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A portrait of philosopher Karl Popper -

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Robyn Williams: I met Alan Saunders for the first time in 1984 at the Australian National University. I was in search of someone to write a talk about Joseph Priestly, one of the giants of chemistry. Alan was willing, in fact incredibly enthusiastic, and delivered the following day. After he completed his PhD at the renowned History of Ideas Unit, he eventually joined us at ABC Radio and was with us presenting The Philosophers’ Zone until he died in June 2012. Here in his memory, is a Science Show he made for us about Sir Karl Popper, first broadcast in 2000.

Alan Saunders: There are some people who believe that if you want to think seriously about the philosophy of science, you should let your imagination wander, not to a laboratory but to far wetter place: a shipyard, in fact. As the mighty vessel that is any scientific enterprise moves majestically down the slipway to the sea of knowledge, philosophy is the bottle of champagne smashed against the bow: it adds tone and style to the event but it does absolutely nothing to contribute to the outcome. Some people, however - even some very distinguished scientists - have taken a different view of things.

Sir John Eccles: (Archival recording) I had grown up in Oxford with Sherrington and had accepted the ordinary philosophy of science there; namely that you do experiments, you publish the results, you go on and do some more and you have a good mainstream of investigation and that as a good scientist you should not be wrong.

Alan Saunders: One of this country's greatest scientists, the late Sir John Eccles, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1963.

Sir John Eccles: Though I had gone on as a young man fighting for a view of transmission between a nerve fibre and a nerve cell, the synapse, or at the nerve muscle junction, believing with others that this was electrical essentially; the impulse runs down the fibres of the nerve, jumps across, with electrical action across the gap and so it goes on. Now Dale and Loewi, for example, had put up more simpler and slower things; the idea that it was a chemical action. I'd developed these views with many other people and I think had, there was about half the scientific opinion for this electrical and half for the chemical and we admitted the chemical thing and Dale and Loewi got the Nobel Prize in 1936 for it and I still fought against it. I was getting more and more concerned that I may have made a terrible error and that as a scientist this of course you suffer for very much, that you have, as it were, gone wrong and been almost, if you like, a failure in science. Then I met Sir Karl. He came down to Dunedin. He was in Christchurch and he came down gave a course of lectures about falsifiability and he inspired me enormously, because then I realised the essential thing in science is - well, there are two essential things in science: one is to have imagination, to dare, to adventure to go with ideas beyond what you know and then to test those ideas in the most rigorous way. You put up your brainchild and you try to shoot it down, and in that way you advance fantastically in science. He inspired me with this. So, I immediately converted my rather vaguely formulated electrical theory, published it in a quite precise manner and developed another electrical theory for the inhibition and that was published and so on. And there it was now. There was something to refute. And I myself refuted it some years later in 1951, these clear expressions of what would happen on an electrical story was shot down by our own observations in one night in Dunedin.

Sir Karl Popper: (Archival recording) I may perhaps here interrupt, and say that about in 1951 I met in Oxford a very well known scientist and I said to him that I was a friend of Eccles. And he said Eccles, very good man but you know the man must be a bit crazy. He refutes his own theories.

Alan Saunders: That last voice you heard belonged to the philosopher Sir Karl Popper who died in London in 1994 at the age of 92. Popper's ideas aren't just of interest to physiologists. He was a philosopher of enormous scope and his work takes in quantum mechanics, probability theory, biology, logic, politics and aesthetics. But among twentieth century philosophers he's unusual not just for his range but also for the very personal reaction he arouses in his admirers. You've already heard Eccles' story; here, on an infinitely smaller scale is mine:


I think it must have been the week between Christmas and New Year of 1974. I'd been given money, or perhaps a book token, as a present. I was sitting by a warm fire (because this was the northern hemisphere) reading one of my purchases, which was a book on philosophy because philosophy was my subject at university. This is the first thing I read:

I think that I have solved a major philosophical problem, the problem of induction. I must have reached the solution in 1927 or thereabouts. This solution has been extremely fruitful and it has enabled me to solve a good number of other philosophical problems.

