Memories of Popper & the LSE

In 1995 the Australian journal Metascience had an interview with Alan Musgrave, a professsor of philosophy at at the University of Otago. Musgrave was a working class lad from Manchester when he arrived at the LSE in 1958.So you had not heard of Popper before then?
Of course not. I was a working-class lad from the north of England, who passed the `11-plus’ and got to Grammar School. Nobody at my Grammar School had heard of Popper, so how could I have heard of him?
When did you first meet him?
We were ushered into the presence shortly after the term began. There were six of us. I don’t remember what he said. I do remember what we said-nothing! I sensed that he was regarded as the important figure in the epartment, but I had no idea why. I don’t remember him speaking to me again while I was an undergraduate.  

Did you take any courses from Popper?
Yes. I attended his two-hour lecture” period each week called ‘An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method’. They were unusual. There were sixty to eighty people there, ranging from first-year undergraduates, like myself, to postgraduate students from all over the place, and always a few visiting academics. There was no syllabus-Popper just talked about what interested him in his own research at the time. There was no reading list. Occasional queries-not from me-about what might be in the up-coming examination were met with `I do not believe in examinations’. Interruptions were welcomed and the `lecture’ turned, more often than not, into a seminar discussion between Popper and a,handful of others. Despite all, I found it fascinating. I attended those lectures every year for about five years.
So who did you talk to, if not to Popper?
The person I had most to do with was my tutor, Joseph Agassi. Mind you, to begin with I did not have much to do with him, either. As instructed, I went to see him. He asked me what I had to say for myself. Nonplussed, I hesitated. `Come back when you do have something to say for yourself’, he snapped. Despite this unpromising beginning, I did eventually go back. I went back because I had discovered that other students in other departments were writing essays. I suggested to him that I might write one too. `If you want to write an essay, write an essay’, he said. So I did.

After several drafts Agassi passed the essay to Popper who thought it showed promise. It was not marked “Internal assessment had not been invented. The essay was the sum total of my work in my first year”. Nor were there any exams at the end of the year, all came at the end of three years, nine three-hour exams in five days.

Lakatos turned up from Cambridge and when Musgrave announced that he was leaving to get married and become a school teacher “Lakatos laughed at both ideas. He told me I should do research, so I did. I did marry, however, in 1962”.

Popper supervised your PhD, I believe?
Yes. I had to go to see him at his home in Buckinghamshire.
You see, Popper only came to the LSE one day a week, to give his lecture and preside over the `Popper seminar’, as everybody called it. I asked him what I should do research about. `Would you ask me who to marry?’, he replied, adding with a twinkle in his eye `A good thesis topic, like a good wife, should give you sleepless nights’. Nonplussed, I went back to the LSE and told Lakatos what had passed between us. He replied that rather than waste my time looking for a PhD topic in philosophy, I should remedy my illiteracy in mathematics and physics. He said he would help, and installed me at a desk in his office. He also bought me the books I was to study-I still have them.
He acted as my private tutor. He was writing `Proofs and Refutations’ at the time. I would pass my latest problem-solution for him to check the maths, he would pass his latest page for me to check the English. I was made to feel that my activities were just as important as his.
What did Popper, as supervisor, say about all this?
He found out about it when I had to go to see him again at the end of the first term. He asked me what I had been doing and I told him. He asked to see my work. I showed him. He then produced a report-form he had to submit to the Graduate School, wrote on it `His preliminary work on the thesis is progressing well’, and asked me to hand it in for him when I got back to London.

Eventually Musgrave found a problem to work on for his thesis which was titled Impersonal Knowledge – A Critique of Subjectivism in Epistemology.  Then in 1962 he became Popper’s research assistant.

Being Popper’s research assistant-how was that?
Interesting. Popper was a workaholic, of course. Every day-except Tuesdays when he came to the LSE-he worked. He wrote long-hand in huge letters, casting pages to the floor. His wife picked them up, nummbered.them, and typed them. What did I do? I opened his voluminous mail and replied to most of it. I ferreted out stuff for him. Most important, I read his manuscripts and criticised them.
Was that at his request?
Of course. Mind you, it was hard going. My first encounter was typical. He had ‘written something and invited me to `correct’ it. He warned me that he was old and sick, so I should not be too hard on him. With the temerity of youth, I said that a comma was misplaced and that `As to X’ should be `As for Y. Out came the OED, Fowler, and a host of other sources. An hour later I was stylistically vanquished. Those for whom English is a second language know, and care, more about it than the English! After a day of this, the `sick old man’ drove me to the station at 10 p.m., and I promptly fell asleep on the train, exhausted.

