At 90, and Still Dynamic:
Revisiting Sir Karl Popper and
Attending His Birthday Party

Eugene Yue-Ching Ho

Intellectus Banner (No. 23)

Originally published in Intellectus 23 (Jul-Sep 1992), pp. 1-5.
Intellectus is the official bulletin of the Hong Kong Institute of Economic Science (IES).
(HTML Version: 29th January 1997)

It seems to me that I may be living too long. Indeed: my nearest relations have all died, and so have some of my best friends, and even some of my best pupils. However, I do not have a reason to complain. I am grateful and happy to be alive, and still be able to continue with my work, if only just. My work seems to me more important than ever.

--Karl Popper

The "Obituaries" section in the 28 July, 1992, issue of The Times carries an article occasioned by the death of F. S. C. Northrop at 98. Northrop was an American scholar of extraordinary diversity who was equally at home in the fields of philosophy, science, anthropology, and the law. On the brighter side, just a few pages ahead, is a long article which celebrates the birthday of a no less extraordinary philosopher and Renaissance Man, Sir Karl Popper. On that day, Tuesday, 28 July 1992, Mr Pui-Chong Lund and I attended Sir Karl's 90th birthday party at his book-filled house in Surrey, England.

It was in early May 1992 that I first received Sir Karl's invitation to join his few other selected guests in celebrating his birthday. Our friendship has greatly developed in the two years since I last visited him (see my essay "Evolutionary Epistemology and Sir Karl Popper's Latest Intellectual Interest: A First Hand Report"): we have been communicating regularly, and last year, I translated his book A World of Propensities into the Chinese language. Still more recently, I have co-edited and published a festschrift in honour of his birthday (see my essay "IES Visitors Presented Festschrift To Sir Karl Popper"). In the invitation letter, he also indicated that he would be happy to see me and Mr Lund some day either before or after the party, so that we could talk uninterrupted; we arranged, through his secretary Mrs Melitta Mew, to visit him in the afternoon of 22 July.

Photo: Ho, Popper and Lund

Greeting us at the door with a big beaming smile, the old gentleman was as physically healthy and mentally sharp as he was two years ago. Although beset with hearing difficulties, he still lived without the aid of a walking stick or a pair of spectacles. The first thing he asked me was whether I was still composing. It was a question which someone with a poorer memory could not have asked, for two years have passed since I last played the piano for him, and afterwards sent him my piano compositions for his criticism. Sir Karl's profound musical knowledge is not evident from his philosophical and political writings, but although better known as a philosopher, he is actually an equally competent musician. He told us, after we had settled down comfortably in his garden, that his Fugue in F-sharp Minor for organ was recently premiered in Madrid, Spain. What a pity, though, that a composition written in 1921, when he was just 19, had to wait for over 70 years before finally featured in a concert! And what a further pity that he, the composer, was denied the chance to hear it, due to hearing difficulties! However, he did not allow us to be denied the chance, for he gave us a tape recording of the performance.

On Chomsky and Parmenides

We then asked him what his latest intellectual interests were. The origin of human language, and the philosophy of Parmenides, he replied, though he added that the theory on the origin of life still interested him greatly. He told us that the main conclusion he had arrived at in connection with his study of the origin of human language was that Chomsky could not be right in his allegation that all languages have a common structure; moreover, there is simply no such thing as Chomsky's "hidden grammar". Grammar, Popper maintained, came rather late in the evolution of human languages, and when it emerged, it was not in a "hidden" form.

As regards his researches on Parmenides, he showed us his most recent paper on the subject, "How the Moon Might Throw some of her Light Upon the Two Ways of Parmenides". Parmenides of Elea (fl. 6th Century B.C.) was an important philosopher of nature, with a whole series of important astronomical discoveries being attributed to him; for example, that the morning star and the evening star are one and the same; that the earth is spherical in shape; and that the phases of the moon are due to the changing way in which the illuminated half-sphere of the moon is seen from the earth. In the paper just mentioned, Sir Karl discusses Parmenides' abhorrence of sensualism and points out some "shocking mistranslation" of Parmenides texts by classical scholars. Well versed in Greek, he translates the problematic texts himself and gives the readers a fresh look at this pre-socratic philosopher. Mrs Mew later reminisced how he was then working late in the night on the English translation of the Greek passages, and suddenly rang her up and joyfully read to her his rendition of the texts!

