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A taste of Popper and a word for the ostrich
« on: 2003-06-14 21:06:49 »
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Early Days at LSE

Source: Excerpt from Obituary of Karl Popper, 19021994 Printed in Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 94, pp. 645684
Authors: John Watkins

The Open Society was published in mid-November, and was already being talked about when they arrived in England in January 1946. Popper was a bright new star on the English philosophical scene, and he was much sought after. By early February he had been slotted into a symposium at the annual Joint Session, to be held in July. The other symposiasts were Ryle, who wrote a glowing review of The Open Society, and Lewy. (Popper wanted Lewy to join him at LSE, but this fell through. J. O. Wisdom joined him in 1948.) After this came an invitation to talk to the Cambridge Moral Science Club, in October.

Bertrand Russell, recently reinstalled in Trinity College, invited Popper to tea before the meeting, and I will first say a few words about their relationship. Among living thinkers Russell was, along with Tarski and Einstein, one of Popper's supreme heroes. Was this esteem reciprocated? When, quite a few years after this, Popper sent him a complimentary copy of The Logic of Scientific Discovery Russell wrote that he was very glad to get this translation of a book which he had read long ago, when it first appeared in German. But the rather perfunctory testimonial he wrote for Popper in 1936 did not mention Logik der Forschung, and the pages of his complimentary copy of it remained virtually uncut. It seems that the complimentary copy of The Open Society which Popper had recently sent him might likewise have remained unread; for when Popper asked him to recommend it to the American publishers of A History of Western Philosophy, then in the American best-seller list, Russell asked to be lent a copy, explaining that he wanted first to 'reread' it, and having no house at present, his books were inaccessible. When another copy came he did read it and he was bowled over. He recommended it strongly to his publisher, and wrote Popper a testimonial calling it a work of first-class importance. In the annual National Book League lecture, on 'Philosophy and Politics', which Russell gave in October 1946, he said that the case against Plato has been 'brilliantly advocated' by Popper.

There are varying accounts of this famous meeting of the Moral Science Club, and many of them contain identifiable mistakes. Even the minutes (which say that the meeting 'was charged to an unusual degree with a spirit of controversy') get the date wrong, giving 26 instead of 25 October 1946. Popper's own account, in Unended Quest, gets his title wrong, putting 'Are there Philosophical Problems?' which might have been better than the actual title as it appears in the printed programme and in the minutes, namely 'Methods in Philosophy'. (Three weeks later Wittgenstein gave a talk on 'what the method of philosophy is' which, according to the minutes, was a reply to Popper's talk.) Although Popper's account mentions Russell's presence, it does not mention what Russell called out to Wittgenstein, on which most other accounts agree, though Munz's account has Russell calling out words which were surely spoken by Popper. An American philosopher, Hiriam McLendon, who was studying under Russell at the time, subsequently wrote an account of this meeting as part of a planned biography of Russell (it does not seem to have been published). It is interesting, and includes comments made by Russell the next day; but it has Wittgenstein eventually subsiding where all other accounts have him storming out.

I will reconstruct what happened from the various sources as best I can. The meeting was in Braithwaite's room in King's College. Wittgenstein, who chaired the meeting, sat on one side of an open fire and Popper on the other. Russell was in a high-backed rocking-chair. Others present included Elizabeth Anscombe, Richard Braithwaite, C. D. Broad, A. C. Ewing, Peter Geach, Norman Malcolm, Margaret Masterman, Stephen Toulmin, and John Wisdom (A. J. T. D., not J. O.). There were also various students. The secretary's invitation to Popper had said that 'short papers, or a few opening remarks stating some philosophical puzzle, tend as a rule to produce better discussions than long and elaborate papers'. The minutes say that Popper began by expressing astonishment at the Secretary's letter of invitation (a footnote explains that this is the Club's form of invitation). Wittgenstein seems to have mistaken Popper's opening remarks for a complaint against the Secretary, and sprang to his defence. But Popper was taking the wording of the invitation as expressing the Wittgensteinian thesis that there are no genuine philosophical problems, only puzzles; and he set out to counter this thesis by bringing forward some real problems. One concerned induction. Wittgenstein dismissed this as a merely logical problem. Another concerned the question of actual (as distinct from merely potential) infinities. (One of the two theses in Kant's first antinomy says that the world must have had a beginning in time, otherwise an actual or completed infinity of time will have elapsed. Popper rebutted this many years later.) Wittgenstein dismissed this as a mathematical problem. As his last example, Popper gave the question of the validity of moral rules. Wittgenstein, who had hold of the poker and was waving it about a good deal, demanded an example of a moral rule, to which Popper replied: 'Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers'. There was laughter, and Wittgenstein stormed out, angrily declaring as he went that Popper was confusing the issues; whereupon Russell called out, 'Wittgenstein, you're the one who's causing the confusion'.

The next day Russell told McLendon that he had never seen a guest so rudely treated, adding that Popper had more learning and erudition than all of them; and he afterwards wrote to Popper: 'I was much shocked by the failure of good manners on the side of Cambridge. . . . I was entirely on your side throughout, but I did not take a larger part in the debate because you were so fully competent to fight your own battle'. In January 1947 Popper gave Russell's A History of Western Philosophy an encomium on Austrian radio: a great book and what makes it great is the man who has written it.

