Some biographical notes and a short bibliography (by Hans-Joachim Niemann)

On July-28-1902 Karl Raimund Popper was born in Vienna as  son of the Jewish lawyer Simon Siegmund Carl Popper.

Popper's autobiography is an intellectual one. Concerning his personal life there is only very little that he considered worthwhile to be  disclosed to the public. A discussion he once had had with his father taught him that it is useless to argue about 'true meaning'; much more important is to deal with problems without taking words too seriously - and this was the root of his anti-essentialism.

At the age of 16 he quitted junior high school and registered at the University of Vienna as an auditor. He studied at random mathematics, physics, philosophy, psychology and music, not in search of a profession, but driven by a strong interest and filled with the desire to discuss everything with others. He took a very special interest in politics.

For a short time the young Popper was a communist. In 1919, during a street battle in the Hörlgasse, when police shot eight of his party comrades, he came to realize something  that determined all his further life. Being interested as well in Karl Marx as in Albert Einstein he compared the proceeding of the political utopian with that of the physicist Einstein:

(A) Marx kept preaching: "Support what will inevitably happen" meaning his supporters should intensify class struggle in order to make the prophecy come true. (In a similar  way revolutionary Marxists at the end of the 1960ties provoked police and society in order to accelerate  future events to come about. In Popper's view this would be trying to prevent falsification of the prophecy by history. If history happens to bring about another reality, Marxists will probably say that you have not worked hard enough to help  come true what is due to come anyway.)

(B) Einstein used a completely different method. He took the risk of being mistaken. He even gave hints how to falsify his theory. In the year of the deadly shots in Vienna (1919), an expedition started to put to test Einstein's general theory of relativity. Reaserchers aboard two British observation ships in the Pacific studied the eclipse of the sun. Will the light of the stars when passing the sun eclipsed by the moon be deflected or not? If Einstein was right then the laws of physics and applied geometry could no longer be considered as being independent of gravity.

After having criticised the methods of Marxism Popper sceptically scrutinised Marxist theory.  Equality in politics and in society, so he discovered, can only be achieved if you are willing to sacrifice bits and bits of political liberty. So equality cannot be an absolute end in politics.

Popper passed the maturity exam as a private pupil. Later on, he  also passed an exam to become a teacher at elementary schools. But there was no chance of employment; so he served his apprenticeship with a carpenter. After that he happened to get a job as an educator of socially neglected children.

All this time Popper continued his studies. One course he took about contemporary music was given by Arnold Schönberg. Popper also composed little fugues. Schönberg's dodecaphonic music, however, he didn't like at all and when Popper left two years later, he positively knew that he could not abide this music. That even goes for the music of Richard Strauss, as John Watkins reports in Proceedings of the British Academy 94, p.673 and  Popper himself  in "Unended Quest. An Intellectual Autobiography", chapter 11: about music, London 1976. 

1928 Popper earned a doctorate at the University of Vienna. His academic supervisor was the psychologist and theorist of languages Karl Bühler.

1937 Before the Nazis marched into Vienna, Popper preferred to go as a lecturer to Christchurch, New Zealand.

1946 Friedrich von Hayek arranged for Popper to lecture on philosophy at the London School of Economics.

1949 Popper was offered the chair for Logic and Scientific Methods at LSE.

1961 Start of the so-called "Positivismusstreit" (debate about positivism) between Theodor W. Adorno and Popper at the 'Soziologentag' in Tübingen (Germany). However, they did not argue but seemed to be quite in agreement. Popper developed a methodology for the social sciences. Adorno didn't call Popper a positivist.

But a few years later, Adorno obviously had changed his mind which was to be seen in his long introduction to a book about the so called "Positivismusstreit". Adorno  added fuel to a fire provoked by the dispute between Hans Albert and Jürgen Habermas,  inventor of  the "Positivismusvorwurf" against Popper, the accusation of being a positivist. The controversy became  an endless topic for  academic seminars and conferences and a much noted philophical slogan. Needless  to say that the point of disagreement was not positivism (belief in the truth of given things), but the purpose of values in science. Normally, the public is quick in  forgetting who is right and who is wrong and tends to take sensation for reputation. Therefore not Hans Albert but Jürgen Habermas became the darling of the journals.