Even at the time, I would have known that this was not the way philosophical essays normally begin. To this day, I think it's bad form to open with the first person singular and at the very least reckless to tell your readers what you've done rather than to get on with doing it in front of them. And it didn't improve.

Few philosophers have taken the trouble to study or even to criticise my views on this problem, or have taken notice of the fact that I have done some work on it. Many books have been published quite recently on the subject which do not refer to any of my work although most of them show signs of having been influenced by some very indirect echoes of my ideas, and those works which have taken notice of my ideas usually ascribe views to me which I have never held or criticise me on the basis of straightforward misunderstandings or misreadings or with invalid arguments.

Alan Saunders: The aggrieved tone, the touchy self-esteem. Again, these are not qualities that you expect to see so nakedly displayed in a philosophical text. On the other hand, pushing this sort of thing to the fore is certainly a good way of opening with a bang. It's an almost journalistic ploy, aided by the very simplicity of a literary style so illadapted to the task of concealing its author's wounded pride. The plain utterance was, I was soon to learn, something of a hallmark of the author, Karl Popper, whose book Objective Knowledge was what I was reading on that December morning. And I went on reading because, well, I wanted to know more about his solution to the problem of induction.

Now, I should say that one reason for Popper's aggrieved tone here is that he's about to launch yet again on an explanation of his solution to the problem, something he'd first done in 1933.

If you feel that you have to keep repeating yourself after nearly forty years, a certain tension may well make its way into your voice; especially if the thing you're repeating is central to your work.

But what is this problem of induction and why did it matter to Popper? Well, to put it very simply, the idea used to be that scientific theories were put together out of facts: you observe that this metal melts at this temperature and then you observe it again and again and again. After which you feel ready to draw up a scientific law to the effect that metal x always melts at temperature n. But then in the year 1739, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume came to this unsettling conclusion:

"Even after the observation of the frequent or constant conjunction of objects, we have no reason to draw any inference concerning any object beyond those of which we have had experience."

In other words, we can say what this metal has done in the past, but we can't be certain what it might do in the future. In introductions to philosophy, first year university text books and the like, this problem can be made to look a bit trivial - it's often explained in terms of how no number of observations of black ravens will be enough to justify the generalisation that all ravens are black - but its implications are far-reaching.

Dr Jeremy Shearmur, now teaches in the Department of Politics at the Australian National University, but for much of the seventies, he was Karl Popper's research assistant.

Jeremy Shearmur: It seems to me that there are three ways in which one might look at the problem of induction. First of all, there's a contrast between the fact that our own experience of the world is limited on the one side and on the other, contrasting with it, we're typically wanting to make claims that are universal in their character, that are going way beyond anything that we've actually experienced. So one problem is how do we ground claims of a universal kind on the basis of limited experience. A second aspect to it relates to the fact that our experience is limited by way of contrast with the character of some of the claims we may want to make. We see, as it were, the surface of things; we may want in various theories to make claims about what things look like behind the appearances and so there's a problem about what the connection is there. How can one sum it up? I think a very nice way of doing so, draws on an example which Bertrand Russel used. He talks about the way in which a turkey might be used to being fed every morning, morning after morning after morning. It sort of gets the expectation that the experience that it's had will be born out in the future and then one morning when it sticks its neck out it turns out to be near Christmas or something like this, the farmer instead of giving the turkey a bit of grain wrings its neck. Our big problem in a sense is our own understanding of the world a little bit like that of the turkey. What do we do with this kind of gulf?

Alan Saunders: Well, it's interesting that you should mention birds because they tend to come up in a lot of text book examples of the problem of induction.

Jeremy Shearmur: As in the swans!

Alan Saunders: Yes, as in swans. Every swan you have hitherto seen is white, so you deduce, or you induce from that the general law that all swans are white. And then suddenly you're falsified by seeing a black swan in Western Australia. But I think those examples that depend upon thinking of induction as the enumeration of instances of white swans or black ravens and so on actually, although they are very sort of clear and conspicuous, they do actually tend to make the problem look a little trivial. Whereas in fact it is really about making general claims from a basis of partial knowledge.