Reflections on Members of the Vienna Circle

We then turned to the subject of Twentieth Century philosophy and he began reflecting upon some members of the Vienna Circle, whom he knew personally in his young days. Rudolf Carnap, in his view, was "a neurotic man". To substantiate his point, he recounted light-heartedly how Carnap sought the help of a psychoanalyst upon reading his (Popper's) critical essay, "The Demarcation between Science and Metaphysics", written as a contribution to the Schilpp volume The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap. He did not have any good things to say about the philosophical capability of the other Vienna Circle members either. Of Victor Kraft, he said that he "was a nice man who spoke quite interesting things, [though] not very exciting, and not always right." Of Otto Neurath, he remarked that he was "a very lovable person who had quite a lot of ideas. [He was an] original person, but he was a Communist, and a very naive Communist. He actually went to Moscow to persuade the Communists to give up materialism and replace it with physicalism." Of Hans Reichenbach, his criticism was very harsh: "Reichenbach was not a nice man, not [even] a decent man. [He] behaved very badly, [and] he swindled [intellectually]." Finally, of Carl Hempel, he simply said that "he is impossible. He has never had an idea of his own." Popper's overall view of the Vienna Circle was that it was a circle of politics: "You see, these prominent members of Carnap's circle were all philosophical politicians; that is to say, they belonged together and cooperated in a philosophical politics of making their circle strong."

Sir Karl did, however, have some good words to say about other philosophers, such as Willard Quine and Bertrand Russell. He showed a particular reverence for Russell's intellectual acumen and spoke favourably of his Principia Mathematica, the seminal work on mathematical logic. But Russell's political thinking did not appeal to him: "I loved Russell, but there was a moment when he really turned mad. During the Cuban crisis he was sending telegrams accusing Kennedy of provoking a war and congratulating Khrushchev on his mildness."

But in regard to the latest philosophical scene, Popper admitted that he was not familiar with both the philosophers and their ideas, for he was disappointed by many of these high-sounding and pretentious theories and was therefore no longer interested in doing philosophy. I remember him lamenting:

I think so badly of philosophy that I don't like to talk about it...I do not want to say anything bad about my dear colleagues, but the profession of teacher of philosophy is a ridiculous one. We don't need a thousand of trained, and badly trained, philosophers--it is very silly. Actually most of them have nothing to say.

Contra Martin Heidegger

One Twentieth Century philosopher whom Popper hates most is Martin Heidegger. He had already voiced his displeasure with this philosopher in 1990, when we first visited him, and he displayed the same indignation again during our recent visit. As he told us, Heidegger (a German) dedicated in 1927 his main work Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) to his "beloved teacher", Edmund Husserl (a Jew). When Hitler came into power, Heidegger, who in 1933 had become the Rector of the University of Freiburg, forbade Husserl to enter the University and also denied him any access to the university library. Finally, in 1941, when a new edition of Sein und Zeit came out, Heidegger took the dedication away, and only in 1950 or thereabouts did he add it back. Popper described all these angrily, calling Heidegger "a swine". In his own words,

I appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger. This man was a devil. I mean, he behaved like a devil to his beloved teacher, and he has a devilish influence on Germany.

(Popper did not, however, mention another of Heidegger's sycophantic misdemeanour: when Heidegger accepted the Rectorate of the University of Freiburg during Hitler's ascendancy, he actually praised Hitler in his inaugural address.)

Not only did Popper find fault with Heidegger's moral character, but also with his philosophy. As he put it bluntly, "One has to read Heidegger in the original to see what a swindler he was." For him, Heidegger's philosophy is merely "empty verbiage put together in statements which are absolutely empty."

"Infinitely Depressed" By the Green Movement

Although a staunch opponent of meaning analysis and linguistic philosophy, Popper nevertheless insists on writing and presenting one's theories clearly and arguably. During our discussion, he showed us two books by a German-Swiss author who has written ambiguously and, what was even more unpardonable for Popper, pessimistically. The author in question was one Hanspeter Padrutt, a devotee of the fashionable "Green movement", and Popper repeatedly accused him of generating "language pollution" while writing on environmental pollution. Popper was especially upset by Padrutt's characterisation of our industrial age as a "Winter Epoch", meaning, no doubt, an age in which technology has been so misapplied that devastating consequences (characterised by the word "winter") are now taking effect. "These green people," said Popper, "are part of a fashionable pessimism. They want to do away with technology and progress. Do they realise what it was like for servants without washing machines? It was backbreaking servitude."

And concerning the recent ozone crisis which the Green devotees claim to be precipitated by the industrial abuse of chloroflorocarbon and other chemical pollutants, Popper had this to say:

And this ozone crisis is not proved. It may turn out to be a standing institution of Nature. Nobody has made observations before the man who discovered the [ozone] holes. The greatest threat to the environment is population explosion, something which we actually have figures on and that we can do something about. I think it is most important that we introduce decent and practical forms of family planning.

