Magee on Popper

Some parts of Bryan Magee’s memoire, Confessions of a Philosopher, reviewed here.

Magee read history and philosophy at Oxford and Yale, then in 1956 he moved to London and into radio and TV. He became the anchor of the leading British weekly current affairs program on TV which advanced his political education because he travelled the world and discovered the reality of life under communist and socialist regimes. To his dismay, back home even his conservative friends could not credit the full extent of the brutality and squalor that he encountered under the Marxist regimes of the world.At Oxford he read Popper’s Open Society which had a profound impression on him. He encountered Popper in the flesh in 1958 when Popper delivered the Presidential Address on the pre-Socratics.  Popper argued that this school was the nursery which launced the Western  tradition of critical thinking and speculative thought, so knowledge advances by speculations controlled by criticism, not by the incrimental accumulation of information. Magee was spellbound by this thesis becaus it challenged and potentially demolished hundreds of years of philosophising and especially the ruling philosophy of science. He was agog to hear what the assembled luminaries of the trade had to say about it. He could scarcely believe his ears.

The entire discussion, which became impassioned, turned on whether or not this or that particular pre-Socratic philosopher had been correctly represented by Popper, and whether the ambiguities of a key word in the original Greek had been properly accounted for…We had just been presented with a possible turning point in the ongoing history of philosophy, and no-one in the room was sufficiently interested even to discuss it.
The remainder of the post is quoted from Magee’s summary of Popper’s career so I will only indent a quote that he took from Popper.
Popper’s ideas go so deep, and are so unobviously revolutionary in their consequences, that it is rare to find someone who has a good grasp of them. In any case he is a thinker whom other thinkers tend to know about rather than to know – it is obvious that even most people in the world of professional philosophy have not read most of his books, though they think they know as much about him as they need to. Two or three big ideas are generally associated with his name – falsifiability, the denial that there is any such thing as inductive logic, assaults on Plato and Marx – but knowledge of his work rarely goes beyond that. He has never been in the eye of fashion; and, big though his reputation is, his time has yet to come. My guess is that it will come, though. Just as Wittgenstein’s work is an object of special study in universities all over the world half a century after his death, so, I suspect, will Popper’s be. And it is well fitted to stand up to this kind of scrutiny, for among its most striking characteristics are richness and wide-rangingnes.
The best way to ‘locate’ Popper is to see him as a reconstructed Kantian. To demonstrate this might have involved a lot of lengthy exposition were it not for the fact that there is one particular passage in his published writings in which he traces his own immediate descent from – and also what is in his own eyes his most important difference with – Kant. It so happens that this was not the purpose of the passage, and Popper was surprised when I pointed out to him that it does this, but be agreed that it did. Although the passage is two pages long in the original (Conjectures and Refutations, pp. 90-2) it is worth quoting in full. 
In order to solve the riddle of experience, and to explain how natural science and experience are at all possible, Kant constructed his theory of experi ence and of natural science. I admire this theory as a truly heroic attempt to solve the paradox of experience, yet I believe that it answers a false question, and hence that it is in part irrelevant. Kant, the great discoverer of the riddle of experience, was in error about one important point. But his error, I hasten to add, was quite unavoidable, and it detracts in no way from his magnificent achievement.
What was this error? As I have said, Kant, like almost all philosophers and epistemologists right into the twentieth century, was convinced that Newton’s theory was true. This conviction was inescapable. Newton’s theory had made the most astonishing and exact predictions, all of which had proved strikingly correct. Only ignorant men could doubt its truth. How little we may reproach Kant for his belief is best shown by the fact that even Henri Poincaré, the greatest mathematician, physicist and philosopher of his generation, who died shortly before the First World War, believed like Kant that Newton’s theory was true and irrefutable. Poincaré was one of the few scientists who felt about Kant’s paradox almost as strongly as Kant himself; and though he proposed a solution which differed somewhat from Kant’s, it was only a variant of it. The important point, however, is that he fully shared Kant’s error, as I have called it. It was an unavoidable error – unavoidable, that is, before Einstein.
In this way the freedom and boldness of our theoretical creations can be controlled and tempered by self-criticism, and by the severest tests we can design. It is here, through our critical methods of testing, that scientific rigour and logic enter into empirical science.
Even those who do not accept Einstein’s theory of gravitation ought to admit that his was an achievement of truly epoch-making significance. For his theory established at least that Newton’s theory, no matter whether true or false, was certainly not the only possible system of celestial mechanics that could explain the phenomena in a simple and convincing way. For the first time in more than 200 years Newton’s theory became problematical. It had become, during these two centuries, a dangerous dogma – a dogma of almost stupefying power. I have no objection to those who oppose Einstein’s theory on scientific grounds. But even Einstein’s opponents, like his greatest admirers, ought to be grateful to him for having freed physics of the paralysin belief in the incontestable truth of Newton’s theory. Thanks to Einstein we now look upon this theory as a hypothesis (or a system of hypotheses) – perhaps the most magnificent and the most important hypothesis in the history of science, and certainly an astonishing approximation to the truth.
Now if, unlike Kant, we consider Newton’s theory as a hypothesis whose truth is problematic, then we must radicallyalter Kant’s problem. No wonder then that his solution no longer suits the new post-Einsteinian formulation of the problem, and that it must be amended accordingly.
Kant’s solution of the problem is well known. He assumed, correctly I think, that the world as we know it is our interpretation of the observable/acts in the light of theories that we ourselves invent. As Kant puts it: ‘Our intellect does not draw its laws from nature … but imposes them upon nature.’ While I regard this formulation of Kant’s as essentially correct, I feel that it is a little too radical, and I should therefore like to put it in the following modified form: ‘Our intellect does not draw its laws from nature, but tries – with varying degrees of success – to impose upon nature laws which it freely invents.’ The difference is this. Kant’s formulation not only implies that our reason attempts to impose laws upon nature, but also that it is invariably successful in this. For Kant believed that Newton’s laws were successfully imposed upon nature by us: that we were bound to interpret nature by means of these laws; from which he concluded that they must be true a priori. This is how Kant saw these matters; and Poincaré saw them in a similar way.