Jeremy Shearmur: I think that that's right, and I mean, at a certain level - and again I to refer to Russel on this - he says, you know, you may take someone who reckons that they're sane and someone else who reckons that they're mad. Can one say anything about a story that links human experience, what people have been doing, so as to be able to put forward a good argument that one of these things is better than the other. And in a sense the real problem of induction, the real scandal of it, was that all the different devices that people came up with for ways of handling this problem seemed at bottom to be saying: well, it's just a matter of custom or habit, or it's just a matter of our sort of intuitions about these things, all of which, in a sense, could be matched on the other side.

Now, one might think, ok, the whole thing is a rather footling sort of problem and there's a way in which, you know, if people get into reading books on philosophy or going to lectures, they're kind of, let in on all sorts of problems of this sort, giving the impression that the world is waiting with baited breath on the solution of these things; you know: is a philosopher going to be able to show that human knowledge is properly grounded, if not you know no practical activity can be undertaken.

Now obviously, that's an exaggeration, but there is a sense in which, I think, a whole lot of things are very, very real. Let me give you an example. Consider cases that come up in a court about causality. You may have various different expert witnesses being brought on one side or the other, each telling some story testifying about one picture as being correct, another picture as being correct and where it will extremely important to know, can we make a sensible or rational judgement with some degree of impartiality between these two kinds of options? What do we make also of different competing visions of the world and different competing programs as it were, for understanding things that are generated by these? Is there more when you get down to matters on which there is real disagreement between different people? Is there more, in the end, to it than just head counting?

And it was this kind of issue, I think, which is of real practical importance in the world, which Popper was addressing with his theories and offering something there really quite distinctive. But there's also plenty to keep philosophers happy as well. There are plenty of intellectually interesting problems and you can never tell when some of these things may not generate other ideas that are of interest to everybody.

Alan Saunders: Popper's solution to the problem of induction was simple and radical: though it is not possible to prove a theory true you can prove that it is false. No number of black ravens will prove conclusively that all ravens are black, but a single creature that is indisputably a raven and indisputably not black will be enough to disprove the claim. Our purpose, then, should be not to prove our theories but to disprove them.
Well, it might all seem straightforward enough, even a bit obvious, but the implications of this idea are profound. To put it quite simply, if disproof is what really matters, then the most important feature of any intellectual or scientific enterprise will be, as John Eccles said at the beginning of the show, boldness and criticism. Now, this is very different from the way science used to be thought of. From the scientific revolution of the 17th century - the age of Galileo and Newton - until well into the 19th century, the prevailing idea was that scientists patiently and humbly accumulated facts and then somehow knitted them together into theories.
The best scientists have never done this, but even the cleverest of them have often needed to believe that this was what they did. Charles Darwin, for example, insisted that all he'd done was gather a few facts. Of course, the facts had been quite difficult to come by - he had to go around the world on HMS Beagle, chasing after animals and insects in inhospitable climes and so on - but the facts were what mattered.
It turns out, though, that the notebooks which Darwin kept while on his fact-finding mission are full of questions and conjectures: What if this? Suppose that! And so on. He was a creative thinker, not just a butterfly collector.

And according to Popper's own account, it was the behaviour of one very distinguished scientist that profoundly affected the development of this philosophy.

Sir Karl Popper: I was struck by the tremendous difference between the attitude of physicists towards physics and the attitude of some psychologist towards psychology. What interested me so much was the following: Einstein, who at that time became very famous, because he had predicted a certain effect in eclipses; had predicted that, if you observe the sun during an eclipse then the stars near the sun become visible, that one knew, and these visible stars would appear to be further removed from each other than they would be at other occasions. Now, Einstein became very famous at this time, and what struck me was that, he made certain predictions and then repeatedly said: if this prediction should turn out wrongly then my theory is false.