Later, on a recommendation from Popper, he was interviewed for a chair in Otago, NZ and was accepted.

You had some distinguished predecessors in the Chair at Otago.
Yes, though I did not know it at the time. Raphael, Findlay, Passmore and Mackie had all been there.
What about your own work since you came to New Zealand?
Well, at first I published some papers in what David Stove calls the POP-LAK-KUHN-ABEND disputes. I suppose I am regarded as a ‘Popperian’-though precisely what that comes to is not easy to say-it certainly does not come to the same thing for all of the self-styled `Popperians’.

What do you mean?
Well, I have come to see that the situation with Popper’s philosophy is very peculiar. There are these twelve (or is it twenty?) folk who think it is the bees-knees. These are the self-styled `Popperians’. They talk to one another, they write for one another. The rest of the philosophical world takes no notice-and they take no notice of the rest of the philosophical world.
They have even formed a club, pretentiously called `Friends of the Open Society’, and they publish a newsletter. I do not belong to the club, and I stopper getting the newsletter when they started charging money for it. Again, Popper’s views about science are extremely popular with working scientists-but most philosophers of science think them fatally flawed.
Where do you stand on that?
The matter turns on Popper’s claim that he has solved the problem of induction. Most philosophers reject this claim. Most philosophers think that Popper must smuggle induction in somehow if he is to have any convincing answer to Hume. This has been urged, one way or another, by dozens of his critics. I disagree. I think Popper does have a distinctive answer to Hume which does not smuggle induction in. (Whether that answer is defective on other grounds is another matter, of course.) But the self-styled Popperians reject my reading of Popper on induction and Popper himself has never endorsed it. As I say somewhere, I sometimes think I am the only person who understands Popper’s answer to Hume, including Popper himself. But perhaps I should be cautious and say this: either Popper answers Hume in the way I think or he has no answer and his numerous critics on the point are right.

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5 Responses to Memories of Popper & the LSE

  1. Lee Kelly says:

    What is Popper’s answer to Hume, according to Musgrave?

    For me, Popper’s answer is not a product of logical trickery, but a mere change of the problem situation. If one no longer considers a proposition problematic because it cannot be derived from experience, then the problem of justifying propositions that go beyond experience disappears. Once the goals which give rise to the problem of induction are abandoned, we are merely concerned with logical validity, and thus falsification.

  2. Rafe says:

    Yes. Logical validity, and in the bigger picture – capacity to solve problems, to integrate different disciplines and to promote fertile lines of research.

  3. Aaron says:

    Yes, whether and to what extent scientific hypotheses conduce to fertile problem-solving research programmes is a particularly important matter in formal theory selection, but neither Popper nor Lakatos adequately explained exactly why we should have more confidence in — that is, continue to use and build upon– heretofore severely tested, unfalsified hypotheses than unfalsified hypotheses which have not been severely tested.

  4. Neal says:

    bookmarked!!, I like your website!

  5. Bruce Caithness says:

    Alan Musgrave in his paper “How Popper (might have) Solved the Problem of Induction) in Catton, P. & Macdonald., G “Karl Popper Critical Appraisals” 2004 makes the point that a common error in criticism of Popper is to assume that the reason for believing something must be a reason for what is believed. Corroboration is a reason for believing the hypothesis, it says nothing about whether the hypothesis is objectively true or probable.

    One might suggest that it is begging the question to expect Popper or anyone else to verify hypotheses, theories, laws or whatever else one would like to name them. Corroboration does however make it reasonable to tentatively hold onto the hypothesis. One might like verification but is that logically possible or is it just wishful thinking?

    We accept that the world has the shape of an approximate sphere because it is a better (has survived attempted refutation, more logically consistent, greater explanatory value, ties in better with other theories) theory than that of it being flat. Likewise we expect the sun to come up tomorrow because it is the current best theory – not because the sun happened to have come up lots of times before.

    Discussions of inductive probability have often confused feelings of belief with questions of logic and also the probability of the hypothesis with that of events which, being logical consequences of the hypothesis, may corroborate it. Popper wielded the scalpel to claims of logical bases to induction: he had no problem with conjecture and flights of Romantic imagination – as they are the beginning of the route to problem solving.

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