Sunday 26 May 2019

Is Popper a ‘modest’ Leo?

Posted by Martin Cohen

A few years ago, astrologer-aesthete Mark Shulgasser asked this revealing question about one of the 20th century's most under-rated philosophers for us. Popper, we should first recall, is admired for at least two big ideas: the first that science proceeds by testing hypotheses and disregarding those that fail the test (‘falsification’) and secondly, his critique of ‘historicism’ (the idea that history is marching towards a fine goal) and linked defence of liberal values and what he calls ‘the open society’. His point is that too many philosophers, from Plato down, think that they are exceptional beings - ‘philosopher kings’.

And yet... Shulgasser throws the charge back at him!

Those (like Popper) born under the astrological sign of Leo think they are kings. Do Leo philosophers think like that too?

Shulgasser continues:
‘Popper himself, so Napoleonic, the overcompensating short man. Popper's philosophical ambitions are overweening. He conquers continents. No one talks about Popper the person without noting his autocratic behavior and intransigence in contrast to his ethic of openness. Here's the Leo dilemma — the autocratic, central I versus the right of every peripheral being to claim to be the same.’
Certainly, in later years, it seems that Professor Popper lived in a house ‘supremely large in area, and adorned with numerous books, works of art, and a Steinway concert grand piano’...  But does that make him ‘Napoleonic’? Consider Brian Magee (broadcaster, politician, author, and popularizer of philosophy) on Popper. taken from Confessions of a Philosopher. Magee starts by accepting Popper as the ‘the outstanding philosopher of the twentieth century’ indeed, the “foremost philosopher of the age”! 
‘My chief impression of him at our early meetings was of an intellectual aggressiveness such as I had never encountered before [Napoleonism]. Everything we argued about he pursued relentlessly, beyond the limits of acceptable aggression in conversation. As Ernst Gombrich—his closest friend, who loved him—once put it to me, he seemed unable to accept the continued existence of different points of view, but went on and on and on about them with a kind of unforgivingness until the dissenter, so to speak, put his signature to a confession that he was wrong and Popper was right. 
In practice this meant he was trying to subjugate people. And there was something angry about the energy and intensity with which he made the attempt. This unremittingly fierce, tight focus, like a flame, put me in mind of a blowtorch, and that image remained the dominant one I had of him for many years, until he mellowed with age. . . 
He behaved as if the proper thing to do was to think one’s way carefully to a solution by the light of rational criteria and then, having come as responsibly and critically as one can to a liberal-minded view of what is right, impose it by an unremitting exercise of will, and never let up until one gets one’s way. ‘The totalitarian liberal’ was one of his nicknames at the London School of Economics, and it was a perceptive one.’
Popper it seems,  ‘turned every discussion into the verbal equivalent of a fight, and appeared to become almost uncontrollable with rage, and would tremble with anger ’.

Yet central to his philosophy is the claim that criticism does more than anything else to bring about growth and improvement of our knowledge and his political writings contain the best statement ever made of the case for freedom and tolerance in human affairs.

So who is the ‘real’ Karl Popper? Does it matter if he failed to live up to his own writings? There's a revealing story told about Popper in which he was invited to give a talk at Cambridge University ‘at the Moral Sciences Club’. 

Who did wave the poker during the acrimonious debate? I understood the Popper version of the Poker incident to put him in a meek and philosophical light and Wittgenstein in a boorish, intolerant one. Maybe I got this wrong - alas I committed myself to this in print - in my book called Philosophical Tales

Anyway, what is known is that Popper was there to present his paper entitled ‘Are There Philosophical Problems?’ at a meeting chaired by Wittgenstein. The two started arguing vehemently over whether there existed substantial problems in philosophy, or merely linguistic puzzles—the position taken by Wittgenstein. In Popper’s account, Wittgenstein gestured at him with a fireplace poker to emphasise his points. When challenged by Wittgenstein to state an example of a moral rule, Popper claims to have replied: ‘Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers’, after which (according to Popper) Wittgenstein threw down the poker and stormed out.