Now, try to think of something similar about Freud, who also at that time became very famous. Try to think what possibly could a man do what couldn't be explained by psychoanalysis; whether he jumps into a sea into a lake or whether he throws a child into the lake and jumps after it and takes with life danger the child out. There could be no conceivable action of a person which could not be explained in psychoanalytic terms, but there can be very many things which cannot be explained in Newtonian terms or in Einsteinian terms. And I said, that what is characteristic of genuine science is that it can be refuted by experience. That is to say, that something like this is conceivable which would refute it. While, a science is not genuine if whatever happens, it is always right. If a so-called science is such that it can explain anything you want, then I said it was a pseudo-science. All this happens in the year 1919 in Vienna. I am born in Vienna and grew up in Vienna.

Alan Saunders: The Vienna in which Popper was born in 1902 and in which he grew up, was the Vienna of the troubled last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the equally troubled years that followed the Empire's defeat in World War I. At it can certainly be said that his native city marked him deeply and permanently. Malachi Hacohen, Assistant Professor of History at Duke University in the USA, is writing a book about Karl Popper's early years.

Malachi Hacohen: I often speak about Karl Popper as an assimilated, progressive, Viennese Jew. And growing up as an assimilated, progressive Jew in Vienna had particular ramifications for his philosophy. First, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as a multinational, multicultural, multi-ethnic empire, has become a political ideal, almost a political ideal by default, for Popper. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated after the First World War, ethno-nationalism triumphed throughout east central Europe and eventually drove Popper to exile. And so, it's no wonder that he was looking to the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an ideal of a supra-national state. But at the same time, this multinational empire was divided by vicious ethno-national fights. The variety of nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian Empires did not wish to coexist with each other. Indeed, if one examines the responses of the various nationalities, the one community, that was enthusiastic about the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the Jews. And the reason was that they recognised fully what the consequences of the disintegration of the empire for them will be, which is, the triumph of nationalism and they are going to be pushed out of those countries. And so they looked to Franz Josef and to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to protect them. And so, on the one hand, the empire was an ideal, on the other hand Karl Popper grew under the impression of the danger of nationalism, the danger of ethno-national fights. And this is something that his political philosophy, that his view of the open society, is certainly going to reflect at a later stage. The Austro-Hungarian Empire both represents the state to which we should strive to reach and at the very same time, the realities and existence of competing nationalism, which we should all try to avoid.

Alan Saunders: The music is not of course by Schoenburg, Webern or any of the other revolutionary composers of Vienna in the 20s, whom Popper knew as a youth but of whom he did not approve. It's by Franz Schubert, whom he regarded as the last truly great composer, and it's played on a piano roll by his good friend Rudolf Serkin.

Obviously, Popper knew that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not an open, democratic society but an authoritarian state. Nonetheless, his regard for the liberal atmosphere of which it was capable stayed with him until the end of his life. Less than four months before his death, he spoke of it in a lecture delivered at Charles University in Prague.

Karl Popper: (Reading) My Father was a lawyer in Vienna, and a family by the name of Schmidt, with their three sons and a daughter were close friends of our family. One son, Doctor Karl Schmidt, then in his late twenties, a lawyer, frequently came to see us and he often stayed for dinner. On one of these evenings, dressed in his wartime uniform of an officer of the Austrian Imperial Army, he told us that his present duty in the army was to investigate cases of high treason and prepare them for the military court proceedings against the traitors. He told us of a most interesting case, which he was then pursuing. The case of a professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna, Dr Thomas Masaryk, currently in England or the United States, one of the main leaders of the Czech and Slovak movement for national independence and most obviously a man guilty of high treason. But, he continued, in strictest confidence, a wonderful man. Schmidt told us that he was reading Masaryk's books which he found most impressive. Warming to his subject, Schmidt gave us a lecture on this incredible traitor: a man of the highest learning and culture, a leading philosopher, a teacher of ethics, a great liberal, a man prepared to risk his life to achieve the freedom of what he regarded as his people. Schmidt later told us also of the Czech army, which Masaryk was organising against Austria and Germany. This was an extraordinary experience, and it is vividly before me after seventy-eight years. It could have happened, I now think, only in Austria. Imperial Austria was then at war and ruled by law that applied special conditions that made parliamentary control impossible. It was ruled by its prime minister, who exerted dictatorial powers under martial law, and yet, the liberal atmosphere of the pre-war period was still alive in Vienna. Here was a lawyer, at the same time an army officer appointed to pursue treason - and he was obviously committing treason himself by telling us ordinary civilians about the progress of his investigations and about his admiration for a traitor - yet he had clearly, no fear at all. He knew he was safe: safe in spite of the dictatorship and the state of martial law. What a difference from the situation that started a year later in Russia, and that led to that horrible thing that we now call modern dictatorship.