The Open Society made a strong impression on some English politicians on the moderate left, such as Anthony Crosland, and on the moderate right, such as Edward Boyle. By the later 1950s, however, the book's ideas had rather lost their urgency in the West just because they had so largely won out. Hardly anyone believed any more in historical inevitability, let alone the inevitability of Communism, or in Utopian planning. But the book had still a tremendous potential appeal for intellectuals under Communist regimes. There would later be various samizdat translations of The Open Society and of The Poverty of Historicism.

Let me reproduce here a personal recollection from those days. A fellow student at LSE had told me it was worth going to Dr Popper's lectures 'to hear the great man thinking aloud'. I went, and I was riveted. He had no notes or other paraphernalia. Ideas seemed to flow from him. They were put forward, not as propositions for the audience to consider, but as hard-won truths; his combination of seriousness, lucidity, and conviction had an almost hypnotic persuasiveness. The seriousness was lightened by touches of humour and happy improvisations. On one occasion he was discussing whether 'All men are mortal' is a falsifiable hypothesis: suppose a man has survived various attempts to kill him; eventually an atom-bomb is exploded beneath him, but he descends smilingly to earth, brushing off the dust . . .. This much Popper had, I believe, prepared beforehand: but then came a pause, a sudden smile, a new thought: 'We ask him how he does it and he answers: "Oh, it's easy; I'm immortal".' His audience, which had been small to begin with, grew to fill a large lecture theatre. He said later that LSE in those days was a marvellous institution.

His published work, during the later 1940s, was mainly on logic, more specifically on the theory of natural deduction. This brought him into contact with, among others, Paul Bernays, E. W. Beth, and L. E. J. Brouwer. The latter became a notable friend during Popper's early years at LSE (there is a letter from him, headed 'Waiting-room of Liverpool Street station, December 10th 1947', which begins: 'My dear Popper, your duality construction and your new definition of intuitionistic negation have delighted me'.)

Quite soon after he came to LSE the question of a professorship began to exercise him. He was in his middle forties, he had become a world figure, and he needed the money (in those days a London professor's salary was nearly twice a reader's). But proposals to create a chair for him had run into the difficulty that no special subject of philosophy was taught there; his logic and scientific method courses were only for optional subjects. Should he turn elsewhere? Various possibilities were in the air; some would have meant leaving England. In 1948 Victor Kraft approached him about taking up a chair, presumably Schlick's old chair, in the University of Vienna. When Carnap had asked him a few years earlier, shortly after the German surrender, whether he would consider going back to Vienna if offered a position there, Popper had answered, 'No, never!', and he did not waver now. (Sixteen members of his family had died as victims of Nazism, though not any of his immediate family; his father had died in 1932; Dora committed suicide in the same year; his mother died soon after the Anschluss from natural causes; and Annie got away to Switzerland.) At the time of his retirement in 1969 he was still deterred from the prospect of a professorship in Austria by concern about anti-Semitism there. After Hennie's death in Vienna in 1985, he did take on a post there, as director of a new branch of the Boltzmann Institute, but only for a few months.

Another possibility was that he would fill the chair at Cambridge from which Wittgenstein resigned as from the end of 1947. Braithwaite seems to have been one of several people in Cambridge who wanted him to apply; he kept Popper posted about developments. He seems to have been an admirer since Popper's talk to the Moral Science Club in 1936; it was he, as a syndic of Cambridge University Press, who in 1943 had encouraged Hayek to submit The Open Society to them. He was not a devotee of Wittgenstein (who had heard him snore in his lectures), and was on Popper's side at the 'poker' meeting, complimenting Popper afterwards for being 'the only man who had managed to interrupt Wittgenstein in the way in which Wittgenstein interrupted everyone else.'

Findlay also encouraged him, and Popper seriously considered applying, but he eventually decided not to. Why? He must have learnt some discouraging information; Peter Medawar was an admirer who had quickly became a good friend; and he reports Popper asking him to say 'with the utmost frankness whether there was anything about his manner or behaviour or reputation that stood in the way of his receiving the advancement he sought'. It seems that Medawar told him of certain people who had been hurt by his tactlessness. Popper himself had a nice story about himself and C. D. Broad, now the senior professor at Cambridge. Broad was interested in paranormal phenomena, and around this time Popper attended a meeting, with Broad present, at which a speaker claimed that it would be an ostrich policy to ignore the mounting evidence for such phenomena. In the discussion Popper rose to 'say a word in favour of the ostrich'. Afterwards he suggested that this may have spoilt his chances. (Georg von Wright got the chair, which is what Wittgenstein wanted.)

Another possibility was that Popper would go back to New Zealand, to Otago where Jack Eccles wanted him to succeed Findlay. Matters came to a head with a cable from Dunedin which Popper received on 28 October 1948, offering him the chair and asking for a quick reply. Things moved quickly. Popper turned to Hayek who turned to Robbins, who took command. He drafted a letter for Popper to write to Carr-Saunders saying that he must decide soon and that he was tempted. Popper sent the letter on a Friday. The following Tuesday he got an encouraging reply, and at the scheduled meeting of the Appointments Committee the next day it was agreed to ask the university to confer on him the title of Professor of Logic and Scientific Method. His admiring lecture audience gave him a big round of applause on 15 February 1949, after seeing his professorship announced in The Times.

Copyright The British Academy, 1997
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