The Black Market in Russian Nuclear Bombs

We then turned to politics, and I congratulated him on being able to live to witness the collapse of Communism in Russia. Sir Karl, however, showed his worries and there followed a long but interesting discourse on the black market in Russian nuclear bombs. He rose from his seat and went into the house to fetch two books: the memoirs of Khrushchev and of the late Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, both annotated in pencil. He placed these books in front of us and explained:

Sakharov suggests that we should count his nuclear bomb in terms of the Hiroshima bomb units. He said his nuclear bomb was several times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Now, Gorbachev admitted first that 11000 of these bombs existed, then later it went up to 14000, and then, before his adieu speech, 30000--which equals 90 million Hiroshima bombs. Allowing for understatement, we could say that there are now about 100 million Hiroshima bombs on the black market in Russia. It is a terrible, horrible, unimaginable thing.

After a pause, during which we read the passages he showed us, he continued:

Khrushchev aimed to have 50 bombs in Cuba--or 150 thousand Hiroshima bombs--and, as I said at the time, he couldn't have had them without actually wanting to use them. He could not tell President Kennedy, "Do what I say or else I will fire," because Kennedy would have had no choice but retaliate. Khrushchev said he didn't want a nuclear war, but that doesn't mean he didn't want a one-sided nuclear victory. With one stroke, he wanted to destroy America. Nobody believes that this was his intention, but it is here, a confession in his own memoirs.

And with forcefulness, Popper drove home his conclusion:

All that's left of Marxism is the idea that capitalism is hell and must be destroyed. This is why the bombs were in Cuba. This is the problem to be solved. And we must do it now by dealing with the Russian authorities who most certainly do not like the situation.

In his opinion, while the walls, boundaries, and ideologies of the Soviet Union may have already crumbled, the premonitions of doom and destruction obviously still remain.

Before ending his five-hour discussion with us, Sir Karl recounted briefly what he had spoken about in a television interview conducted earlier in the morning. With no television set in his house, he is nevertheless keenly aware of the recent trends in TV programme productions, and he took his opportunity to condemn the intentional portrayal of violence in television programmes. "The job of civilisation," he explained, "is to make sure that we reduce violence." Accordingly, he suggested in the interview that in order to preserve humanity and civilisation, television producers should be required to take a professional oath of not producing programmes which feature violence as an attraction. Those who break the oath shall have their professional licenses revoked. I personally could not think of a better suggestion.

A Nonagenarian At Last

It was at noon six days later (28 July) when Mr Lund and I visited Sir Karl again, this time to attend his birthday party. Although the preceding few days were marred by a few rain showers which had fallen from the skies above the London area, 28 July was a lovely day and so the party was held in the garden, the same place where we had had our previous discussion. Sir Karl's house had already been kindled with a lively atmosphere by the time we arrived: bouquets and bouquets of flowers kept coming in, and telephone calls, both local and overseas, were put through one after another. One even came from the Austrian Minister of Culture.

Photo: Popper cuts Birthday Cake

Sir Karl was in very good spirits, greeting us with the same big beaming smile. Though his 90th birthday, he was not a bit formally dressed up: always the modest and unpretentious man, he wore the usual short-sleeve shirt and shuffled about in Scholl sandals. It was a marvellous sight to watch him strolling along the house quickly and steadily to answer the telephone, and for some moments, I found it difficult to believe that I was watching the movement of someone already in his ninetieth year.

Gradually, his other guests arrived: David Miller, his former research assistant and presently lecturer of philosophy at the University of Warwick; the art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich and his wife Ilse; Bryan Magee, Member of Parliament, host of BBC radio talk programmes, and the author of Popper, a popular expository of Sir Karl's thoughts; Sir Ralf Dahrendolf (former Director of the London School of Economics and current Dean of St Anthony's College, Oxford University) and his wife Ellen; Lady Jean Medawar, the widow of Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar and herself a biologist. Then there were Mrs Mew and her family (husband and son), Mrs Margaret Coulstock the housekeeper, and Fräulein Anna Glinka, the young Polish nurse who was spending her holidays at Sir Karl's house. Along with Mr Lund and myself, they comprised the selected few among the hundreds of admirers and disciples who regularly request an audience with the great master.

Lunch proper was preceded by a small reception, during which we all introduced ourselves to each other and chatted on various topics. Mr Lund and I had, in fact, met David Miller before, so the reception provided an opportunity for us to catch up with his latest scholastic endeavours. He talked about his recent collaboration with Sir Karl on a paper written for a festschrift in honour of the logician Patrick Suppes, who will soon be turning 70. He also talked about some of our common friends and acquaintances, including John Watkins (Professor Emeritus of the London School of Economics) and Qiu Ren-Zong (Professor at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.)