Yet we know since Einstein that very different theories and very different interpretations are also possible, and that they may even be superior to Newton’s. Thus reason is capable of more than one interpretation. Nor can it impose its interpretation upon nature once and for all time. Reason works by trial and error. We invent our myths and our theories and we try them out: we try to see how far they take us. And we improve our theories if we can. The better theory is the one that has the greater explanatory power: that explains more; that explains with greater precision; and that allows us to make better predictions.
Since Kant believed that it was our task to explain the uniqueness and the truth of Newton’s theory, he was led to the belief that this theory followed inescapably and with logical necessity from the laws of our understanding. The modification of Kant’s solution which I propose, in accordance with the Einsteinian revolution, frees us, from this compulsion. In this way, theories are seen to be the free creations of our own minds, the result of an almost poetic intuition, of an attempt to understand intuitively the laws of nature. But we no longer try to force our creations upon nature. On the contrary, we question nature, as Kant taught us to do; and we try to elicit from her negative answers concerning the truth of our theories: we do not try to prove or to verify them, but we test them by trying to disprove or to falsify them, to refute them.


 It was only after Popper had developed these ideas to a high level of  sophistication with regard to the natural sciences that he realized that their implications for the social sciences were also compelling. A political or social policy is a prescription based to an important degree on empirical hypotheses – ‘if we want to achieve x we must do A, but if we want to bring about y we must do B . We can never be certain that such a hypothesis is right, and it is a matter of universal experience that they are nearly always flawed and sometimes completely wrong. The rational thing to do is to subject them to critical examination as rigorously as circumstances allow before committing real resources to them, and to revise them in the light of effective criticism; and then, after they have been launched, to keep a watchful eye on their practical implementation to see if they are having undesired consequences; and to be prepared to change them in the light of such negative test-results.