Before completely fading away, the debate was started anew in 1965 at the Conference on Philosophy of Science in London (see Lakatos/Musgrave, Criticism and Growth of Knowledge, Cambridge University Press 1970). This was just another attempt to push the critical rationalists into positions they were not claiming in order to beat them  devastatingly. Thomas S. Kuhn criticised Popper's way of describing the increase of  progress in science (cf. "Logic of Scientific Discovery") as follows: Popper's rational description would contradict the history of science; no sensible scientist would reject a theory after falsification. In most cases no criterion of progress could be established because old and new theories were incommensurable.

Paul Feyerabend strengthened these considerations by declaring science, mythology and fairy tales as incommensurable, yet equivalent descriptions of the world. The public in those days adored such statements. Both philosophers met with great approval, thus becoming the fathers of postmodernism. This new kind of relativism welcomes all alternatives and is so far quite in agreement with Popper's rationalism. However, combined with the claims of incommensurability and equivalence relativism always results in indecision.

1969 Popper took his retirement. He wrote again two  important books (Objective Knowledge; The Self and Its Brain) and published  numerous speeches and articles. Among these were the results of his life long reflection about and around the subject of his first book, the "Logic of Scientific Discovery". He published a volume containing the reconstruction of the original version and three volumes with postscript thoughts.

Popper received a large number of honours. He was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II. Two volumes of the famous Schilpp Library of Living Philosophers were dedicated to his philosophy. When Popper received his 17th honorary doctor in Eichstätt (Germany), one of his friends, Hubert Kiesewetter (author of "From Hegel to Hitler", "Europe's Uniqueness", both written in German), delivered a speech and called Popper one of the greatest philosophers since Immanuel Kant.

In his home in Penn and later in Kenley (London) Popper warmly welcomed visitors from around the world. Not only philosophers but also many politicians and scientists were influenced by his thoughts. From the years with LSE until his death his secretary Melitta Mew was a great help to him.

In 1994 on the 17th of September Popper died aged 92 in Kenley, East Croyden, London.

Like Bertrand Russell Popper to the very end of his life was very much interested in political and philosophical problems. To discover problems and to try to solve them was what he did all his life, and he did it with persistence and pleasure. He uncovered numerous flaws in philosophical reasoning and common sense. According to Popper critical thinking is not limited to science but advisable in any field of human activity. It is a way of life with a tradition a long way back to the presocratics.

Critical rationalism is not limited to criticism as some philosophers mistakenly like to imply. An important issue of Popper's is the discovery and development of new problems. He shifted e.g. the key problem of democracy by replacing the question 'who is best qualified to rule a country?' with the quite different question 'what kind of ruling is best?' So the political history of Europe, up from the democracy of ancient Greece, the quarrel between emperor and pope about the right of the investiture of bishops or the Magna Charta as a result of the power struggle between  English barons and  their king in the Middle Ages to the rediscovery of democracy in the enlightened 18th century, all this can be considered as an attempt of controlling the power of government and therefore as fundamental for  Europe's striving to establish democracy.

Remarks: Popper's new concept of democracy, that is: controlling the power of government, seems to me an extremely important idea because it helps to further progress in democracy. There is always and everywhere uncontrolled und unsupervised power to be found. So democracy  can be und needs to be improved. The old concept of democracy as ruling of the people has got no further potential for development. Direct democracy  is nowadays possible via Internet. Another step in this direction is not conceivable. But would it really be a progress if the majority was entitled to deal with  minorities just as it likes? In my opinion this old concept of democracy could easily lead to dictatorship.

Perhaps I should add some remarks about why critical rationalism is more than mere criticism. Critical rationalism  also goes with a totally new attitude with regard to mistakes. Mistakes are no longer something  to be hidden, but they are to be discovered and discussed, because the discovery of  mistakes means the promise of new knowledge. Popper also came to a new form of tolerance. In his opinion tolerance is an attitude which, on the one hand, helps to bear other people's different opinions, but also, on the other hand, to consider seriously that other people actually could be right and oneself wrong.