Malachi Hacohen: Life as an assimilated progressive Jew in Vienna is indeed a very intricate and interesting and fascinating phenomena. Popper's parents actually converted in 1900, which means after Popper's two sisters had already been born. When they converted to Protestantism, the precise reason is not clear, although it may have had to do something with Popper's father receiving business from the city and under an anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Leuger, this became more and more difficult for a Jew to get business from the city. Notice that they converted to Lutheranism, although Catholicism was the majority religion in Vienna and in Austria. Many Jews who converted to Christianity preferred Lutheranism, and that had to do both with, possibly lesser obligations incurred in the process and of the fact that they regarded Lutheranism as the religion of the German enlightenment. But, what did it mean in terms of Christian practice? Very little. The truth is that, the milieu in which Popper grew up was militantly secular. Indeed, the progressive circles in which his father and uncle and various family members and friends were members, were conducting a crusade against the church and against the church influence on the educational system in Austria. And so, moving to become Christian meant simply an attempt to leave Judaism behind and to become part of the larger society, when in the hope that religion will stop being a significant factor at some point, because religion was seen as reactionary.

The circles in which Popper moved were distinctly pacifist. All of them opted for social reform, for popular education, and by popular education they meant secular education, and secular education was scientific education. The scientific ethos, as opposed to the religious ethos, was the thing that removed the Viennese progressives.

Alan Saunders: On Radio National, you're listening to an edition of The Science Show devoted to a portrait of the great philosopher Karl Popper.

Now Popper's own contribution to the scientific ethos of which Malachi Hacohen speaks, was a book published in 1934 and called Logik der Forschung (which literally means the logic of research), though when it appeared in English twenty-five years later, it was called The Logic of Scientific Discovery. This is the book in which he proposes his famous falsifiability criterion, which is an interesting thing to do in a context of such cultural and political turmoil. I mean, as I asked Jeremy Shearmur, people used to believe that their theories were true - that, it was thought, is what having a theory meant - so what do we make of our theories (political and cultural as well as scientific) if our real task is to prove them false?

Jeremy Shearmur: On the one side, one may, as it were, be passionately in love with a particular theory or a particular approach. One may really wish to be able to show that this is indeed correct. One may have indeed - and many people in the history both of natural science and social science, have had big visions of the world. They may be quasi-religious visions, they may be visions of the world which are tied up with a particular normative vision of how things might be. And at one level, people will very often be interested in trying to show that something is correct; it may be a sort of leading motif in their life. At another sort of level it seems to me, if you take Popper seriously, one has to distinguish between his programmatic ideas on the one side and what, in more concrete terms, one's been able to achieve by way of putting forward theories that can actually be scrutinised, that can actually be tested, or if they can't be tested where other people can genuinely submit them to critical appraisal. And even where one may think one has got things pretty much right, it's important in principle to be open to counter-claims to the effect that, well, all you've got is really quite a good approximation to how things are; there may be better and more impressive ways of doing it. There may, in a sense, also be aspects of things which you've missed out on.

Alan Saunders: Now, the implication of that appears to be, that since falsification might always be around the corner - as you said in the case of the turkey - that all our knowledge is going to have to be conjectural and must always remain so.

