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Karl Raimund Popper - Biography

Karl Raimund Popper was born July 28, 1902 in Vienna and died in London on September 17, 1994. He was an Austrian-British philosopher.

The son of a lawyer, Karl Raimund Popper was raised in an intellectual family where philosophy, music, and politics were a part of his everyday life. He was raised Protestant as both his parents had converted from Judaism to Protestantism. Popper started off at a traditional Gymnasium, but dropped out of school by the age of sixteen in order to attend lectures at the University of Vienna. In 1919, he joined the “Association of Socialist School Students” and became a Marxist, though only for a short period of time. Soon he abandoned Marxism in favour of social liberalism, which he remained aligned with for the rest of his life.

In 1925, Karl Raimund Popper received a teaching diploma for elementary school from the University of Vienna. He then went on to obtain a Ph.D in philosophy in 1928. The following year he attained the qualifications to teach both mathematics and physics in secondary school. Karl Raimund Popper then taught at the university for six years, between 1930 and 1936. Popper was quite critical against the then dominant positivist school Wiener Kreis (Vienna Circle), amongst whose members were Rudolf Carnap and Victor Kraft. Likewise he opposed Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, instead supporting Einstein, whose lecture in Vienna he had attended.

Popper’s first published book was Logik der Forschung (translated by Popper himself twenty-five years later under the title The Logic of Scientific Discovery) in 1934, which gained him an enormous reputation and had a tremendous impact on the scientific community. Although published in a series of the positivist Vienna Circle, the book is to be read as a counter reaction to logical positivism. It is here where Popper for the first time uses critical rationalism as a philosophical approach:

In point of fact, no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced; for it is always possible to say that the experimental results are not reliable or that the discrepancies which are asserted to exist between the experimental results and the theory are only apparent and that they will disappear with the advance of our understanding. If you insist on strict proof (or strict disproof) in the empirical sciences, you will never benefit from experience, and never learn from it how wrong you are.

Karl Raimund Popper breaks with the traditional scientific method and distinguishes between empirical and non-empirical sciences such as logic, psychoanalysis and Marxism. He argues in favor of a scientific methodology based on falsification: only if scientific hypotheses can be shown to be false, that is, if they cannot be observed empirically, can they claim to be scientific, for experiments do not necessarily "prove" a theory. To the contrary, a single experiment can falsify a theory.

Karl Raimund Popper clearly rejects the method of induction and replaces it by a method of deductive falsifiability. To test a theory is to try to falsify it, as truth cannot be verified, but only falsified. Falsifiability, therefore, is the sole criterion to distinguish between science (empirical) and “non-science” (non-empirical). Such differentiation, in general one of Popper’s main aims, is possible only by means of “problem-solving”. He elaborates on this in one of his last books, All Life is Problem Solving, where he argues in favour of an evolutionary progress as far as knowledge is concerned.

Due to the rise of (Austro) fascism and the constant threat of the Anschluss (annexation to Germany), Popper was forced to leave Austria, leaving behind his family, many of whose members were murdered by the Nazis. In 1937, he went to New Zealand and taught philosophy as a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury. After the Second World War, he went to London, first as reader in logic and scientific method, then in 1949 became a professor of logic and scientific method at the London School of Economics, a post which he held until 1969. Many visits as a guest professor in the United States followed, amongst them the William James Lectures at Harvard in 1950.

Popper received many accolades and honors. In 1958 Popper became a fellow of the British Academy and in 1958/59 he was named president of the Aristotelian Society. Popper was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1965 and became a Royal Society fellow in 1976. In 1982, Popper received the insignia of the Order of the Companions of Honour.

1961 was an important year for Popper when the so-called “positivism dispute” began—a debate between critical rationalism (Popper and Hans Albert) and the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Habermas, and Marcuse). Its origin dates back to a conference in Tübingen in the social sciences, where both Popper and Theodor W. Adorno were in attendance. Although the debate dominated the discussion within German sociology until 1969, Popper remained outside of it as he had, after all, written his Logic against positivism.

Though greatly renown as a philosopher of science, Karl Popper also wrote social, political, and historical works. Arguably his most famous treatise is The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), written during the Second World War. The text coins the term “open society” and stands for a pluralistic society with little governmental influence and a free market. In this book Popper, defending his concept of a liberal open democratic society, accuses Plato, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx of propagating totalitarian systems (i.e. closed societies) and criticizes both utopianism and historicism because of their reference to abstract truths. In 1947, Popper was amongst the founders of the “Mont Pelerin Society,” which aimed to defend liberalism and work towards a free “open” society. Popper criticizes the idea of historicism (that is, the idea of historical prediction or general laws), in The Poverty of Historicism (1957), arguing in favour of “piecemeal social engineering”—small changes to society.

In the collection Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963), Popper develops the concept of verisimilitude. All scientific theories (and knowledge in general) are to be understood as mere approximations or conjectures. A theory possesses verisimilitude the more refutations it has to face. “Ultimately, the idea of verisimilitude is most important in cases where we know that we have to work with theories which are at best approximations—that is to say, theories of which we know that they cannot be true.” This idea is not limited to science for Popper, as he applies it to all sorts of problems, amongst them history and language.

In Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1972) Popper elaborates on Alfred Tarski’s “semantic theory of truth” and the impact it had on him. It is here where he made his famous statement: “Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.” In this book Popper also develops a theory of reality that differentiates between three worlds, thereby intending to develop a new approach to the mind-body dualism:

World 1 is the world of physical objects/states.

World 2 is the world of mental states, such as feelings or experiences.

World 3 is the world of theories, institutions, language and so on - in short, everything that stems from the human mind.

The objects of World 3 are abstract and do not need a physical object as in World 1. In contrast to World 2, whose objects are subjective, World 3 objects are objective. Yet, for any “object” in these two worlds, World 2 and 3 have to be real and World 2 and 3 have to interact with World 1.

Furthering his interest in the duality between mind and body, Popper worked with together with the neurophysiologist John Eccles Popper co-publishing the text, The Self and its Brain: An Argument for Interactionism (1977), as a mutual exchange on the traditionally long-standing duality.

His later publications include: Unended Quest; An Intellectual Autobiography (1976), The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism (1982), In Search of a Better World (1984), Realism and the Aim of Science (1983), The Myth of the Framework: In Defence of Science and Rationality (1994), and Knowledge and the Mind-Body Problem: In Defence of Interactionism (1994).

It was also due to Popper that the philosophy of science was established as its own discipline. Among his students at the London School of Economics were Paul Feyerabend and the billionaire George Soros, who named his think-tank after Popper´s “open society.” Friedrich Hayek was among his closest friends.

Karl Popper died at the age of 92 in Croydon, south London. He was buried in Vienna next to his wife.

Karl Popper was an Austrian-British Philosopher. (July 28, 1902 – September 17, 1994).