My guess it that Popper was indeed a little bit Napoleonic. Mind you, he faced a world in which he was passed over by others all the time, not least Wittgenstein, partly on some kind of unspoken notion of his not being ‘one of us’, not being quite posh enough. Popper was denied access to Oxbridge, and had to graze on the outskirts of academia as a 'not-quite-great' philosopher. 

And elsewhere Magee himself makes it clear he believes Popper is colossally underrated. Why, it’s enough to give anyone a Napoleon complex!


Tessa den Uyl said...

Do you know Martin when the ‘biography fever’ started? And why there are many people intrigued with giving more attention to someone’s private life than the work they create? Today, private and work seem to mix very often, but when did this ‘fashion’ start?

Martin Cohen said...

I rather think the interest (fault though it may be) goes back a very long way! But here, the claim is that Popper 'fought' his opponents not with rational arguments but rather by obsessive and aggressive criticism. He was Austrian and I'm afraid I have encountered this kind of approach from other Eastern Europeans... there's a cultural intolerance of others. It's a serious matter, is it not?

Tessa den Uyl said...

When the English conquered half the world have they not shown cultural intolerance? This is the core for human history! To me it seems that once we do not see the person but nationalities, and generalize, we are moving on dangerous grounds.

It’s time human being would not any longer identify with nationality. I am afraid my hope is a fragile one.

On Popper, whether a person is unpleasant or not, doesn’t mean he or she can provide interesting thoughts. If we would have to scan all people for pleasantness would there remain anybody ?

Keith said...

I see hypotheses somewhat like giving evidence in court trails in order to advance a legal position to jurors. That is, it’s incumbent upon the hypothesizer to ‘prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt’. I feel that’s what happens in all fields, even if it’s more doable in some rather than others. Since, as we know, ‘reasonable doubt’ doesn’t equate to the metaphorical ‘metaphysical certitude’, it’s incumbent upon peers to see if they can introduce enough doubt that a threshold is reached, whereupon the hypothesis may be stressed to the point of failure. Hypotheses, after all, have their variant of jurors (peers who vet). Falling short of being stressed to failure, the ‘hypothesis’ rises to the level of and governs as a ‘theory’, even if entrusted to do so only tentatively. Even that theory may be leapfrogged over at some time in the future by a better hypothesis-cum-theory. That is, to be replaced by a model that seems to better describe its particular corner of reality. Isn’t that one way by which humanity makes progress?

Martin Cohen said...

Ah, Tessa jumps from the particular case of philosophers and theri arguments to nations and colonialism! But I am ONLY talking about how academics from various countries approach debates which, as Keith reminds us, should be based on hypotheses that are open to examination and testing. The great task for philosophers is to exhibit a preference for finding 'the truth' over the all too human desire to 'win' the argument.

Keith said...

We were all humbly reminded, just yesterday, of the power of putting hypotheses to the test — whether to confirm or, per Popper, falsify. Yesterday was the hundred-year anniversary of the triumphant proof of Einstein’s hypothesis regarding gravity, mass, curving of spacetime, and bending of light. Confirmation achieved by Arthur Stanley Eddington’s famous observations of an eclipse of our sun on May 29, 1919. Did Einstein’s theory of general relativity thus survive Popper’s ‘falsification’ test — at least, to live yet another day? There’s almost certainly, of course, much more to gravity — such as the possible presence of dark energy’s ‘positive gravity’, purportedly accounting for the universe’s accelerating expansion. And so forth. But for now — exactly a century later — Einstein seems deservedly to be holding onto some considerable bragging rights.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Martin. Some interesting insights into Popper.

Popper and Wittgenstein were bound to be an explosive mix, with Wittgenstein claiming that his ideas were ‘unassailable and definitive’.

Popper was right about historicism, which is all over theology, too. Yet do we not continue to be guilty, by believing in the idea of progress? This is a historicism which, the more we cling to it, the more we destroy.

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