Jeremy Shearmur: I think that that's right, but it's also the case, and Popper himself emphasised this very strongly, that what we take at any one point to be a falsification of our knowledge is itself, in principle, conjectural. What does this mean? Well, not that we just, sort of, engage in aimless doubt about it, but rather that we bear in mind, that any particular claim that we're making is something which it may be possible, and indeed fruitful, for someone to come along and challenge; that we should be open, as it were, to interesting challenges to what we're doing. And this leads, on the one side, to quite a striking perspective on our own knowledge and ideas, because often there may be things which really - no, not only do we believe to be true, but which are very, very important to us, and which is rather difficult for us to think about in these sorts of terms. And so it can be to, to a degree, to a certain kind of disorientation in our own thinking, just by virtue of the fact that we come to understand that our ideas may be open to that kind of challenge. It also has, I think, all sorts of practically important consequences as well, not least in terms of how we look at those people who come before us as experts. Because at one level they know a lot; they know a lot about problems, they know a lot about the various different theories that have been put forward. At another level, if you take Popper's idea seriously, they're not experts in the sense of people who are beyond challenge. And it seems to me, that these kinds of things are illuminating, both in terms of our picture of the world, but they have quite striking implications for how social institutions are working as well.

Alan Saunders: Popper was to examine the working of social institutions in a place very far removed from his native city. According to Malachi Hacohen, he writes in an early draft of his autobiography that, though he loved Vienna, he had dreamt of emigration since childhood. Why should this have been?

Malachi Hacohen: That's an interesting question. I do not doubt that Popper recognised from a very early age what the meaning of ethno-national conflicts in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was. But prior to the First World War he grew up in rather secure circumstances. One would say that this should have been a happy childhood. For some reason, the traces of evidence which I have of Popper's childhood, for some reason do not indicate a happy childhood. When Popper does emigrate eventually, in the inter-war period, that is perfectly explicable. He actually had premonitions about what was coming in Central Europe from very early on, and that is not something that he himself states. I can see his friends telling him later during the Second World War that he had seen things clearly from very early on. And there is always the aspiration for that quiet place, where one would be able to carry on one's own work , academic work, in an uninterrupted manner, but also to a society that is closer to the open society that he envisioned in his work.

Alan Saunders: Well, he certainly found that quiet place.

Popper, accompanied by his wife Henne, arrived at Canterbury College, Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 1937. One of his pupils there was Peter Munz, now Emeritus Professor of History at the Victoria University of Wellington.

Peter Munz: Popper is, in many ways, a very austere person. In his house in Christchurch there was no very comfortable furniture. The only decorations were, I think, watercolours, or some kind of coloured prints of flowers. They're very, very beautiful, I don't deny this, but they're not exactly what I would describe as sensuously stimulating art.

No, Popper is definitely a very austere person and his professed moral principles are quite stern. I mean, Popper, when I was very young, he often chided me for playing too much tennis or for not attending sufficiently to my work, and he chided me very much for reading too much literature.

Popper is a very, very determined man and he's a very passionate man. He is a very passionate man about truth, about the pursuit of science, his belief in honesty.
When you meet him, for instance, Popper has no small talk, or if he has small talk he stops at once. He will never talk about anything other than either what you're working on or what he's working on; very rarely about what somebody else is working on. So you know, his conversation is extremely limited, very goal-directed. Popper also has no hobbies and his whole private life at home was geared towards his work.

Malachi Hacohen: Popper was never a happy person. He described himself as a happy philosopher at points in post-war England, and perhaps we should concede that to him. But a happy person he was not; at least, not until the last years of his life. But he was especially miserable in New Zealand and your question is well taken. This was a rather quiet environment in which he could carry his work. Why? Well, first, he taught at Canterbury University College, which was a small college, eleven hundred students, teaching-oriented, without a research library, and not research-oriented. And so Popper was cut from the very rich intellectual sources and from any sort of companionship, even minimal one, of the sort that he knew in Vienna. He was cut from those intellectual sources, which after all fed his work even though Popper always worked alone.

