Tag Archives: Karl Popper

Facebook showed me what I was doing this time of year, three years ago… I was in Vienna – for the first time (if I do not count changing trains from the Netherlands to Hungary some 30 years ago and having coffee at the railway restaurant). And despite the feelings of alienation walking along the wide imperial streets lined with high-horsed men and women who once ruled the center of Europe, I fell in love with the city. Where power is concentrated, where its evils are planned and perpetrated, subversion and rebellion live too – and that ambiguous mix provides a space to think – always.

The city where Karl Popper as a student joined a communist organized protest, and became the philosopher of piecemeal engineering, after experiencing what the death at the hands of the police of some of the young protestors did to him. In an interview made for Dutch television, Popper tells of this experience (from 4:04-6:20):

A bit earlier in the same video, at 2:22, he discloses his feelings as a teenager about the fall of the Habsburg Empire after WW I – making him a philosopher who lived through, and reflected on, one of the major crises of the 20th century.

In that same city remembering power and disgrace, now philosophers from many continents were gathering to spend time to push African Philosophy forward.

All the same, Austria in 2017 denied like six potential attendants of the conference from Kenya and Nigeria their visas, for no clear reason. It has to mentioned. Always. We should not mention only those who are present, who gained powerful passports or positions to get them a better chance at a visa, but also those who are absent, whose experiences for sure would challenge the field even more.

And this year, 2020, as my previous post showed, I came back to Vienna, to spend time with thinkers from even more continents to discuss ways to decolonize our work and efforts to understand the world. After I returned I fell ill – had I picked up the virus in the city that saw one of the first major outbreaks of covid19 in Europe? I couldn’t get tested, my case was not serious enough according to the hastily drawn up regulations, so I had to isolate and see how to manage. It felt serious, although it started with only some throat pains, it slowly deteriorated to being at an energy level that barely was enough to take care of my daily needs. And to isolate. Enough time to fret, to worry, and to think.

And when I was improving a bit, work pushed and pulled immediately – students had to be taught, given assignments and graded, and more energy to write a blog post lacked. Not that I didn’t think of anything to post – on the contrary, every day new topics would come up in my head. But it somehow seems harder to speak publicly in times of covid. Not only because of one’s own situation – but because of the situation of the world. Everything seems to be shifting, and it is hard to say anything. People are angry, throwing ancient statues from their sockets. People are confused – seeking fast alliances – and as an involved philosopher, you look on – where we are going, before you can speak again.

Something is ending, that is for sure. The challenge is to think how to avoid unnecessary suffering and death in this ending – yes, I feel what Popper felt when the Austrian empire was trembing in its vestiges and falling. Popper also saw the rise of European racism in the 1930s and made sure to get a job in a faraway country where he – a Jew according to nazi ideas – would be safe. That country would be New Zealand, where he wrote his Open Society. While discussing views of history in philosophy – being especially critical of Marx and Hegel, this work implicitly tells us of the end of Europe, and aims to devise strategies for people to survive in a new world, a world where the statues no longer rule:

“If we think that history progresses, or that we are bound to progress, then we commit the same mistake as those who believe that history has a meaning that can be discovered in it and need not be given to it. … Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate. … And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control.”

(Karl Popper, 2002 [1945], 556-557)

I don’t know how to end this post. I just thought it was worthwhile to remember some of the experiences and reflections of this exiled thinker, who did not want to be driven by ressentment, nor by mistaken utopianism, but who tried to make the best of it.

I have been living from one day to the next – making the recurrent switch from research time (meaning reading and thinking, for a philosopher) to teaching time. My agenda is not mine anymore the next three months, some three to four hundred students will occupy it with their legitimate demands. The switch must explain this longest time between posts: nearly two weeks. A different kind of time installs itself. When doing research, I have to force myself to going slowly, to let things fall into place, and critical views develop. When preparing for classes it is the other way around: I have to force myself to move fastly from one subject to the next, sharing it with others, instead of letting it incubate in my reflection.

The first few weeks I will deal with the changes that occurred in philosophy of science between, say, 1935 until 2014 – 80 years. Oh no, my students awaits no course on the history of… these first classes will be dedicated to making understandable how the field changed from it’s interest, with Popper, in legitimacy, or justification, of knowledge as knowledge, to the situational, culturally critical approach which is claiming attention nowadays in the work of Bruno Latour. So I will tell about Popper’s criticism of induction, and of the logical positivist belief that empirical data could provide a rock bottom of certainty for knowledge. Of his insistence though, that we keep on testing our scientific convictions, and aim to keep them testable. The background of his being so passionate about this in his experiences with those massive ideological movements of the twentieth century: communism and fascism. Then I will treat of Kuhn’s criticism of a Popperian focus on justification. Of Kuhn, who shifted the attention in understanding science to those periods of revolutionary change, the paradigm shifts, which make researchers see the world in a completely new light. 

Or is it that the world itself changes in a paradigm shift? Latour, one could argue, moves further in the direction which Kuhn first made possible – for which Kuhn proposed a new paradigm in understanding science. This new, historical and situationist, paradigm not only had to explain the important changes in the theory of physics in the early twentieth century – it not only changed the world of science as we understand it – it also changed the way science plays it’s role in the rest of life: in morality and politics, in economy and culture. Science is no longer an innocent search for objective truths – Latour’s symmetrical anthropology of the modern life, shows science to be a cult, one could say, that gets our factish gods to produce a certain life for it’s believers. Secular, consumerist, rational, individualist.

