German/English Philosopher of Science
Karl Popper is generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of this century. He was also a social and political philosopher of considerable stature, a self-professed `critical-rationalist', a dedicated opponent of all forms of scepticism, conventionalism, and relativism in science and in human affairs generally, a committed advocate and staunch defender of the `Open Society', and an implacable critic of totalitarianism in all of its forms. One of the many remarkable features of Popper's thought is the scope of his intellectual influence. In the modern technological and highly-specialised world scientists are rarely aware of the work of philosophers; it is virtually unprecedented to find them queuing up, as they have done in Popper's case, to testify to the enormously practical beneficial impact which that philosophical work has had upon their own. But notwithstanding the fact that he wrote on even the most technical matters with consummate clarity, the scope of Popper's work is such that it is commonplace by now to find that commentators tend to deal with the epistemological, scientific and social elements of his thought as if they were quite disparate and unconnected, and thus the fundamental unity of his philosophical vision and method has to a large degree been dissipated.
Karl Raimund Popper was born on 28 July 1902 in Vienna. His father was a lawyer by profession, who was interested in the classics and in philosophy, and communicated to his son an interest in social and political issues. His mother instilled in him a love for music, which, subsequently became one of the inspirational forces in the development of his thought, and manifested itself in his highly original interpretation of the relationship between dogmatic and critical thinking, in his account of the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, and, most importantly, in the growth of his hostility towards all forms of historicism, including historicist ideas about the nature of the `progressive' in music. As a child Karl attended a local Realgymnasium, where he was unhappy with the standards of the teaching. He left to attend the University of Vienna in 1918. However, he did not formally enroll at the University by taking the matriculation examination for another four years. 1919 was in many respects the most important formative year of his intellectual life. In that year he became heavily involved in left-wing politics, joined the Association of Socialist School Students, and became for a time a Marxist. However, he was quickly disillusioned with the doctrinaire character of the latter, and soon abandoned it entirely. He also discovered the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Adler (under whose aegis he engaged briefly in social work with deprived children), and listened entranced to a lecture which Einstein gave in Vienna on relativity theory. The dominance of the critical spirit in Einstein, and its total absence in Marx, Freud and Adler, struck Popper as being of fundamental importance: the latter, he came to think, couched their theories in terms which made them amenable only to confirmation, while Einstein's theory, crucially, had testable implications which, if false, would have falsified the theory itself.
Popper obtained a primary school teaching diploma in 1925, took a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1928, and qualified to teach mathematics and physics in secondary school in 1929. The dominant philosophical group in Vienna from its inception in 1928 was the Wiener Kreis, the circle of `scientifically-minded' intellectuals who gathered around the figure of Moritz Schlick. This included Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Viktor Kraft, Hans Hahn, and Herbert Feigl. The principal objective of the members of the Circle was to unify the sciences, which carried with it, in their view, the need to eliminate metaphysics once and for all by showing that metaphysical propositions are meaningless. Thus was born the movement in philosophy known as logical positivism, and its chief tool became the verification principle. Although he was friendly with some of the Circle's members - especially Feigl, who encouraged him to write his first book - and shared their esteem for science, Popper was heavily critical of the main tenets of logical positivism, especially of what he considered to be its misplaced focus on the theory of meaning in philosophy and upon verification in scientific methodology. He articulated his own view of science, and his criticisms of the positivists, in his first work, published under the title Logik der Forschung in 1934. The book - which he was later to claim rang the death knell for logical positivism - attracted more attention than Popper had anticipated, and he was invited to lecture in England in 1935. He spent the next few years working productively on science and philosophy, but storm clouds were gathering - the growth of Nazism in Germany and Austria compelled him, like many other intellectuals who shared his Jewish origins, to leave his native country.
In 1937 Popper took up a position teaching philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where he was to remain for the duration of the Second World War. The annexation of Austria in 1938 became the catalyst which prompted him to refocus his writings on social and political philosophy. In 1946 he moved to England to teach at the London School of Economics, and became professor of logic and scientific method at the University of London in 1949. From this point on Popper's reputation and stature as a philosopher of science and social thinker grew enormously, and he continued to write prolifically - a number of his works, particularly The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), are now universally recognised as classics in the field. He was knighted in 1965, and retired from the University of London in 1969, though he remained active as a writer, broadcaster and lecturer until his death in 1994.