Karl Popper

(Last revised: 21 February, 2003.)

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Sir Karl Raimund Popper was born in Vienna on 28 July 1902. His rise from a modest background as an assistant cabinet maker and school teacher to one of the most influential theorists and leading philosophers was characteristically Austrian. Popper commanded international audiences and conversation with him was an intellectual adventure - even if a little rough -, animated by a myriad of philosophical problems. His intense desire to tear away at the veneer of falsity in pursuit of the truth lead him to contribute to a field of thought encompassing (among others) political theory, quantum mechanics, logic, scientific method and evolutionary theory.

Popper challenged some of the ruling orthodoxies of philosophy: logical positivism, Marxism, determinism and linguistic philosophy. He argued that there are no subject matters but only problems and our desire to solve them. He said that scientific theories cannot be verified but only tentatively refuted, and that the best philosophy is about profound problems, not word meanings. Isaiah Berlin rightly said that Popper produced one of the most devastating refutations of Marxism. Through his ideas Popper promoted a critical ethos, a world in which the give and take of debate is highly esteemed in the precept that we are all infinitely ignorant, that we differ only in the little bits of knowledge that we do have, and that with some co-operative effort we may get nearer to the truth.

Nearly every first-year philosophy student knows that Popper regarded his solutions to the problems of induction and the demarcation of science from pseudo-science as his greatest contributions. So I would like to mention some other aspects of Popper's work that are sometimes neglected. Popper's work is important not just to those who agree with his new bold solutions, but to everyone who recognizes the importance of the problems that Popper discovered, analysed and reformulated in a way that allows a solution. (Anyone who doubts the importance of"getting the question right", of revealing the web of sub-problems of a problem and their disparate connections to apparently unrelated domains, should consult the history of Andrew Wiles's proof of Fermat's last theorem.) To take just three examples, the problems of verisimilitude, of probability (a life-long love of his), and of the relationship between the mind and body will never look the same now that Popper has made important progress in charting the intricate structure of these problems and in offering at least partial solutions. Yet there are books on the mind/body problem, for instance, that simply do not mention Popper's work (for more on this attempted "refutation by neglect", see the introductory reading list).

Popper was a Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the British Academy, and Membre de I'Institute de France. He was an Honorary member of the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics, King's College London, and of Darwin College Cambridge. He was awarded prizes and honours throughout the world, including the Austrian Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold, the Lippincott Award of the American Political Science Association, and the Sonning Prize for merit in work which had furthered European civilization.

Karl Popper was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1965 and invested by her with the Insignia of a Companion of Honour in 1982.

Sir Karl Popper, who died on 17th September 1994, will continue to stimulate the best minds through his work, which now has a life of its own.