Friday, November 11, 2011

A London memory

At the beginning of my London years (1963-67) I was fortunate to attend some lectures of Karl Popper, the noted philosopher of science. This experience changed my life. During his lectures Popper, who was a small man, sat as if enthroned under the proscenium of the lecture hall at the London School of Economics. He was flanked by two disciples, who sat on chairs at either side as if serving as sergeants of arms.

The occasion I remember most vividly was when he held up a newspaper, saying: I read today in The Times that those of us in the academic world must all strive to be as good as Oxford and Cambridge. Nonsense, he declared. We must do a great deal better than Oxford and Cambridge. He was referring to the emergent orthodoxy of analytic philosophy at the two leading British universities. Quite correctly, he did not think much of the analytic trend, which was in his view obsessed with minor linguistic quibbles, while neglecting the major problems of philosophy.

Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) was born in Vienna, a city that could then claim to be the foremost center of innovation in the Western world. As a young man, Popper worked for a time with the psychiatrist Alfred Adler, who was then concerned with helping troubled children. On one occasion Popper discovered a boy whose symptoms did not conform to Adler’s dogmatic theories; he then dared to confront his chief with this exceptional case. Somewhat impatiently, the great man explained how the boy did indeed fit in with his theories. Cheekily, the young assistant asked: “How do you know that, Dr. Adler.” To which his interlocutor replied “That I know from thousand-fold experience.” To which Popper retorted: “Now you know if from thousand-and-one-fold experience.” In other words, Adler's interpretation was an example of confirmation bias--showing how we are prone to interpret each new occurrence of a phenomenon in terms of our existing preconceptions.

This early encounter anticipated one of Popper’s main discoveries, that is, that we establish the validity of truth not by a series of verification experiences ("proofs"), but rather through exposing theories to the risk of falsification.

As a young man he was impressed by a lecture that Albert Einstein gave on relativity theory. The dominance of the critical spirit in Einstein, and its absence in Marx, Freud, and Adler, struck Popper as a contrast of fundamental importance. The latter three, he came to think, couched their theories in terms which made them amenable only to confirmation, while Einstein's theory, crucially, had implications which, if false, would have demolished the theory itself. In other words, the triumph of Einstein’s theories stemmed, paradoxically enough, from their initial vulnerability. By contrast Marxist and Freudian concepts are formulated in a way that insulates them from critique.

The dominant philosophical group in Vienna at the time was the Wiener Kreis, the circle of “scientifically-minded” intellectuals focused around Moritz Schlick, who had been appointed Professor of the philosophy of the inductive sciences at Vienna University in 1922. The group included Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Viktor Kraft, Hans Hahn and Herbert Feigl. The principal objective of the members of the Circle was to unify the sciences, in their view the only real source of knowledge. To this end, they sought to exclude from philosophy everything that they considered to be useless. The primary target of their eliminationist campaign was metaphysics, which they hoped to destroy by showing that metaphysical propositions are meaningless. The overall tendency was called logical positivism.

After showing some initial interest in the Circle--he shared their affinity with science--Popper became increasingly critical of the main tenets of logical positivism, especially of what he considered to be its misplaced focus on the theory of meaning in philosophy and upon verification in scientific methodology. He articulated his own view of science, and his criticisms of the positivists, in his first work, published under the title Logik der Forschung in 1934. An English version, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, appeared in 1959.

Yet storm clouds were gathering. The growth of Nazism in Germany and Austria compelled him, like many other intellectuals who shared his Jewish origins, to leave his native country. In 1937 Popper took up a position teaching philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where he was to remain for the duration of World War II.

The growing threat of fascism prompted him to reorient his research interests towards social and political philosophy. This became the theme of his magnum opus, "The Open Society and Its Enemies." In this two-volume work Popper developed a critique of historicism and a defense of the open society, liberal democracy. Volume one is subtitled "The Spell of Plato",and volume two, "The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath.”

Popper’s iconoclastic critique of Plato as an authoritarian excited the ire of many classicists. For his part, Popper held that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by his greatness. In so doing, Popper argues, they have taken his political philosophy as a benign idyll, rather than regarding it correctly as a horrific totalitarian nightmare of deceit, violence, master-race rhetoric and eugenics. Popper held that Plato reacted against the growing humanism of Athenian society in his own day. In his view, Plato's historicist ideas are driven by a fear of the change that comes with such a liberal world view. Popper also suggests that Plato was the victim of his own vanity——that he had designs to become the supreme Philosopher King of his vision.

Much later I was to find that Popper’s approach helped to understand Plato’s shift from an early fervent appreciation of male same-sex love to a denunciation of it, as seen in his late work, The Laws.

In volume two, Popper moves on to examine Hegel and Marx, tracing back their ideas to Aristotle, and arguing that, as arch-historicists, the two were at the root of 20th century totalitarianism. By historicism he means: "an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their primary aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the 'rhythms' or the 'patterns', the 'laws' or the 'trends' that underlie the evolution of history.” ("The Poverty of Historicism," p. 3). This approach claims that history exhibits an inevitable, deterministic pattern,. The overriding force of this supposed pattern serves to elide the democratic responsibility of each of us to make our own free contributions to the evolution of society. This way of thinking leads to totalitarianism.

nother of Popper’s targets is what he calls "moral historicism," the attempt to derive moral values from the course of history. This tendency has taken several forms, including conservatism, positivism, and futurism. The latter position holds that what is right and just will inevitably prevail. In this way of thinking Popper anticipated Sir Isaiah Berlin’s critique of the “Inevitability of Historicism,” as seen in his influential paper of 1954.

After its publication in England, the success of "The Open Society and Its Enemies" brought Popper an invitation to teach at the London School of Economics," where he moved in 1946.

For Popper the growth of human knowledge proceeds from problems and from our attempts to solve them. These attempts involve the formulation of theories which, if they are to address anomalies infesting earlier theories, must go beyond existing knowledge; they therefore require a leap of the imagination. For this reason, Popper places special emphasis on the role of creative imagination in the formulation of concepts. Devising our theories with as much verve as possible, we must nonetheless recognize that they may turn out to be false. In this way, Popper dramatically declared, our theories die in our place.

While at the London School of Economics Karl Popper allied himself with the great economist Friedrich Hayek, whose libertarian thought was later to exercise a great influence on me. Yet since Hayek moved to Chicago in 1950 I never met him.

Popper’s ideas attracted opposition from various quarters. I have already noted the displeasure of Plato scholars because he had disparaged their hero--and also perhaps because of their horror that a non-classicist should dare to venture into their territory. Yet I have always been encouraged by this incursion, this poaching if you will, and others like it. After all, at one time the experts were almost unanimously certain that homosexuality was perversion. They were wrong, and this needed saying.

Popper also transgressed against some cherished views of the Left. He freely criticized Karl Marx. Not unlike his friend Friedrich Hayek, Popper opposed the ideal and practice of universal social planning. Yet he allowed for carefully targeted “piecemeal planning.”

Popper continued to be intellectually active until the end of his life, producing a number of new books, which I eagerly devoured as soon as they appeared. From his teaching I derived one great lesson: be bold in formulating conjectures--and be ready to abandon them whenever their lack of viability might become evident.



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