In our time Popper may well be one of the most read philosophers. His thinking has affected a large number of people, politicians, scientists, philophers  and every day men and women.

Here at last a hand-written sentence about what Popper called the "focus point" of his Open Society:

 "Ich mag unrecht haben und Du magst recht haben, und wenn wir uns bemühen, dann können wir zusammen vielleicht der Wahrheit etwas näher kommen." - In English: "You may be right and I may be wrong, and by an effort, together we may get nearer to the truth." Without the word 'together' you will find this text in his "The Open Society and Its Enemies", Golden Jubilee Edition, London (Routledge) 1995, p. 455 (Chap. 24, I, at the end of the first paragraph).

After Poppers death in 1994 some of his friends and admirers got doubts whether Popper himself was always his best follower. An example of a malevolent voice is John Horgan, chap. 2 of The End of Science, (Little/Brown). His article is full of untrue or tasteless assertions. In the end he maintains: "Popper was coming close to blaming Jews for the Holocaust" (p.41). That is  prepostorous. I never heard anything more absurd about Popper who actually lost more than ten relatives in the Holocaust. So I like to add what Kant said about Fichte: We don't fear our enemies, but God save us from our friends!

Biographical Literature:

K.R. Popper: Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1982. J. Watkins, Karl Popper. A Memoir, The American Scholar Vol 66 (2) Spring 1977. W.W. Bartley, Ein schwieriger Mensch. Eine Portraitskizze von Sir Karl Popper, in: Nordhofen, Philosophen des 20. Jahrhunderts, Königstein/Ts.(Athenäum) 1980 (taken from an unmentioned English source). Joseph Agassi, A Philosopher's Apprentice: In Karl Popper's Workshop, Amsterdam (Rodopi) 1993. Guy Sorman, in: Denker unserer Zeit, München (List) 1993, S. 323-333. Bryan Magee, Confessions of A Philosopher, London 1997, p.187-212.

For one of the best photo portraits of Karl Popper we have to thank Herlinde Koelbl in: Jüdische Portraits Frankfurt/M. (S.Fischer) 1989, p. 189-191.

Hans-Joachim Niemann, 1998

Last corrections: Feb. 2009 (Dagmar Niemann)

Copyright Popper pictures: Melitta Mew, London



The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Hutchinson, London, 1959; reprinted by Routledge, London, 1992. Translation of Logik der Forschung, Julius Springer, Vienna, 1935 (printed 1934); revised 10th edition J.C.B. Mohr, Tübingen, 1994.

The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume I: The Spell of Plato, Routledge
& Kegan Paul, London, 1945, revised 1952, 1957, 1962, and 1966.

The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume II: The High Tide of Prophecy:
Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London,
1945, revised 1952, 1957, 1962, 1966.

The Poverty of Historicism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1957.

Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1963, revised 1965, 1969, 1972, and 1989.

Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972, revised 1983.

Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1982; revised edition published by Routledge, London, 1992. First published as Autobiography of Karl Popper in The Library of Living Philosophers, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1974.

The Self and its Brain: An Argument for Interactionism, with John C. Eccles,
Springer Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, and London, 1977; Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1983.

Realism and the Aim of Science (Volume I of the Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery). London: Hutchinson and Company. (1983).

The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism, Volume II of the Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery, ed. W W Bartley, III, Hutchinson, London, 1982; paperback published by Routledge, London, 1988.

Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, Volume III of the Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery, ed. W W Bartley, III, Rowman & Littlefield, Totowa, New Jersey, 1983; Unwin Hyman, London, 1982; reprinted by Routledge, London, 1992.

A Pocket Popper, ed. David Miller, Fontana, London, 1983; republished as Popper Selections, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1985.

A World of Propensities, Thoemmes, Bristol, 1990.

In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years, Routledge, London, 1992. Translation of Auf der Suche nach einer besseren Welt, Piper, Munich, 1984, 1988.

The Myth of the Framework, ed. M.A. Notturno, Routledge, London, 1994.

Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem, ed. M.A. Notturno, Routledge, London, 1994.

Hans-Joachim Niemann     Back to the main menu