Latour offers a cultural criticism, showing implicitly the limitations of modern life. But he leaves it there. He shows no road to change, should we not like so much the view of our life which he has given. Here we have to go back in time to the work of Feyerabend, who was, although he probably was not completely aware of it in every respect, a prophet for change. And very fundamentally so. Interesting is that he not only offers an alternative view of science (something like: believing in certainty through method is having a false consciousness), but that he shows an alternative approach: doing research in a Dadaist fashion. Dadaist means not only playful, but also crossing disciplinary and methodical boundaries, on purpose. The Dadaist artist shows loudness in font size of her print letters, or indicates the screaming quality of a color in sound – thus crossing the boundaries of the senses. Dadaism also introduces collage as a method to destruct method. Having no original beginning, the work of art springs from shifts and changes. Noticing this it springs to the eye that the first argument on the first page of Feyerabend’s Against Method is a collage. By sticking citations from Butterfield, Hegel and Lenin playfully together, he constructs this argument, that history is so complex that we can never cut through it’s multi-faceted interactions by designing and following a ‘method’. It is the surprising coherence between these divergent authors which is meant to convince the reader, as much as the content of what he says. If one can arrange citations like these to make it look like they sprung from one mind, that proves already the complex, anarchistic way knowledge production works.

You will have noticed: Feyerabend’s approach fascinates me, more so than that of the now much more famous Bruno Latour. Latour remains in the end in the observing mode of the anthropologist, while Feyerabend cuts the Gordian knot, even without the detour of a culture criticism: if we have reached a dead end with the law-and-order enterprise of modernity – if we feel it kills the pleasure of being human, of being able to play, if it kills nature, and our own soul in the process – why not change our ways, radically, by adopting ‘theoretical anarchism’. Since Feyerabend leaves the order of security and control behind, he does not need to prove that his alternative approach will work. He can only advocate that we try it out.


I cited from Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, Verso 1993 [original edition 1975]. Actually it is online.

I wrote on his life and ideas before here and here.


When I was a student, in the eighties of the twentieth century, Karl Popper’s Open Society was considered not quite okay to read – at least when one considered oneself to be on the critical and leftish side of the political arena. As incomprehensible as this now seems to me – well, there were more strange things going on in that stifled age of what is called ‘Cold War’. In those polarized circumstances anyone who was not for Marx, was definitely thought to be against him, and, more, under suspicion of propagating Capitalism and its wrongs.

Popper, who had been a Marxist in his own younger days, left the movement when in a protest rally some individuals were shot dead by the police. It opened his eyes to the moral principle that no ideology justified people dying for it – which made him leave the movement. But worse, he criticized Marx to the core in the book which he considered to be his ‘War effort’ (while living peacefully in New Zealand, which he had reached in time before the Nazi’s could have hunted him in his native Austria for being of jewish decent). His criticism centered on Marx’ idea of history: that one could project into the future a blueprint of a just society, for which then, sacrifices were acceptable.

Of course he was right about this core point in Marx, which was borrowed from Hegel, and we know how it worked out in Communist countries, where the destruction of families, of personal privacy, and of lives were condoned by this idea of rightful sacrifice. Instead one should hold, Popper wrote, that history cannot progress, cannot move towards a (somehow already existing) end: ‘only we, the human individuals can do it; […] by defending and strenghtening those democratic insitutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends.’ Democratic institutions, because they garantuee that we can always take new courses when tried ones fail, instead of having to keep steering toward the one ideal society once thought out. And then he wrote those compelling concluding words: ‘Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate.’

Another philosophical writer on society (who had fled Germany for similar reasons in that same period, but then to that other haven, the USA) – a writer with similar views on history – was considered to be okay for the left-wing student, since he rather revised Marxist theory from within, instead of rejecting it. I mean Herbert Marcuse, whom I mentioned earlier (in ‘Difficult Freedom’) and to whom I will probably return another time. The interesting fact is that he does not reject absolutist tendencies in theory only, but that he sees them at work also in the so-called ‘free’ world of those days. Because we have separated ideologically politics from technology, says Marcuse, we have lost a real freedom of thought. Thinking that our technological progress is a politically neutral development, we can no longer criticize the economic, ecological and humanitarian injustices that are inescapable when we let it dominate our goals. Food for thought, really, in our present days of ecological and economic (and humanitarian…) crisis!

Marcuse dares to criticize a naive faith in a certain type of democracy (which he calls ‘mass democracy’) – the kind that grants liberties, while at the same time denying freedom. Liberties for some, that is, because they are denied to ‘the exploited and persecuted of other races and colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside of the democratic process […].’ This sounds still relevant, watching today’s world – with its masses of poor people living on the verge of subsistence, working in situations which are not officially, but actually situations of slave labour, who lack democratic institutions, or the knowledge, money and power to make use of them; more, our world with it’s large amounts of undocumented migrant workers living in the heart of ‘democratic’ nations without full citizen’s rights. They are named ‘illegal’, and my own government now wants to upgrade this downgrading by declaring illegality a penal offence.

In these conditions it is necessary to make use of any theory which will work for a better world – so forget right or left, love Marcuse’s critical analysis of false freedom, and stress at the same time that we, individuals, are the makers of our shared fate. Love Popper for rejecting so strongly the idea of rightful sacrifice, since it stresses the provisional character of any blueprint and it’s subordination to the worth of every individual life.

Karl Popper lived from 1902-1994, Herbert Marcuse from 1898-1979.

Citations are from Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge, 2002 [original edition 1945] and Herbert Marcuse One Dimension Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].