Alan Saunders: Nonetheless, Popper's time in New Zealand was certainly productive. It was there that he wrote his major work of political philosophy The Open Society and its Enemies.

So when he arrived in England in 1946 to take up a post at the London School of Economics (where he was to remain until his retirement twenty-three years later) he was known to those people who knew of him at all, principally as a political philosopher.

Bryan Magee - a British journalist, sometime Labour and Social Democratic Member of Parliament and the author of a book on Popper's thought - first encountered him in 1958 at a seminar. Popper read a paper called Back to the Pre-Socratics and in his fascinating Confessions of a Philosopher, published last year, Magee described what happened.

Bryan Magee: What was immediately striking was that a fundamental approach to the theory of knowledge was being put forward, which was at odds with what most western philosophers had believed for about three hundred years. He was saying that we actually arrive at our knowledge in quite different ways. We don't start from observation and then generalise from observation to form theories. What we do is quite the reverse: that we form theories, or if that is too sophisticated a word, we make guesses, we have hunches and we test these guesses and hunches and theories against reality. Well, now, what really amazed me about the first occasion on which I saw Popper putting this fundamental idea forward was that, because he expressed it in the form of a critical discussion of certain theories put forward by the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece, instead of his audience discussing the merits of the theory, they fell to discussing whether or not Popper had correctly interpreted the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece. I think Popper was himself partly to blame for the way his ideas were first received, because instead of putting them forward in a straight-forward, direct, clear-cut, positive way, he had a marked tendency to put them forward in the form of criticisms of other people's ideas. To take a quite different example but an absolutely major one, he had fundamental ideas to put forward about political philosophy. However, he puts a lot of it forward in the form of criticism of people who have had illiberal ideas. Now, this does give a lot of readers the impression that, what he's primarily doing is criticising Marx or criticising Plato, whereas that isn't the case at all. What he's primarily doing is putting forward the positive case for freedom of the individual and openness and tolerance in our political lives, and it's only secondary and incidentally to that, that he's criticising the main opponents of this. He once said a rather remarkable thing to me. When I was getting angry with him about this habit of his and taking him to task for it and saying, you know, why do you do it, he said, I didn't want to be another Jew telling everyone what to do. And it was obvious that - he in fact he made it then clear - that he was thinking of Marx and Freud. He thought that there was a sort of patriarchal tradition in Judaism, which consisted of a kind of Jehovah-like 'laying down the law', and he didn't want to be a writer in that tradition.

Alan Saunders: Well, it's very clear that his written work repudiates this tradition quite clearly, in a spirit of liberalism and enthusiasm for open criticism shines through in his writings. But again, as you point out in your book, this is much at odds with the way in which he himself reacted to opinions contrary to his own.

Bryan Magee: Yes, it often struck me that Popper, who I certainly regard as a genius and as a great philosopher, was unlike most intellectuals in this respect and much more akin to most creative artists. It's very common in the creative arts to find an artist creating something that, far from being and expression of his experience is an expression of his lack of experience or of his inadequacies or his felt needs. An example, I mean, one of the most famous love stories in the history of any of the arts is Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde, and just before Wagner started work on it, he wrote a letter to Liszt, who was to become his father-in-law, and said to Liszt in this letter: I've never in my life experienced real love, so what I'm going to do is, I'm going to create a work that is absolutely sated with love. In other words, Wagner wrote Tristan and Isolde not to express his own experience, not because he'd been in love, but because he hadn't been in love. Now this kind of compensatory character is typical of a very great deal of art in all the various art media, I think, and it often struck me that it was true of Popper's philosophy. I mean, he was the great exponent of tolerance and liberalism in his writings, but he had a very intolerant and illiberal private personality. In his writings, he talked about criticism being the main engine of improvement both in the sciences and in politics, but in his private life he found it harder to take criticism than almost anybody I've known. Now, this doesn't for one moment invalidate what he said. Not at all, any more than the corresponding thing invalidates the art of great artists. I think that his writings were valid and were authentic and they were fuelled, I think, in his case, as in that of artists, by a very, very deep sense of need.

