Karl Popper (1902-94) is an Austrian-born, but British-based philosopher of science and politics. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of the latter half of the 20th century, particularly for his concept of the ‘open society’ which lauds western liberal democracy over the supposedly closed societies of the eastern communist countries.
Popper was born in Vienna to a middle-class family of converted Jews. His father taught law at the University of Vienna, where Popper received his education. As a student, he joined the Social Democratic Party of Austria but soon grew disillusioned with its Marxist ideology, particularly the constraints on scientific thinking the doctrine of historical materialism appeared to impose. He graduated with a doctorate in psychology in 1928.
In 1934 he published his first, and perhaps his most famous book, Logik der Forschung (which he translated himself and republished in English in 1959 as The Logic of Scientific Discovery), which argued that the philosophy of science needed to be rethought from the ground up. Science, Popper argued, could not be thought in terms of the discovery of universal truths, but had instead be considered in terms of provisional, but ultimately falsifiable, propositions that are true until someone can disprove them. He rejected the empiricist model of science, which holds that based on the observation of data, it is possible to arrive at universal truths by induction. Only that which is falsifiable is scientific he argued, and on this basis, he repudiated both psychoanalysis and Marxisms claims to that status.
Aware of the threat Austrias proposed Anschluss with Nazi Germany posed to a Jew like himself Popper emigrated to New Zealand in 1937. He remained there until after the war, and then accepted a post at the London School of Economics which he held until his retirement. His colleagues there included fellow philosophers of science Paul Feyerabend and Imre Lakatos and the eminent economist and free-market champion Friedrich Hayek. His most famous student, billionaire financier George Soros, named his philanthropic foundation after Popper’s 1945 book Open Society and Its Enemies.
Popper had considerable difficulty in getting Open Society and Its Enemies (which was written while he was in New Zealand), published, which in light of its later fame is perhaps hard to imagine. However, it was not until the Cold War began in earnest in the early 1950s that its message began to resonate. Open Society and its Enemies apply Popper’s critique of inductive reasoning to political philosophy, to attack ‘historicism’ in the political philosophy of Plato, Marx, and Hegel, for which he blames most of what took place during World War II. But as Perry Anderson has pointed out in English Questions (1992), Popper’s attack is based on the rather threadbare premise that historicism means only social sciences that take historical prediction as their aim, which is hardly the case. Neither Marx nor Hegel claims to predict history.
With the end of the Cold War, Popper’s stock as a political philosopher has gone into a steady decline. Still, his work as a philosopher of science seems to be holding its own despite powerful critiques from his former colleagues Feyerabend and Lakatos.