Lunch Party in the Garden

Then came an exceptionally sumptuous lunch, with bread, salad, salmon, ham, and lots and lots of wine, pies, and cakes, either home-made or from outside caterers. Popper drank no alcohol, but he had bottles after bottles of vin blanc, vin rouge, and champagne for his guests' consumption. As regards the cakes, one was thoughtfully ordered by his publisher Routledge and delivered right to the door. It bore the inscription in sugar icing, "SIR KARL POPPER. BIRTHDAY GREETINGS FROM ROUTLEDGE." And there was an apple strudel made by Fräulein Anna herself; it looked and tasted like one made by someone professional!

Photo: Party in Garden

When the time came for the toasting, Sir Ernst Gombrich raised his glass and teasingly reminded Popper that all the guests were assembled here only "on the conjecture that it's your 90th birthday." This was indeed a curious remark, but anyone who has spoken with Sir Karl knows that he delights in using the word "conjecture"; after all, is he not the philosopher well known for treating all knowledge as nothing more than "bold conjectures", and for holding that knowledge progresses by way of conjectures and refutations?

Lunch was actually a lunch-time lecture for the guests, for Sir Karl, always the enthusiastic lecturer and propagator of knowledge, began to talk about politics and intellectual matter. Once again, he spoke about the Russian nuclear bomb black market, and once again, he went inside the house to retrieve the memoirs of Khrushchev and of Sakharov. It was a subject the gravity and urgency of which he wanted to waste no time in warning others.

After lunch, which we all had had a delicate sufficiency, we stayed behind for afternoon tea and the cake-cutting ceremony. It was also the time when Sir Karl opened his birthday presents: from us included the celebratory volume of essays mentioned above; from the Gombrichs was a set, in 7 volumes, of the collected letters of Mozart; from Mrs Mew was a sturdily built ladder for Sir Karl to mount on and claim his books from the bookshelves; from Fräulein Anna was a cushion. There were many other presents, probably sent from overseas at some earlier times.

Sir Karl had previously written an essay on book collecting, "The Aldine Aristophanes, Venice, 1499", and it was only after browsing through his bookshelves after lunch that I realised how serious an antique book collector he was: tomes and tomes of first editions of Kant; huge leather-bounded editions of Plato, Shakespeare, Marx, etc.; a 1632 edition of Galileo; and, what was even more astounding, a large old book which bore the title "A History of the World from the Creation to the Present, by Two Augustinian Monks", published in 1483. Sir Karl told me with pride that this was the oldest book among his collection; it must have cost him a fortune!

When it was time for the guests to bid Popper farewell, it was already 7 o'clock in the evening. He autographed a few of his books for me, then shook my hands and reminded me to take care, adding that he thought that the people of Hong Kong shall be "in grave danger" after 1997. He had never entertained the slightest respect for Communism, calling Communist governments "beastly regimes", and so he had his own reasons to worry about Chinese Communist molestations of Hong Kong in the pro-1997 years. (He hates most the Chinese Communists' persecution of the Tibetans, and numbers among his friends the Dalai Lama, whom he first met in 1968 and who shall visit him in May 1993.)

No Small Victory for a Feisty Warrior

Like his fellow Austrian, the late Friedrich von Hayek, Sir Karl Popper has come to symbolise the beacon of critical thinking, the open society, and liberalism. His great concern for human rights; his deep sympathy for avoidable human sufferings; his strong opposition to totalitarianism; his good faith in human reason; his humble acknowledgement of Man's fallibility in general and his own fallibility in particular; his great passion for learning; his encyclopedic knowledge of and penetrating insights into the arts and the sciences; and his kind and unassuming personality--all these have constituted his greatness. He has finally reached 90, having gained world-wide recognition and respect. And despite the emergence of a younger generation of well-known philosophers which includes Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Larry Laudan, Dudley Shapere, Roy Bhaskar, Hilary Putnam, Bas van Fraassen, and Richard Rorty, to name a few, Popper has eclipsed them all in philosophical importance, scholastic influence, and the ability to write prolifically on a wide range of subjects.

But perhaps more important for him than fame and fortune is that he has outlived both the Nazi and the Stalinist tyrannies against which he had vehemently written in as early as 1944. To be sure, he has, unfortunately, not yet witnessed the democratisation of Mainland China, a sorry country presently misgoverned by a beastly regime which violates human rights and international laws at will, and whose rulers and officials are mostly power-intoxicated hooligans and bribe-accepting thugs. But when one reflects that the first 80 years of the Twentieth Century were plagued by two destructive World Wars, large-scale genocide, ideological confrontations, and the peril of wholesale extermination of mankind by nuclear armaments, then it becomes clear that to have outlived all these catastrophes and human insanities is already no small victory for him.

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Wed Mar 5 15:59:35 GMT 1997