Alan Saunders: And what was it that Popper so deeply needed? Malachi Hacohen has suggested that it was a homeland, that Popper - ever the exile, even in Vienna, where he was born; even in England, where he spent more than half his life - created his own, intellectual, homeland in his concept of cosmopolitan philosophy. Yet, I put it to Hacohen, philosophical life was not for Popper what it surely ought to have been, given his ideas: a constant conversation.

Malachi Hacohen: I do not think that Popper thought that that's the way things should be or would be. It is clear that there is a network of belongingness, of social, communal relationships and of a set of identities that are important to us. It is clear that those identities, Popper felt, were not important to him and should not be the decisive factor in an open society. The question, it seems to me, is how one reconciles an open society with these particularised identities, which give meaning and significance for our life. I hope we would all agree, that the type of particularism which sent Popper into exile, which resulted in the catastrophes in central Europe, and continues to cause major catastrophes today, that this is not an acceptable alternative. I hope we recognise that the ideal of the open society, of cosmopolitan society, and of a society which does not make religious, national and ethnic origins the criterion for citizenship, is one toward which we should strive. And yet, at the same time, I feel that this vision should be reconciled with a set of other identities, which Popper understandably attempted to declare as inconsequential and insignificant. He thought they were insignificant for his life. He ended up working in isolation in Penn, Buckinghamshire. Yes, this does show the limits perhaps, of this ideal, but I do disagree with any critic that would attempt to declare the ideal invalid simply based on the fact that Popper's own life does not show the possibility of its fulfilment.

Alan Saunders: Indeed not: the social element, the public conservation is essential to Popper's philosophy, however little it was exemplified in his life. Jeremy Shearmur:

Jeremy Shearmur: In Popper's own work, you get very much an image of democracy interpreted as critical feedback. Coming out of his ideas, you get very much the notion that what should be going on in public life, is people putting forward things on a hypothetical basis, trying them out - obviously with the consent of other people - but building into all this, mechanisms of appraisal so that the people who are putting forward ideas, then really just have to evaluate whether or not they're been successful. But very much in Popper's concern all the while was that we live in a world which falls short of what we might aspire for: we should try to improve it in a piecemeal way; we shouldn't over-estimate this kind of knowledge that we've got. And in particular, we should be aware of the fact that what we try may create unintended consequences; may create problems for other people, and that our situation is that we desperately need - if we're going to be doing politics decently - we desperately need to be open to that kind of critical feedback. There is another aspect, though, to his work on objectivity as well. And this is where he stresses the extent to which we can never tell what the content might be of our ideas, and this holds within the area of scientific theories; there may always be consequences coming out of these, which perhaps we may pull out or which our critics may pull out, which we'd never expected. But Popper also stressed this in the realm of aesthetics as well, and he quoted, at one point, in his Objective Knowledge, Josef Hayden talking about the way in which he was moved to tears by some of his own musical work.


Alan Saunders: And so back to Popper's book, Objective Knowledge, where we began and where I began. It's here that Popper mentions Hayden being taken by surprise by his own oratorio The Creation and saying in wonder, "I have not written this."

Karl Popper: (Archival recording) And I do believe that very many of the statements which we hold for truth are true. I also believe that very many statements which we hold for truth are false, and I do not believe that there is a criterion to distinguish with certainty between true statements and false statements. And this is the deepest reason for the fallibility of man. Truth is something we haven't got in our pocket.

Alan Saunders: Sir Karl Raimund Popper died in London on September the 17th, 1994. His ashes were buried next to those of his wife, in Vienna.

Robyn Williams: Alan Saunders produced that portrait of Sir Karl Popper for The Science Show 13 years ago. Alan died last June at the age of 57. We miss him, and his talent and intellect.