It was in relation to the philosophy of science that Popper worked out his most fundamental ideas: that we are never able to establish for certain the truth of any unrestrictedly general statement about the world, and therefore of any scientific law or any scientific theory (it is important to be clear that he is talking not about singular statements but about unrestrictedly general ones: it is possible sometimes to be sure of a direct observation, but not of the explanatory framework that explains it: direct observations and singular statements are always susceptible of more than one interpretation); that because it is logically impossible ever to establish the truth of a theory, any attempt to do so is an attempt to do the logically impossible, so not only must logical positivism be abandoned because of its verificationism but also all philosophy and all science involving the pursuit of certaint must be abandoned, a pursuit which had dominated Western thinking from Descartes to Russell; that because we do not, and never can in the traditional sense of the word ‘know’, know the truth of any of our science, all our scientific knowledge is, and will always remain, fallible and corrigible; that it does not grow, as for hundreds of years people believed that it did, by the perpetual addition of new certainties to the body of existing ones, but by the repeated overthrow of existing theories by better theories, which is to say chiefly theories that explain more or yield more accurate predictions; that we must expect these better theories in their turn to be replaced one day by better theories still; and that the process will have no end; so what we call our knowledge can only ever be our theories; that our theories are the products of our minds; that we are free to invent any theories whatsoever, but before any such theory can be accepted as knowledge it has to be shown to be preferable to current theories; that such a preference can be established only by stringent testing; that although tests cannot establish the truth of a theory they can establish its falsity – or show up flaws in it – and therefore, although we can never have grounds for believing in the truth of a theory, we can have decisive grounds for preferring one theory to another; that therefore the rational way to behave is to base our choices and decisions on ‘the best of our knowledge’ while at the same time seeking its replacement by something better; so if we want to make progress we should not fight to the death for existing theories but welcome criticism of them and let our theories die in our stead.
 Again, the idea is to sacrifice hypotheses rather than human beings or valuable resources (including time). A society that goes about things in this way will be more successful in achieving the aims of its policy-makers than one in which they forbid critical discussion of their policies, or forbid critical comment on the practical consequences of those policies. Suppression of criticism means that more mistakes than otherwise will go unperceived in the formulation of policy, and also that after mistaken policies have been implemented they will be persisted in for longer before being altered or abandoned. On this basis Popper builds a massive stmcture of argument to the efeven in purely practical terms, and regardless of moral considertions a free (or what he calls an ‘open’) society will make faster and better progress over the long term than any form of authoritarian rule. Fundamental to his political philosophy, as to his epistemology and philosophy of science, are the ideas that it is easy to be wrong but impossible ever to be certain that we are right, and that criticism is the agent of improvement. In politics (as against economics) this is a profoundly original argument, and one whose practical importance is incalculable.
Karl Popper died on Saturday 17 September, 1994, at the age of ninety-two. Next day three of the four leading Sunday newspapers in Britain described him, or quoted him as being described, as the outstanding philosopher of the twentieth century. By the end of the month articles in the same vein had appeared all over the world, Of course, who comes eventually to be seen as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century will not be decided by the newspapers. But the short-list of genuine possibles is indeed short: Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Popper – it seems to me most unlikely not to be one of those. In any event Popper’s work will be an object of growing interest for a very long time to come, I think, because so many of his ideas are radically original yet still comparatively little explored.
Up to now he has been seen primarily as a critic. This is not surprising, for he has been the most formidable and effective critic of not just one but several of the large-scale orthodoxies of the twentieth century. It was his magnificent demolition of Marxism, in his two-volume masterpiece The Open Society and Its Enemies, that made his international reputation. His destruction of claims to scientific status for Freud’s ideas also achieved renown. Within the world of professional philosophy he was the first truly insightful critic of logical positivism, which in the end was destroyed by arguments which he had been putting forward all along. Most of his subsequent criticisms of linguistic philosophy, largely unpublished by him but given publicity in a somewhat brash form by his junior colleague Ernest Gellner, came in the end to be accepted by linguistic philosophers themselves. To this list of critical achievements are to be added many more. Popper and Einstein between them did more than anyone else to destroy a view of the nature of science that was almost universally held at the beginning of the twentieth century, the view that scientific knowledge is built up on the basis of direct observation and experience, and that what makes it special is its incorrigible certainty. This seems still to be the view of science most widely held by non-scientists,though in the upper reaches of science itself, as in philosophy, it has been superseded.
No other thinker of the twentieth century has come anywhere near matching this range of effectiveness as a destroyer of the dominant myths of the age, and this alone is likely to make Popper a figure of historical importance. But in each case he put forward an alternative to the thought-system he attacked – in politics, in logic, in philosophy of language, in psychology, in science, in every one of the fields in which he was active. To the end of his life he was astonishingly fertile in new ideas. However, his positive views have received only a fraction of the attention bestowed on his critiques. Yet they are of exceptional creative originality and richness. It is in the belated discovery, development and criticism of his positive doctrines that I expect the main future of Popper’s ideas to lie.
To give only one example, he developed a theory of human knowledge that rejects the fundamental premiss of most epistemology in the English-speaking world, namely that all our empirical knowledge is built up ultimately on the basis of our sensory experience. In doing this he broke with a tradition going back to Aristotle, and one that has dominated most of the important Western philosophy of recent centuries. Such a denial is still unthinkable for many philosophers writing in English. If Popper is justified in it, and I think he is, the consequences for Western philosophy are seismic. He himself unpacked a great many of what these consequences are, and developed a radically new epistemology which sooner or later philosophers are going to have to come to terms with.
For a long time now a very large number of professional philosophers have believed that the true task of’philosophy is analysis, the clarification of our ideas, the elucidation of our concepts and our methods. It is not to be expected that philosophers who take this view will put forward large-scale positive ideas. And it explains why, in the attention they paid to Popper, his contemporaries concentrated almost entirely on his critiques. But Popper himself rejected that whole conception of philosophy. He believed that the world presents us with innumerable problems of a genuinelyphilosophical nature, and that no problem of substance is to be solved by analysis. New explanatory ideas are what is called for, and they form the chief content of worthwhile philosophy, and have always done so. Because he believed this, and practised it, always from outside the main thought-systems of the age, he was never in the fashion. And because he spent so much of his time attacking and severely damaging the ideas of people he disagreed with he was never popular. But what matters is the quality of the work itself – and the sheer substance and weight, as well as originality and range, of Popper’s work are altogether unmatched in that of any philosopher now living.
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7 Responses to Magee on Popper

