sonning Prize</p>

Philosopher Sir Karl Popper (left) being presented with the Sonning Prize

Sir Karl Popper (1902–94) is certainly among the most influential philosophers of science in the 20th century, as well as an important critic of Marxism, but his reputation is still under consideration.

Reasonable people disagree about the real importance of Popper, about his actual standing in the history of philosophy. Enthusiasts hold well-attended Popper conferences, identifying him as “the philosopher of the century”. His loudest detractors point to large muddles in his allegedly best work and make sport of some of Popper’s incautious claims made late in life about the mind and the objectivity of theories. Cooler heads withdraw from the debate, maintaining that we are too close in time to Popper’s life and leave it to future philosophers to come to conclusions about his standing. We’ll join the latter group in the following paragraphs.

Popper was raised in Vienna following the First World War, and the times made a formidable impression on him. Although he was the son of a well-to-do lawyer, he witnessed poverty and political upheaval at first-hand. It moved him enough for him to undertake social work. He helped in a clinic for neglected children operated by the Freudian Alfred Adler, and it is clear that some of the events during this part of his life had an influence on his later philosophy. Certainly it had an effect on his conception of what distinguishes science from other activities like psychoanalysis.

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