  1. Thanks Rafe. I’d seen this piece of Magee’s before, and think it’s quite wonderful as a summing up of the importance of Karl Popper.

  2. Rafe says:

    Thanks Joe, most people are too busy to read a lot of books these days so I think it is helpful to snip out good extracts and make them available to busy people.

    Magee’s book is quite thick and it you glance in and find some not so interesting stuff about his private obsessions then a potential buyer could easily put it down and pass on.

    I like the view of Popper as a modified Kantian and now I am talking about Popper as a “fallible apriorist” to make a parallel with von Mises.

  3. Orlando says:

    I wonder about can be said about Magee’s belief that Popper failed to understand Schopenhauer’s idealism, it seems to me that Magee believes that Popper failed to understand certain things and thus only provided a methodology. I could be entirely wrong on that though.

  4. Rafe says:

    Magee was disappointed that Popper did not go deeper to follow Kant in a way that Magee thought could be the next great development in philosophy. Maybe Magee thought that Schopenhauer was showing the way but Popper did not see what was to be done, so I think you are correct to suggest that Magee thought that Popper was missing something.
    I am inclined to agree, inspired by Magee I bought a copy of schopenhauer’s book and I would like to get my money back!

  5. Rafe says:

    I mean I agree with Popper:)

  6. Orlando says:

    Thank you for your thoughts, Rafe. Popper wasn’t as naive about Schopenhauer as Magee may have thought, Gombrich in private asked why Popper didn’t say any thing or criticize Schopenhauer in Gombrich’s introduction to The Open Society and Popper replied that he thought highly of Schopenhauer, although he thought that Schopenhauer was only concerned with himself. He said he was a honest intellectual and that his critiques of Kant were brilliant, but he disagreed with his pessimism and thought his ‘will of life’ concept was as bad as the worst in Hegel’s philosophy.

    I wouldn’t put it past Magee that he would want Popper to have said more on Schopenhauer for more personal reasons, Magee apparently wrote an authoritative book on Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer was a great intellectual, and I think Magee and Gombrich were right that Popper should have said more on Schopenhauer. I think Popper, however, had very clear thoughts on Schopenhauer and that his belief that Schopenhauer was wrong was right, but I think it’s a shame he never explained why.

    I think Popper was right, however, that Realism was superior to Idealism. I have begun reading his works mostly in due part to this website and your works, and am about to go through Conjectures and Refutations after reading The Open Society.

  7. Rafe says:

    A late reply, back from overseas, thanks Orlando!

    I will be interested if you comment on Conjectures and Refutations.

    You might be interested in my guides

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